How to choose great home colo(u)rs

By Caitlin Kelly

Few challenges can feel as daunting — and turn out so horribly — as choosing paint colors for your home. Even selecting a white (creamy? icy? blue undertones?) can be tougher then you think.

 

People also forget, or don’t realize, a few basics when choosing colors:

 

What color is the existing floor? If wood, it is pale, orange-y, dark? White tile? Your permanent flooring, unless you plan to change it or renovate, adds a huge chunk of color to your room. Will it go beautifully, or badly, with whatever you put on the walls and baseboards (what Britons call skirting boards)?

What direction(s) does the room face? A north-facing room will have a different kind of light than one facing south.

What views does the room have? If it overlooks leafy green trees, (or a red brick wall), do you really want purple? Don’t forget, each color you choose should relate well to all the colors around and near it, (which is why a huge black sofa doesn’t help much.)

How much division does your space have between rooms? i.e. if it’s mostly open plan with each color immediately adjacent to one another, a stark contrast will look odd and unattractive. The eye should travel easily from one space to the next without jarring interruptions.

— Who’s mostly going to be using that room? A young child? An older person? A teenager? What do they love most?

How do you want to feel in that room? Calm? Energized? Soothed? Color powerfully affects our mood.

Matte finish, semi-gloss, gloss, Venetian plaster finish, faux finish?

What colors are your existing furniture, rugs, curtains and other major accessories?

What color scheme? Our living room is a classic pairing of opposite colors on the color wheel (red and green) — but a soft muted red and a pale yellow-green, not the dark/harsh Christmas combo that mix usually brings to mind.

Here’s a super-helpful explanation of various color schemes and the differences between shade, tone and hue.

House Beautiful magazine also publishes, every month, great colors designers select as some of their favorites.

The colors in our apartment are all from a British company in Dorset, Farrow & Ball, who add to their stunning range every year, currently with 132 colors. They also offer their discontinued colors, (like the Gervase Yellow on our living room and hallway walls.)

I visited their paint and wallpaper factory last July, a 2.5 hour train ride and 30 minute cab ride from London. I met their production director and their head of color consulting, Charlie (Charlotte) Cosby, both of whom were warm and welcoming and took me through their facility.

What I like about F & B colors — apart from their great names, like Elephant’s Breath, Clunch and Dead Salmon — is their subtlety and depth. My husband, who’s done all the painting, loves the paint’s texture, which he compares to melted ice cream.

Gervase Yellow is warm but gentle, and goes very well with our mid-brown wooden floor, wooden furniture and mixed art; that room’s colors include sage green (sofa), deep burgundy (rug) and these striped curtains.

 

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Our bathroom walls are Hay (I think!), a deep mustard; I love their acid-bright Yellowcake and Babouche, (the color of fresh egg yolk), one of the best yellows anywhere.

Our bedroom is (I think!) Hardwick White (might be Skimming Stone), the warm soft gray of cigarette ash.

Our wooden kitchen cabinetry and the drawers shown below are in French Grey with Clunch (a neutral gray-white) on the walls.

 

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The sitting room is Peignoir, a very pale lavender, which picks up a color in the existing curtains and is subtle but warm. It doesn’t so much read purple as…almost a pale gray; it also works really well near Gervase Yellow because purple and yellow are opposites (again!) on the color wheel and because they’re very similar in value, (i.e. there’s no huge contrast between a light color and a darker one.)

 

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Gervase yellow (in shadow) meets Peignoir (in light)

Here are some more, quite technical explanations of color theory.

If you read interior design magazines, you’ll see, lately, a lot of rooms in two of F & B’s saturated and dramatic deep blues, Hague Blue and Stiffkey — and their pale, gorgeous, ethereal blue of Borrowed Light.

The trick, of course, is to paint a big enough sample before painting a whole room; get a piece of foamcore or stiff cardboard as large as you can — and sit with the color for a day or two to see it in daylight, candle-light, whatever illumination that room will be using. (Every light source adds its own color as well, with incandescent light being warmer than halogen or fluorescent.)

 

 

Making a pretty home: choosing and using colo(u)r

By Caitlin Kelly

This is the first in a series of four posts, each one focused on an aspect of making your home (more) attractive. As a former student at the New York School of Interior Design, I learned a lot, and color theory was one of my favorite classes…

All those teeny, tiny paint chips!

Few decisions are as stressful for many people as choosing the colors for their homes: walls, ceiling, baseboards, floor, front door, interior doors, window trim, shutters.

Not to mention all the rugs, pillows, bedding, furniture, lighting.

Your wisest first step?

A few basic questions:

— Where does the majority of the light in each room come from? If north light, which is cooler in temperature (i.e. bluer), factor that in. If the room gets little natural light, will you paint it a rich, deep jewel tone that absorbs even more light?

The view, of a Pennsylvania field, out my friend Scott's window
The view, of a Pennsylvania field, out my friend Scott’s window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

— What do your windows look out onto? We live on the top floor of a suburban building, and face trees, hills and a river, i.e. all natural tones. Maybe you live in the middle of a noisy, crowded city, or out in the quiet countryside. Consider your outdoor surroundings as well.

— What mood to do you hope to create? Bright and cheerful? Calm and soothing? Warm and welcoming? Bohemian gypsy? Formal and elegant? Every color, and combination of them, carries a feeling and a mood. Make sure it’s the one you really want!

— What are the most flattering colors in your wardrobe, the ones you wear again and again? Yes, really. Interior designers often take many of their initial cues by carefully observing what colors their clients wear. Makes sense — if you absolutely love black or navy blue or creamy white, (or coral or pale yellow), why wouldn’t you want these in your home as well?

— How adventurous am I willing to be? Unless your landlord forbids adding color to your walls, it’s all up to you to decide what your choices are: a ruby-red dining room, a bright yellow hallway, a charcoal gray bedroom? Simply defaulting to safe/boring white or beige can leave you and your family stuck in neutral (pun intended.) My living room, over 20+ years, has morphed from grey/beige sponge-painted to a rich deep Chinese red to its current pale yellow/green. The hallway has been several shades of yellow, coral and now the same color as the living room. Paint is the least expensive way to change the look and feel of any room.

— How much physical work/time are you willing to put in? Almost every piece of furniture can be painted to a more interesting and beautiful color. Some of my best finds have been objects that I bought in another color and later painted, like the wooden table lamp whose base was a sickly pale green with pink (!) striping, but the shape, size and price were perfect — $55; a $7 can of matte finish cream color spray paint and it looks fantastic. Ditto the enormous baskets I bought at Crate & Barrel but whose unfinished surfaces didn’t match anything. Two coats of pale turquoise paint later, they’re a nice accent atop an 18th century teal-toned armoire of the same color.

— Find inspiring colors and color schemes everywhere — from hotels, restaurants, even the movies! One iteration of our living room was inspired by the film “Gosford Park”, with deep ruby-colored curtains against rich red walls. Gorgeous! I’m still dreaming of the deep, rich turquoise walls in “The Last Station” about Tolstoy’s final days. The kitchen in “It’s Complicated” is often cited as one of the dreamiest ever.

A fact many people easily forget — the floor itself adds a large block of color! 

Before you start piling on even more new colors, look carefully and critically at each room’s floor color to make sure it will work well with everything else in the room. A common error is buying a bold carpet that ends up visually dominating the space when a softer mix of tones gives you inspiration instead.

The loveliest rooms are so harmonious in their mix of colors that nothing stands out on its own but adds to the overall look.

How, then, to choose the colors for a room?

If you’re starting from scratch, the two common and easiest inspirations are curtain/bedding fabric and/or your rug(s), as most will have a mix of several colors and tones to work from.

 

I lovelovelove this duvet cover from Pottery Barn: soft colors, classic pattern, rich but not wearyingly busy
I lovelovelove this duvet cover from Pottery Barn: soft colors, classic pattern, rich but not wearyingly busy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which is why solid-tone curtains are difficult! Do you really want an entire wall of…beige? Dark blue? Cold white? Check out the lovely linens from retailers like Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Anthropologie and Zara Home and see what sorts of color combinations speak to you; once you’ve  chosen a harmonious palette, look for ways to repeat it throughout the room, remembering that every piece of furniture in the room, even just the trim, (if it’s wood, for example), adds yet another color to the mix as well.

Download or buy a color wheel, so you understand color relationships.

Red and green are complementary colors, and we tend to associate bright red and deep green with Christmas…but color comes in every possible tone and shade. Our living room works well visually because its color scheme is, at root, red and green — but a variety of reds, from rich bright red (rug) to Chinese red (a chest of drawers) to a burgundy/rust tone as the sofa’s trim. The greens range from sage (velvet sofa) to olive (cotton, loveseat) to pale yellow-green walls.

We found this small rug in Montreal, the exact colors and tones of the living room
We found this small rug in Montreal, the exact colors and tones of the living room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue and yellow work beautifully together for the same reason. Consider a room in the same tones on the wheel: cool tones like blue, violet, lavender, leavened with cream, silver, white, for example.

I love an English country-house look — a bit weathered, lots of antiques, pattern — and that sharpened my eye when I chose this fabric for our lined bedroom curtains, a metallic-printed linen from Ralph Lauren (yes, he makes fabric, too.) It was surprisingly inexpensive and adds a depth and warmth to the room that thinner, plainer curtains never did.

A soft metallic blue overprinted on pale blue linen; note the large scale as well!
A soft metallic blue overprinted on pale blue linen; note the large scale print

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our vertically striped living room curtains, (like the bedroom, custom-made and lined), also offered a very wide palette of possibilities and I’ve used almost every single color in them, whether in pillows, sofa trim, rug, lighting.

Once you’ve chosen a color palette for each room, find ways to link each object in the room to that scheme — I repainted plain white Pottery Barn picture frames a deep turquoise, for example, in the bedroom.

And keep your color scheme coherent! Few things are more visually exhausting and confusing than a rainbow riot of color in every space.

In our one-bedroom apartment, the dining room and bedroom are a pale, soft gray (Sherwin-Williams Modern Gray), the living room and hallways are Gervase Yellow (Farrow & Ball), the kitchen Clunch, a cool cream (also F & B) and the bathroom a rich mustard (F & B again.)

The pale gray in the bedroom is starting to feel tedious, so it’s soon to become a clear, crisp pale apple green.

When in doubt, look to nature…it’s all there!

 

Gorgeous!  A fall sidewalk in Maryland, seen while out antiquing. These are the colors of our bathroom
Gorgeous! A fall sidewalk in Maryland, seen while out antiquing. These are the colors of our bathroom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(I can help you — send me your questions and photos! $150/hour.)