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.)