Designer 101: How to Choose a Paint Color

Designer 101: How to Choose a Paint Color

Design expert Kenneth Wingard shares his 5 tips for choosing the right paint color.


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By: Kenneth Wingard

Painting a room has to be the most cost effective, gratifying and easy way to completely change the design of a room. With $30 and two hours, a room can become completely different.

That being said, picking colors is not easy. When confronted with the thousands of colors available at a paint store, it’s very easy to become a deer caught in proverbial headlights. Here are five tips to make choosing the right paint color easier.

1. Don’t Start With Your Wall Color
I know this is most people’s starting point, but look at the big picture first. Take into consideration any large pieces that you know are going to be in the room or rooms — a carpet, a sofa, drapes, wallpaper. These items are bigger investments than paint, so they should get heavy consideration.

Look at your design plan and what your overall feeling is going to be. Often an accent color in a patterned rug or in a favorite throw pillow is a great place to find a wall color. Resist the urge of “I like green, so I’m going to paint my walls green.” If you want green to be a dominate theme, it might be better to paint your walls ivory so your green patterned rug can really pop.

2. Come up With an Overall Color Plan
Rooms don’t live in a vacuum. People move from kitchen to dining room to living room. Keep this in mind when choosing your colors. You shouldn’t be jarred when moving from one room to another. A house should have an overall feel and the colors should complement this.

Not that all the rooms need to be the same color, not at all, but you should consider that you can peep into your dining room from your living room, so perhaps you want a pop of color in the dining room that is drawn from a painting in the living room to tie the rooms together.

If you’re completely in the dark, choose a main color for your living room and then use the same color in slightly darker and lighter tones in adjacent rooms as an easy way to make sure that rooms work well together. In an open floor plan, paint accent walls to define what areas are for eating, lounging or cooking.

3. Swatch, Swatch, Swatch
Find the group of colors that’s closest to what you want and pick out chips that are a few shades lighter and a few shades darker. Pick out some chips for your trim. Even if you’re planning on choosing white, there are many tones of white, so pick out a full range of swatches.

Then, bring all of them home and tape them to the walls; look at them in the different lights of morning, noon and night. Go through a process of elimination and as you decide you don’t like a color, take it down. Narrow it to three or four colors that you think might work. Colors never look the same on the swatch in the paint store as they do on your walls… and I mean never.

Most paint stores will sell you a pint of paint for $5 or less which is much better than wasting money on a gallon of paint that you end up not liking. So, get pints of your chosen four and paint them on large pieces of white foam core and move them around your room.

The differences in light, window placement and floor color will change the way the colors appear. If you have them on large boards, you can see how the color will look in different rooms — perhaps the color you were thinking of for the powder room might actually work better in the kitchen.

4. Paint is Cheaper Than a Contractor
Use differences in colors and tones to help correct some space issues.

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  • Painting darker colors at the ends of narrow rooms will help widen them.
  • Darker colors will help make a large bedroom seem cozy.
  • Painting a ceiling the wall color will make a room feel more intimate.
  • To make a room feel larger, paint the ceiling lighter.
  • If you don’t like some details in a room, paint them the same color as the walls.
  • Painting the ceiling and walls of a small entry or bathroom will make it feel larger.
  • Painting horizontal stripes will make a room feel wider — vertical will make it feel taller.

5. Stay Away From Primary (and Secondary for That Matter) Colors
They will always fall flat when put on a wall. If you like blue, find a blue that has undertones of grey or green. If you want yellow, choose one that is creamy or has touches of gold.

You want your rooms to breathe and to be dynamic. The color on the walls should subtly change as the daylight changes. Choosing multi-dimensional colors will give your room added depth and warmth. Leave the punch for accessories or an accent wall. You may love bright orange, but your love affair will soon end if you paint your entire living room in that color.

Most importantly, remember that it’s only paint. It’s one of the easiest and least expensive ways to take a risk and it’s better to take it here than on your sofa. If you don’t like it, repaint it! I don’t know one professional decorator who hasn’t had the “oops, that color’s ugly” moment when painting a room — consider it a badge of honor and head back to the paint store.



Kenneth Wingard attended Princeton University’s School of Architecture and has studied art, sculpture and architecture in Europe, Asia and Africa. It was during these travels he developed an appreciation for the skill of the local craftsmen and began to combine those talents with his own design sense. He’s worked for Williams-Sonoma and was the Divisional Director of Pottery Barn. His products have been spotted at the New York and San Francisco MOMA, LACMA and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Tune in Saturdays at 9/8ct on OWN to see his projects come to life and get to know Kenneth here.

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