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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Advice Column ~ Selecting a Neutral Paint Color

In addition to my blog, I do a column. People write in and ask for design advice. I received a question about choosing a paint color / palette when one does not know what will eventually happen in the design.

Here is the actually question....

"I recently moved into my home. It still has the builder’s paint even though it is four years old. I am still deciding in what direction I want my décor but I really need to get rid of the white walls. What do you suggest?"

Here is the answer I gave....

"If you do not have furniture or artwork to base your color palette on, I suggest a specific type of ‘neutral’ color on the walls and off-white on the trim and doors especially in your public spaces. Your public spaces are usually on the main level, the basement if it is finished, and up the stairs to your second floor and the adjacent hallway. The only rooms I would omit from the public space list are the kitchen and powder room. In public spaces, flow will need to be taken into account. Flow refers to the way in which one room connects with the adjacent spaces and rooms ~ many homes today are built with an open concept where one, or many, rooms are visible from the other; flow creates a rhythm and harmony throughout your home. Neutrals are whites, off-whites, grays, black, and off-blacks. Browns and beiges are also considered ‘neutrals’ and used generously as such. I often refer to beige and browns as neutrals but if I wanted to be completely accurate or scientific about it, they are really neutralized color hues. What the heck does that mean? Browns and beiges come directly off the color wheel by mixing colors ~ the other neutrals do not. However, for the purpose of this column and future ones, I will refer to browns and beiges as neutrals. Since you would like to get rid of the white, then the white and off-white seem out. Off-black and black are nice but I doubt one would like all their public spaces painted with them. That leaves grays, beiges, and browns. Brown may be a bit too dark for this purpose. Grays or beiges it is! However, not all grays and beiges are created equal. Beiges in particular can be warm or cool. Beiges that have a gray pantone in their formula tend to be easier to live and decorate with over time. Why? Because gray is a cool neutral and cool colors tend to be more soothing that warm ones. In a study where social interaction was taken into account, and there is usually a lot of social interaction in one’s home, it was determined that the cool hued room (blue in this case) versus the red or yellow rooms (warm colors) lengthen the time people stay in the room and behaviors were more sedate than in the warm rooms. Thus, grayish beige will be more tranquil. In addition, it is easier to warm up a cool beige than it is to cool down a warm one. Warmer beiges may cast an orange hue which can clash with other colors versus the grayish hue of a cool beige. Not much tends to clash with gray. This will keep your choices for your décor easier and more fluid. Warm beiges are lovely but best used in rooms that have a specific décor plan. It may be difficult to tell the warm and cool beiges apart unless you look at them side by side. Here are two Benjamin Moore beiges, Lenox Tan (on the left) and Gingerbread Man.

Which one is the grayish beige? Side by side, it is easy to see the difference. Many of the Historical Colors from Benjamin Moore have gray in them; that is a good place to start looking. Once you have found a neutral that you like, whether it is a gray or a cool beige, you may use that color though out your public spaces or vary it by using tints and shades of the same hue. If you look at a typical fan deck, you’ll see a gradation from light to dark of the same hue. You can paint different rooms using two or three adjacent hues on the swatch to add a bit of variation if you would like. For the ceiling, mix 20% of the wall color (if you are using one hue throughout) with ceiling white paint or use the lightest tint on the swatch if you are using multiple. This will ensure that your walls and ceiling relate to each other. Note ~The Historical Colors only have three adjacent colors per swatch; use ceiling white mixed with 20% of the lightest tint if you choose that line."

Wow, am I wordy! I think I wanted to make sure I covered everything I could.

It is true though. The picture at the top is my living room. I was clueless (see yesterday's blog) about what I ultimately wanted to do in there but I wanted the builder's paint gone. Just like the person who wrote in. So I selected Lenox Tan. It did coordinate with my dining room, which was half way done... hey, it is difficult to do one's own home. If you read my Ode to Kristin post ~ you know just how crazy it made me. I think the my living room turned out pretty nice ~ if I do say so myself :)

Here is a room with a warm neutral that I did ~ also shown yesterday....

But I had a plan. I designed the room to be balanced in rich warm and cool hues. The navy silk drapes and velvet day bed compliment the gold cast of the warm neutral wall color. This room was a living room that my client wanted to turn into a lounge complete with small bar and multiple seating areas. Here is the rest of the room.

It is best to develop one's palette based on something (e.g. existing furniture, fabric that will be placed in the room, art, etc....). But when in doubt or not sure where your design travels will take you, selecting a cool neutral will keep your options open.

Do you have any palette stories to share? I'd love to hear them!


  1. Great post--really informative! I've been trying to work a little more color into my house with some interesting paints, but have been keeping a grey undertone throughout--it helps with the flow from room to room, whether the space is mauve or a lovely grey-ish pistachio. i just love playing around with color!

  2. just reading through your blog, great color tips



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