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  • Writer's pictureGail Jacobson

Unlocking the Secrets to Successfully Selecting Paint Colors

Color is a powerful phenomenon that affects us emotionally and physically. Choosing the right paint colors for our environment is so important, yet the process appears cloaked in mystery - as if those who are good at it must have secret powers! The truth is, while sensitivity to color can be innate - like having an ear for music, understanding and working successfully with color is largely a skill that can be taught.


It may be self-evident, but the first step to successfully choosing paint colors is to learn to recognize colors and distinguish them from one another. Many people have this ability innately - but I hear again and again from my clients that they aren't able to discern the differences. The good news is that with a few guidelines and a descriptive vocabulary, most of us can learn the “secrets” that all trained artists and designers know.


Artists and designers use charts like the “color wheel” below – derived from

Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery of the visible color spectrum - to visualize color relationships. Colors on the wheel are arranged in a rainbow-like flow; a gradual transition from one color to another to simulate light refracted through a prism.

The Color Wheel Warm & Cool Hues


HUE is a color’s “name”. The color wheel is based on the three primary colors of red, yellow and blue - called the "primary triad”. Like primary numbers – primary hues can’t be created by mixing other hues. Between the primary colors are the secondary colors -orange, green and violet - or the “secondary triad”. Each is created by mixing two primaries. Between the secondary colors are the “tertiary” colors, and so on.

WARM VS COOL: Science, and personal experience, confirms that warmer colors – yellow to red-violet on the wheel – lift our mood, make us feel physically warm, and stimulate our appetite. Cooler colors; violet to yellow-green on the wheel, foster tranquility, lower our body temperature, or can even feel cold and forbidding

VALUE is a term that describes the darkness or lightness of a color. When we mix a hue with white and black, the resulting color is either a “tint” or “shade” of that hue. Color value has a great impact on mood. Imagine a room with pale ivory versus chocolate brown walls and you will understand the power of value.

The Color Wheel - With Pure Hues, Tints and Shades

INTENSITY is a term that describes the brightness or dullness of a color. We say that colors “pop” - are “vibrant”, “dusty” or “dirty”. Color intensity affects our experience, too. Bright colors grab our attention, whereas duller colors merge or melt into the background.

Experienced designers know how to use these principles to obtain different visual effects. Now you can, too!


Step 1: Identify the experience you want to create

  • Think about how you will use this room. What tasks and activities do you want to support?

  • For example, if this will be a meditation space, cooler, quieter, less intense colors can aid your your practice.

  • If this place is where you do your morning writing, you might choose a brighter, warmer color to inspire you.

  • Will your room be light and airy, or rich and cocoon-like? Do you love jewel tones, “wake me up” colors, or dusty tones?

  • I recommend researching the internet, looking at magazines, and paying attention to colors in homes and retail spaces that you love. What colors inspire you? Soothe you? Nurture you?

One Room - Four Distinct Experiences!

Step 2: Identify Your “Vision” color: Some General Guidelines

  • If you have a blank slate, meaning that you don’t have existing furnishings or decor with which to coordinate, simply choose a color you love!

  • If you need a color to harmonize with an adjacent room, either choose a hue nearby on the color wheel, or one of the other two “legs” of its triad. Whichever hue you pick, I recommend that your new color be the same or very similar level of intensity.

  • You can also identify a color within an existing rug or a fabric, or look for a color to complement them.

  • Decide on the general "value" and "intensity" your hue will be.

Step 3: Working with Paint Color Decks

  • Congratulations, you have your vision color! Now you will need some samples for comparison. Where to start?

  • All paint companies that sell to the public have color swatches or “decks”. Since Sherwin Williams and Benjamin Moore offer large paper swatches through their websites at no cost, I almost always use their paint decks. Besides, I love their products!

  • Start by opening the color deck, and locating a color that comes closest to your “vision” color. Write down that color number.

  • Then, working up and down the same strip, record the numbers of one or two lighter and darker-colors.

  • Move to the strips on either side of yours and repeat the exercise. Keep fanning outward to adjacent strips until the colors start to vary too much from your vision.

  • Make sure you look through the entire deck! There may be colors hiding in other sections that could work for you.

Just a few of the hundreds of Benjamin Moore Reds

Step 5: Assessing your Options

  • Find the color sample program on your paint manufacturer’s website, and order large paper swatches of each of your colors.

  • When they arrive, tape them to your walls and view them throughout the day and night, in natural and artificial light.

  • If you land on a favorite right away, that’s great! Otherwise, keep comparing and eliminating until you have 2 or 3 that will work.

  • Take your paper swatches to a local paint store, purchase a sample pint of each color, and paint them on each wall in approximately 2’ x 2’ patches. View them throughout the day and night, in different types of lighting. Give yourself several days before you make your decision.

  • If you still aren’t satisfied, go back to your discarded options, or start the process again. You can use the experience of “no” as a step to “yes”.

  • Ceilings and trim: I recommend either a very light tint of your wall color, or a fun, “statement” color, or a ready-mixed white for the ceiling. Be sure to team a warm white with warm toned walls, and vice versa. The same rule applies to trim colors.

Step 6: Give Yourself Time to Adjust

Once your room has been painted, I suggest living with the new colors for a bit. Even if you loved the swatches, it takes time to absorb any change – especially if your new colors are a big departure from the old ones. After a week or two, if you aren’t happy, either reconsider your optional colors, or start over. Your initial direction may have been off, or you might need to dig a little deeper to uncover what really speaks to you.


I hope that these tips will empower you to choose colors with confidence. If you still feel unsure, or just need support and advice, don’t hesitate to call us. We can shortcut the process for you and make it an enjoyable adventure.

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