How the heck do I pick out paint colors?
August 9, 2017 10:52 AM   Subscribe

I need to paint the interior walls in my new house. I am completely overwhelmed by the process of picking out paint colors. How does anyone do this?!? Please help me deal with the intersection of interior design, executive function disorder, and choice paralysis.

I just moved into my first house. The bedrooms are badly in need of a coat of paint, and they're also painted colors that I don't particularly love. (Every room in the house is a different shade of green, other than the room that is red. I'm not opposed to green in theory, but these particular greens are too dark for my tiny little rooms, and the red is truly hideous.) However, I'm totally paralyzed at the thought of picking out colors. I'm not a hugely visual person, and I don't have strong preferences. I also have a lot of trouble making choices in general, and the options here are literally infinite. I keep thinking that I'll just be boring and go with off-white, but there are 18-mllion off-whites to choose from, and I don't even know how to begin narrowing it down. Help! How does anyone who is not an interior decorator deal with this? Usually what I do is give up and decide that I can tolerate it the way it is, but that's not an option.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious to Home & Garden (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
We went to a dedicated paint store and asked for help. We wanted something bold, but neither of us has much of a design eye. We took a piece of flooring and a couch pillow to the Benjamin Moore store and spent a good 30 minutes with the guy there.

Don't be afraid to buy sample sizes and go home and paint sections of your wall--you're just going to paint over it, right? That's how we decided that the light orangey-yellow we liked at the store would have been a disastrous peachy pink.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:00 AM on August 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

You've already figured out one important design element -- lighter colors will look better.

If you do go with an off-white, pick out a yellowish one, a grayish one, a blueish one, and a brownish one (just slightly in each direction, ask the paint store clerk if you need help) and get sample pots of each. Now paint a 2' square of each in different areas of your home. Observe during different times of the day to see which shade looks the best with your lighting.

If you decide to go with a color, check out this color scheme tool (it's free) and plug in the main colors of your furniture. Alternatively, if you find a rug or fabric with similar colors, see what the fabric designer chose as a coordinating color. Then do test swatching as described above.

Once you pick a color, you can either have it mixed with Killz primer at the paint store so you won't have to prime first, or do a separate priming step if the current walls are super dark.

Have fun! And remember, if you hate it you can always change it. And don't underestimate the convenience and speed of hiring a professional to paint if it's in your budget to do so.
posted by ananci at 11:01 AM on August 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Are you painting it yourself or hiring a painter? Some painters will give color advice, and certainly if you decide you really do just want an off white or a neutral they should be able to say "the most popular white I use is X." Alternatively, it's not very expensive to hire an interior designer just for this task. Just find a designer who is willing to work on a time rather than project basis. The one I work with will do both. We do project billing for bigger projects, and she bills me for time when it's just random little questions or mini-projects. Works out great.
posted by primethyme at 11:02 AM on August 9, 2017

Here a couple of things that I think help to remember:
  1. There is no "right" answer. Anything you can live with is fine.
  2. If you make a wrong choice it's not permanent. You can paint over it if things turn out really badly.
  3. Even a sub-optimal choice will be cleaner and fresher than what you have now.
So once you have reassured yourself of the points above, go down to the paint store or to the big-box home renovation store and you will find racks full of brochures with sample room combinations you can choose from. Pick one of those and you will be assured of having a wall color and trim color that look reasonably nice together, plus you have an example of what it will look like.

If you want to get fancier there are many on-line visualization tools. And if you have a good paint store with a person with an eye for design by all means solicit suggestions. But honestly, if the goal is just to get something that works and you don't already have a color in mind then go and browse the sample brochures at the store and look for ideas.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:03 AM on August 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

I know someone who went to the hardware store, chose the paint called "off-white", and painted the whole apartment with it.

That's not my style, but it worked just fine. So if you really don't know what to do, just buy "off-white". Compared to all the greens, it'll be great!
posted by MangoNews at 11:13 AM on August 9, 2017

Go to a paint store that carries Benjamin Moore. They have a folder of whites and off-whites you can take home. They will also have paint chips in a dizzying array of colors. Pick out any strips of colors that appeal to you; IME, if you liked it at first sight, you'll probably like it for a long time. Colors, even deep or heavily-saturated colors, can look great even in smallish rooms. Remember that your ceilings will almost certainly be bright white (what is called "ceiling white", oddly enough), which is often quite enough to offset a dark color. Beyond picking colors that appeal to you, I've found that the more words it takes to describe a color (e.g., "sorta greenish, but also has gray and blue in it depending on the light", rather than just "teal") the less likely you are to get bored with it on your walls.
posted by DrGail at 11:18 AM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

You can do this. Painting is (relatively) cheap, and pretty fast/easy to do. A few tips:
1. Don't buy cheap paint - you will save nothing as it will not cover as well (meaning more work, and more paint).
2. Primer, primer, primer. Yes, it's another coat, but it makes the final coat look better, and be easier to clean. If your greens or red are dark, talk to the paint store about tinted primer, made to make covering the old color go faster.
3. Cut in. Do all the corners where walls and/or ceilings meet first. Same with areas around trim (doors/windows), then roller/brush. cutting in takes time, but the rest of the job will go faster, and your results will be more professional looking.
4. Home Depot and Lowes have kiosks where you can plug in color schemes and get an idea of what it looks like - this can help you take the plunge with a color.
All that said, hubby and I took a month to pick out a color for our master bedroom! So, I'm no expert on quick/easy color picking.
One last thing that worked really well for us (if you're using non-white) - we used a 'full recipe' on the main walls, a paint recipe with only 1/4 the color tint on the ceiling (so it was white-ish, lighter, and reflected the room color nicely) and a 3/4 recipe for nooks. I really like it, and in some lighting it fools the eye into thinking you've used more/different colors than you did.
Last thing: take the sticker with the paint recipe off the lid, and put it somewhere (a notebook, or take a picture of it and store where you'll remember it) you can find later. Paint doesn't last forever, but the recipe can be replicated - ONLY if you have it. The sticker on our paint can faded beyond readability after a few years, and we've had to guess at colors for touch-up.
Have fun.
posted by dbmcd at 11:24 AM on August 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

We're in the midst of on-going re-painting of our home, from bland white or off-white to tons of fun colors. Why? Because we can, and because it's not permanent.

If you want to go the colorful route, pick a few colors you like and take the little cards home. Put them against your wall (and fold them so you can only see the color you like), and re-evaluate. Get a second opinion from someone whose style or fashion sense you like. If you're still daunted, get some sample pots and paint some patches. Or be bold and buy a gallon! If you like a few colors, you can always go with accent walls, or paint the lower portion of your room one color and the upper another color (especially if you have "chair guard" molding on the walls).

If you find yourself with too many options, you can use different ways of narrowing your choices, from brackets (pick A vs B in pairs until you get final option[s]) to assigning points out of 100 ("this greenish-blue is more favorite than that pale blue, but it's close to that sunshine yellow, so 50, 20 and 30 points respectively").
posted by filthy light thief at 11:29 AM on August 9, 2017

One simple option - go off-white and invest in art, furniture, and trinkets that bring color to rooms. Your walls can be the canvas rather than the visual art itself.
posted by notorious medium at 11:46 AM on August 9, 2017

I totally feel you -- I not only tend to have decision paralysis in these situations but also I just end up feeling useless/helpless in the face of so many decisions about which I care SO VERY LITTLE. Like, unless it is hideous (as in the case of the current colors), I just don't notice whether a wall is eggshell or ecru or whatever-the-fuck-beige, and so it just becomes a giant time suck of I-don't-care-yet-also-why-is-this-taking-so-long?!?!!!

Personally, in this situation I would invite over a friend with a good eye for design, make them dinner/buy them drinks/bake them cookies/etc. and tell them they have free reign to pick your paint colors with the caveat that you want something fairly neutral and light-colored (or any other requirements you have). Said friend will probably be delighted to get to play around with paint colors, and you won't have to make any choices. Win-win!

Of course, you can also hire an actual interior designer, although that will be more expensive. But, it might be cheaper than you think -- I recall my cousin hired one on a limited basis just to help them pick out wallpaper and paint colors, and were really happy with the results. You might try to look for someone new to the business who is perhaps still building up their brand and not too pricey.
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:00 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

One way that I have dealt with the choice paralysis aspect of this is by choosing to only look at paints from one company -- in my case, Benjamin Moore. There are more colors on the market than anyone could possibly process in a lifetime ... if you intentionally limit yourself to one company, at least that is some kind of limit that can help you choose.
posted by mccxxiii at 12:01 PM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

There's nothing wrong with painting it all off-white. Sure, part of you is saying it's boring, but you clearly need to lighten up the spaces and what I want to know is: what colors are the spaces you find soothing, calm or cozy?

For me that has meant largely white spaces, a cool blue-green hallway and a blush pink office.

Also, I love color. If you love color, white walls can be great, because any color pillows, art, or furniture look fine with it.

Nthing Benjamin Moore. For that red room, you're going to need a good primer if you're doing it yourself. I recommend Kilz for primers.
posted by purple_bird at 12:08 PM on August 9, 2017

There's a decision tree involved, but there are way more paint chips out there, than there are possible outcomes of the decision tree.
3 basic questions to ask yourself:
- Bold, medium, or neutral?
- Warm (yellow-pinktones) or cool (blue - purple)
- Coordinate with existing furnishings, or planning on buying accent pieces to match?

Given your state of overwhelmedness, I'm guessing you'd go for medium-neutral, so you'll probably be happiest with lighter tones and less saturated hues, if not your original guess of "just paint it off-white". Just remember "off" can take you in any direction. Classic is usually beige-yellow; pale grey or pale blue are also very close to white and are very pleasing neutrals.
posted by aimedwander at 12:30 PM on August 9, 2017

I am in the same position as you. Current plan is to go through the house, decide which rooms to paint, pick a couple of finalist colors per room, and take a lot of pictures. Sherwin Williams has an iPad app where you can replace colors on a photo, so we'll do that too.

Day or two before the painters arrive we'll probably do samples in each room and make final decisions.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 12:54 PM on August 9, 2017

I just went through this. One thing that hit home is that the tiny paint chips in the brochure have no relation to how the paint looks on the wall.

Buy a sample can (much cheaper than a gallon) and paint a wall with it. It will give a much better idea of what the real paint will be like. If you don't like it, buy another.

This Clark & Kensington (Ace hardware) website shows all their colors, if you click on the color it will show a large area of the color. I found the paint to be pretty good and reasonably priced. Also, you can buy a sample and they will give you credit when you buy the paint.

Free advice for paint stores--where is the 3D kiosk that shows rooms painted in various colors?
posted by H21 at 1:00 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I chose my gray paint (Benjamin Moore Moonshine) by googling for "best gray paint color" or something and then getting samples of the three I liked best. Nearly every home blogger has a million pictures of every single shade of paint. If you want neutral, "greige" is a good word to google.

Once you have a bunch of samples, be aware that the current color of your walls will totally throw off your perception of a tiny sample-sized splotch on your wall. My gray paint looked totally purple next to the old yellow paint, but thankfully looked 100% gray once the yellow was covered up. I'd suggest priming an entire wall before trying out paint samples.

The apps to change the paint colors suck. Lighting is so important to how a paint color shows up. The same color will absolutely not look the same in a south-facing room and in a bathroom with only artificial light, and those apps doesn't really compensate for that.
posted by little king trashmouth at 1:27 PM on August 9, 2017

I hired an interior designer who charged by the hour, like primethyme mentioned above. She had a box of what seemed like thousands of Sherwin Williams paint swatches and helped us narrow and then choose colors. We went through the whole house and also chose carpet with samples we had from the carpet store. All told it took two hours.
posted by erloteiel at 1:33 PM on August 9, 2017

I made my decisions based on a design magazine (Better Homes and Gardens Color edition, which I think should still be in stores). Find a decor picture with a wall color you like and accents that kind of match your stuff. The magazine will tell you the paint brand and color name. Then go to the store and buy it, or steal the paint chip from that store and take it to the store of your preference and have them create it. Or, you can eyeball it from the magazine like I did.

In some areas of the house I just haven't been able to decide, so I settled on getting the furniture in and painting a color later, if I choose to.

For the neutrals, I just said 'who cares' and chose a pale cream color. Now I kind of wish I had done the trendy greige thing. Don't underestimate the power of the trend - it's sway is there somewhere in your subconscious mind.

Finally, engage an opinionated person, in this case my sister, for their thoughts. If you have no opinion, just do what they say.
posted by kitcat at 3:30 PM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

I recently moved and for a variety of ridiculous reasons essentially had an hour to decide on paint colors before the professional painter came in. I could only look at the tiny 2" squares on a sample card. For the large living area, I picked a warm off white with a name I liked (Benjamin Moore Acadia White, FWIW) and I love it as a pretty, calm, and clean neutral. I was hoping to be all trendy and go with grey in my bedroom...and wound up with a blue bedroom (which luckily I like, but it is nowhere near what the color looked like on paper!). Thing I learned the day after the painters finished: grey is the hardest color to get right in your space without actually painting samples on your wall (the undertones can often turn out blue, brown, or purple) and it's the color you should definitely actually try out in all kinds of light. Home Depot and local hardware stores sell small cans for like $4--and for about $2 they now sell these great clear pieces of thin plastic that you can paint and then tape to your wall if you're hesitant about just, like, painting a giant color swatch in your room! Wish I'd had the time to play with that.

tl;dr: go with a non-grey neutral (something white or off-white) until you decide what you really want. I figure it's easier to go bold with things like pillows and throw rugs than put all of the work into repainting walls if I change my mind on a color!
posted by TwoStride at 3:37 PM on August 9, 2017

Here's what we did in the same situation:

1) Decided to go with Benjamin Moore (as that's what our painter recommended, and there is a store nearby).
2) Did a ton of research online - best off-white Benjamin Moore paint colors, best BM greys etc. etc.
3) Took the names we found using research and went to the store - picked up paint chips in those colors as well as adjacent colors.
4) Came home and spent time holding up the paint chips in the different rooms in various light. Ultimately narrowed it down to 2-3 choices per room (some of these overlapped so not as many as that sounds like).
5) Bought the smallest size paint pots they had for each of the colors, and got our painter to paint up squares of them in each room (you could of course do that yourself). This was really key - we went for lots of shades of white and grey and things that looked great on a paint chip looked very different on the wall. Differences that seemed really subtle on the paint chip were super obvious once painted.
6) Argued with my husband until we reached consensus, then got all the rooms painted with our chosen colors.
The whole thing took a good two weeks.
posted by peacheater at 3:57 PM on August 9, 2017

Get sample pots and paint squares on the walls; live with the squares for a week or so. Colors will look different by daylight and electric light, and in different weather.

When I decided I wanted a yellow living room, I took home several yellow samples from different brands. There was only one that still looked warm on a cloudy day, and that was the one I chose.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:12 PM on August 9, 2017

Does your house have a particular architectural style or era? If it does some companies make paint series to match those eras. You could use those colors as another way to restrict your choices. (Or decide that's the opposite of what you want and then you've weeded out a bunch.)

You can also pick a favorite pillow or shirt or any object that you love the color of and pick colors that "go" with that color. Both in the sense of matching and good contrasts. So if it's your favorite blue shirts stick to cool colors. If it's a yellow sunflower in your garden look for warm colors in similar or contrasting shades.

Definitely paint a bunch of swatches on the wall at least 6" square and look at the paint at different times of the day and against furniture or rugs that you already have that will be in those rooms.
posted by DarthDuckie at 6:39 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

We did Sherwin Williams because our painter recommend them. I decided to pick color families before deciding warm/cold, neutral/bold. I looked through their color visualizer a lot then was inspired to pick colors based on my Hogwarts houses (Slytherin and Ravenclaw). Then I looked at all the colors in green, blue, and grey until I had an 8 color palette. Then I had to decide how complex I wanted to get with the number of colors (not very) and how many accent walls I wanted. I used 3 main colors and have 2 accent walls in the whole house.
posted by toomanycurls at 7:55 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Honestly, just paint the place in Benjamin Moore "Balboa Mist" in eggshell sheen. It's a slightly warm light grey that I've never seen turn out badly. Freshly painted white ceilings and Trim (Benjamin Moore "Simply White" or "Oxford White") will make everything seem fresh and clean.

I'm a fan of white painted kitchens and having my bedroom painted a light shade of my favourite color since it will bring a smile to your face everyday.
posted by saradarlin at 12:20 AM on August 10, 2017

I love picking room colors. I don't pick by favorite colors, but by mood. What do you want the bedroom to feel like? My old bedroom was a medium warm gray and was incredibly calm, warm and cozy. My friend just painted her living room a crisp gray with a slight warm lavender tone. With white woodwork and lots of blues in the room, it's lovely and classy as hell. If you have artwork that you love, what color would be an awesome backdrop for that art?

I like white or natural woodwork. The more color on the walls, the more dramatic, in general. Dark feeling rooms are very responsive to lighting, like using a group of lamps to make an area of a room more appealing. If you like off whites, consider different shades.

Start by getting primer for that bedroom. Red can be difficult to cover. Ask for help on getting the right shade of primer. Once the red is covered, it will be easier to pick a new color without just reacting to the red.
posted by theora55 at 8:02 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Congratulations on the house!
I'm a Lowes / Valspar girl. Not Olympus. Lotsa color swatches. Check out their pre-baked brochures for colors that zing together.
Do not be afraid of white. I have a soft spot for "White Pepper" 4001-1A, since we painted the common areas of my daughter's house that color, plus it's in my sunroom now. Greyish lavender, very easy to live with in a strongly lit area.

Wallboard squares are available, or you may know someone with extra from a building project. Get some small sample pots of Valspar colors (I think mine were a pint for $3) and paint up some large swatches, 12 inch by 12 inch minimum or bigger. Set them up and look at them on different walls, in different lighting, day and night.

Get some wallboard joint compound and a drywall knife, and repair nail holes, cracks, etc. Examine the current paint surface for peeling, bubbling, dirt, etc. A good cleaning helps the next coat of paint adhere. Semi-gloss resists repainting without special handling.

Lead-based paint disclaimer here: not every paint job on an older house is a problem, but there are ways to test for lead-based paint and ways to protect yourself. Renovation, Repair and Painting Program: Do-It-Yourselfers.

Use a primer, including on virgin sheetrock. Kilz or Zinsser over anything but white paint. Trust me, I have a cantaloupe bedroom (apricot over pale green).
Do two coats minimum. Your rolling style will leave tiny unpainted zones, be ready to get it right.

Use acrylic based paint for most work. Easy to wash out the tools, easy to repaint when you are bored.
Satin is the regular finish. Semi-gloss for high traffic / kitchen and bathroom areas that need durable paint.
Semi-gloss is harder to repaint without sanding or treating the surface to make new paint adhere without peeling or bubbling. Again, Kilz and Zinsser are your friends in multiple surface coverage prior to painting.

Get the square cut-in tool (mine is red) and several pads. Once used, clean up and Sharpie the basic color on the back of the pad (white / blue / yellow). Reuse. Very good around the doors, windows, baseboard, ceiling, and corners. In the small areas I get lazy and just use the square tool, but the texture may be different than the roller.
Get a tiny brush (as in watercolor) so that as soon as you finish that area you can touch up the little bit in the corner that does not get cut in.
Immediately roll the rest of the paint in place.

Rollers are your friends. Get different textures and don't be afraid to soak and gentle rinse (hosing will splatter -- nope) and let dry and reuse. A five-gallon bucket is helpful. Get a broom handle and a short handle. Trays and metal paint screens are needed.
You will touch the ceiling. Get plain ceiling paint and be ready to touch up the ceiling after all is done. Popcorn textured ceiling is a mess, but removing it is worse. Try -- that's a hard sell -- not to repaint popcorn ceiling.

Tape. Everything. Off. Use drop cloths.
This is exciting! Have some fun with it.
posted by TrishaU at 12:02 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also: long-term painting.
Paint fades, changes color, gets weird with age. Keep a little extra in a smaller container (I buy empty pint cans for leftover paint -- air inside can ruin the paint) but be prepared to repaint a wall from scratch if needed.
Swirl a paint stirrer in the paint, let it dry, and write the color, number, brand and surface type (satin or semi-gloss?) on the stirrer. Keep it and a paint chip bookmark (if available) in a memory box with other renovation information (washing machine instructions, window blinds reorder forms, the paperwork from the last HVAC repairs, etc.)
posted by TrishaU at 12:25 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

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