Don’t Be Afraid of Color

MNKO's home-and-garden advice column

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By Rick Cowan

colorPaint is the simplest, most affordable way to dramatically change a home’s appearance. The right use of color can accentuate an architectural detail like an alcove or stairway, draw attention to a favorite possession, and create a sense of spaciousness or welcoming warmth. Why, then, are the interiors of so many island homes painted conservative white?

Sometimes it’s because of a misunderstanding of how colors interact. For example, people often assume that a white wall is the best background for paintings or sculpture, because it won’t compete with the works of art. But it won’t enhance them, either. If you really want a painting (or textiles, or a handsome piece of furniture) to stand out, and at the same time give the room a sense of cohesion, select a color that is present in the artwork and use that (or go a shade lighter) for the surrounding wall. If your home is furnished in neutral tones, painting the walls a bold contrasting color will accentuate those furnishings and give them the attention they deserve.

Another misconception: Dark colors are bad because they make a room look smaller. In fact, a rich, dark color can make a room look vibrant. It can give warmth to the kitchen of a super-modern home that would otherwise look austere. If you have a home theater, darker is not only better for viewing, but can make the room cozier and more inviting.

Color also helps to define living areas, especially when a home has an open floor plan. I typically recommend using three or four colors in a given space, basing the selection on the client’s palette preferences, the colors present in finishes and furnishings, and the architectural details of the space.

I suspect that a lot of homes get painted white, off-white or some other neutral color, because the owners have no idea what to choose—or don’t trust their taste. What if the color they pick looks awful, once it’s on the wall?

My advice? Don’t be afraid. It’s only paint. So you spent $50 and a weekend, and don’t like the result? Take the paint back to the store and have them lighten the shade. Or choose a different color that is a little darker or lighter. Compared with most other aspects of remodeling, paint is a very inexpensive fix.

Of course, it’s hard to know what a color will really look like—and whether you’ll enjoy living with it—if all you have to go on is those little paint cards you get at the store. A simple solution: Buy small jars of the paint colors you like and paint some white poster board or good-sized scraps of drywall. (Be sure to prime the drywall first for an accurate result.) Prop the painted drywall or poster board against the walls and view them throughout the day and into the night. Colors change with different lighting, and may look great in daylight but dingy under artificial light.

Here are some tips on selecting which walls to paint what color:

  1. Start by selecting the base that will be the dominant color of your home. In most cases, it’s best to pick a neutral color, or one that’s lighter than your accent walls will be. But it’s also easy to go too light, and end up with a base that’s closer to white than you intended. So at the paint store, choose the color palette that most appeals to you, go to the lightest shade in that spectrum, then choose a paint that’s at least one gradient darker. This will be a good starting point for your color scheme.
  2. Once you’ve determined the base color, make your statement with accent colors that reprise or contrast with the colors of your artwork, furnishings and textiles.
  3. Put your accent color on the room’s most dominant wall, the one that draws the most attention or will display most of the artwork, and paint the other walls your base color. You can also use accent colors in hallways and alcoves.
  4. Make color transitions at inside corners. That’s usually the most natural place to do so—and where it’s easiest to achieve a clean line.

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