Tips For Painting Novices: Choosing Paint Colours

Paint tester squares on walls

My parents always called a painter whenever a room needed a repaint (usually every 20 years or so).  They had a good excuse though; they were working parents with 4 kids. We also lived in a Victorian house with high ceilings and decorative features like ceiling roses and moulded wallpaper, which look lovely until it comes to painting them, at which point you’re wishing you just opted for a nice, magnolia Barrett home with straight geometric walls.

Our painter was a nice chap called Harry who’d known my granddad since he was a boy, and probably gave us a good family and friends’ rate.  The only drawback to this arrangement was that Harry had very particular tastes in colour.  Essentially whatever shade he had in mind, was the shade your room eventually turned out to be, no matter what colour you selected from the paint chart.  Leave him in the morning to paint your living room a nice shade of off-white, and you’ll come back in the evening to a green tinted room, as ‘the off white didn’t go as well with the ceiling shade’. A slightly Russian roulette approach to decorating, but worked out well for all concerned.

Now that I have my own house and I’m in charge of my own colour choices (after years of rented beige living) I’ve found selecting colour to be quite a daunting task.   The amount of choice is almost too overwhelming.

I’m not an interior designer or a bold and creative user of colour, but I (with some help from Liz) have amassed some practical tips which have helped me navigate through the world of choice that’s out there.

View my 12 top tips under the cut…

1. Copy people more stylish than you! Whereas Liz (as evidenced by this blog design) has a natural artistic eye and an ability to stylishly combine colours and patterns, I am hugely indecisive when it comes to picking paint colours and do not trust myself to have any instinctive eye for colour combination. So naturally I steal ideas and look at what works elsewhere, as I can usually discern what I do and don’t like, even if I can’t come up with the colour combinations myself. Pinterest is the obvious place for this although sites like Design Sponge and Apartment Therapy are also great sources of (free) inspiration.

2. Use Google image search  – if you’ve narrowed down you choices but you’re not sure which tester pots to order, then Google image search may be the answer. If it’s a popular brand of paint, no doubt somebody somewhere has taken a picture of their newly painted room and referenced the colour you’ve got your eye on. I was considering Farrow & Ball Breakfast Room Green  for our office until Google image search turned up a whole kitchen painted in the shade at which point I realised it was too bright for the muted, muddy green I was going after.

3. Use manufacturers’ sites – the websites of paint companies are really great resources for making up your mind about colour. They often show real examples of how the shade has been used in a room, and are also useful for recommending complementary colours . Dulux has an ‘inspiring rooms‘ section with suggested colour combinations,  Fired Earth has some gorgeous images of its paint colours and tiles under the ‘Be Inspired’ section, and Farrow & Ball not only have an extensive online gallery by colour, but also present a range of colour scheme ideas for each paint colour (they even have their own book of covetable properties painted in their shades).  Though some of the high end brands are very pricey, they do tend to have better quality colour ranges (or at least less risk of going wrong).  However it is possible to get close matches through various manufacturers (like Crowne) who provide digital ‘paint match’ services which are a lot more affordable (though there is some debate about equivalent finish/pigmentation quality)

4. Always use a tester pot – you never know what a colour is really going to look like until you put it on your walls, so always get a tester pot before investing in several litres of paint. And make sure you paint decent size patches on your walls (see my efforts in the bedroom and spare room above) – you’ll need at least 2 coats to get the true depth of colour for comparison. Some sites do recommend using large colour swatches or painting A4 paper or card and moving it around the room, but I always think that painting onto the wall itself does give better feel for other qualities like coverage, texture and how easily it marks.

5. Make sure you test colours in different light – when painting tester patches it’s worthwhile painting a few in different areas of the room to see what the colour looks like in different levels of light and shade. Also remember to look at those patches at different times of day – some of the dark blue shades in our bedroom patches (above) looked like ideal shade of blue in the day, but they looked almost black in the evening under artificial light. It also helps to paint tester shades next to other features to see them in contrast (eg. I tried the paints next to the window / door trim, though that had the unintended effect of making me want to repaint the rather dingy door trim as well…)

6. Remember, walls aren’t the only colour in the room – it’s a good idea to start with existing furniture and decor in the room and work out, rather than starting with the paint colour.   That doesn’t mean you need to match walls to furnishing exactly though, it’s better that they complement the colours in the room.  If you have a lot of strong colours already it can be good to opt for a neutral shade that offsets the furnishings, and vice versa; if you have a strong statement wall colour then it can be good to opt for neutral furnishings so you don’t get too many competing colours.  Keep in mind that there are other elements that can make up a wall surface – tiles, units, doors, wooden beams, so you’re not always dealing with uninterrupted colour.  These elements can be helpful in allowing you balance out the introduction of strong colours to small spaces.

7. Don’t fall into colour clichés – typically blue is associated with cool rooms, and the advice for north-facing rooms is to decorate with yellow or orange shades to make it feel warm.  But you can have warm blues and cool yellows, so don’t be too closed minded about the range of shades you’re looking at.  And if you want to stay clear of beige, then grey useful colour if you want something that’s versatile but won’t make your house look like a rental.  Also trust your gut – if you don’t really like orange, wear much orange, or have much orange in your house, then chances are you don’t like it very much.  So don’t paint a room that colour just because it’s the approach you’ve read about in a design magazine!

8. Don’t be afraid to break the rules!  It’s your house – you can do anything you like with it!  For example – there are no laws against painting skirting something other than white gloss.  You can make skirting darker than the shade of the wall for a contrast, or you can leave them the same hue as the walls, or go for natural wood (if not too painful to strip existing gloss off).  Go wild!

9. Think about adjoining rooms – do they already have strong colour schemes?   As you move around your house you’ll transition from one colour to the next so you need to make sure they aren’t jarring and fit together if you’re looking into one room from the next.  This house is a great example of how to bring two connecting rooms together with colour.

10. Consider the period of your house – you don’t have to go all out vintage, but it’s worth thinking whether there are any architectural features you want to highlight through colour (such as ceiling roses , cornices, panelling etc.)  You might also find colour inspiration in some of the current the historic paint ranges.  Fired Earth has a National Trust range inspired by its properties, Dulux has a Timeless Classics range and its own heritage brand, and  Little Greene Paint Company even have paint colours tagged by historical period (Georgian, Regency, Victorian, 1960’s etc)

11. Think about the size and shape of the room – Colours are clever, they play tricks with your eyes. If you choose wisely then you can widen your narrow hallway or lengthen those short cottage walls. As a general rule though darker colours tend to advance and lighter shades recede but I’d do your research. Again Farrow and Ball offer some good advice through their  ‘inspiration booklet‘ which together with their colour card is completely free.

12. Don’t panic! – At the end of the day, paint is temporary and if you don’t like it you can always paint over it!

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