Cure Your Home's Color Confusion

Painting is the cheapest, most affordable way to transform your rooms — you just need some inspiration, unity and experimentation.

I have a theory that paint companies try to calm people’s fears about selecting paint by naming the colors with comforting titles like Grandma’s Sweater (a medium blue) and Happy Camper (a spring green).

But the truth is that most people are overwhelmed when choosing colors for an entire room from a 2 inch square sample. I often find that people just decide to “play it safe” by painting the walls white – after all, white matches everything – right? Unfortunately, the result is a room that feels cold and unfinished and the homeowners wonder why it doesn’t work.

I’m not saying that white walls are always a bad choice but they have to fit in with the overall color scheme of the space and appear in more than one place in the room. Only you can decide how much color you are comfortable with. Start by asking yourself several questions and hopefully a style will emerge.

  1. Are you drawn to warm or cool colors?
  2. Do you look best in certain colors? Check your closet for a clue on your favorites.
  3. What type of feeling do you want the room to have – calm or energetic?
  4. What colors from nature appeal to you?

Get inspired

Once you have decided the “feel” of the space – look for a point of inspiration. You may be able to draw from an existing rug, upholstery or a favorite painting. It is much easier to find paint to go with fabrics and rugs than the other way around.

Work with three colors in a room will give it balance and is an easy way to pull a space together. Find the least dominant color in your inspiration piece and use that as your wall color with a mid-toned color on the floor and large pieces of furniture. Use the brightest color for accessories, pillows, etc. Repeat colors evenly around the room and in at least three places.


If possible, take your inspiration piece (or a photograph of it) to the paint store and try to pull out paint swatches that match the piece. As you compare the gradations of the colors from light to dark on the strip, choose a shade that you will be most comfortable with. I would suggest that you purchase a small amount of the paint (most major paint companies now offer small cans of paint for that purpose) and cover a large poster board with the color.

Move the board all around the room and view it at different times of the day, viewing it in the darkest corners as well as by the window. Keep in mind that when used on four walls, the color will usually appear darker. Color is also affected by the amount of light in the room and by whatever colors are next to it.

Tie it together

Consider the flow from one room to another since in many homes you can see one room from the next. All the rooms need not be painted the same color but they should be at the same level of intensity. For example if you choose the 3rd color down on a paint swatch, it works best if the colors in surrounding rooms are also the 3rd color down. Another way to help the flow is to paint all the woodwork the same throughout your home. This will draw the eye from room to room and be a consistent thread throughout.

More color tips:

Off-white and light colors highlight a room’s size.

Darker colors add warmth and make a space feel cozy.

Don’t forget the ceiling – if it is over 8 feet high, painting it a tint of the wall color makes the room feel more intimate.

If you are shy about a color, paint one focal wall in a bold color and paint the other three in a soft neutral shade.

Color cues: Colors can evoke emotions:

Red demands attention and stimulates the appetite.

Yellow will give your space a cheery lift.

Green is soothing and is nature’s favorite.

Blues remind of us of calm waters.

Brown is a sophisticated color or can be a neutral in a beige tone.

I once helped a woman choose a paint color for her dining room. She had a successful bakery business and as we looked through the samples, we settled on a beautiful rich red color that picked up on the print in her window treatment. It was the perfect color and as we flipped over the sample card to make note of the name – it was called raspberry truffle – of course!

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Begin by identifying what architectural features are a permanent part of the room – brick around the fireplace, dark stained floors and also the elements that will remain in the room – upholstered furniture, an area rug.


Laura Falt June 12, 2011 at 02:01 AM
Great tips and I have not heard about the "three" colors in the room. Now, that is only with fabric, meaning black wood frames and an accent chair in black I believe would be considered a "neutral". Also, can the sagey green stripes in my couch and on my valances be considered a neutral as I was told once that since green is a color of nature, it can be considered a neutral. And lastly, red is a dominant color of my couches and rug, however, I have lighter shades of red, almost a salmony pink in my valances as well, is that also considered a separate color? Would love to hear back. Thanks Laura
Julie Boney June 13, 2011 at 02:46 AM
These are fantastic tips! You're right - so many people are really shy about trying color on their walls. Hopefully, these tips will help people overcome their fear of color! I agree that it's incredibly important to test out color to see what it will look like. It's amazing how much a different a color looks when you move it around the room! However, instead of testing the color on poster board, it's a good idea to use a paint sample board like Small Wall, which is not porous like poster board. Unfortunately, poster board absorbs the color and won't be an accurate representation of the paint color. Since Small Wall mimics dry wall, the color will look exactly like it would on your wall, which is a HUGE help. Great tips, Pamela!
Pam Hartz Miller June 14, 2011 at 02:01 PM
Laura, I love the color combination that you described. My suggestion for three colors is a fairly easy way to make a room feel pulled together. I also think of sage green as a neutral for the reason you mentioned but I would consider it one of your three colors along with the red and salmon. You might also use a khaki tan that would work well with the other colors. You don't mention your wall color - keep it in the context of your three basic hues. Remember to also use one of the colors (maybe the salmon) as an accent color and spread it around the room in at least three places. The number three is very important in decorating. Hope this helps! Pam Hartz Miller


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