Go bright or go white? Design expert Allison Arieff shows how to pick paint like a pro
Allison Arieff

Common color mistakes (and how to avoid them)

1. Looking for colors that exactly match favorite objects

If you want your favorite accent piece to stand out in a room, choose colors that are similar but softer. Instead of choosing the exact green in your favorite pillow, for example, choose a green that is lighter and more subtle, so the rich green of the pillow pops.

2. Opting for white or cream just because it’s safe

Even neutrals like white, gray, and beige come in many shades and tones, so use the sample-size colors or oversize color chips that paint stores offer to help you make the perfect selection of the color you want. Choose no more than three or four colors that appeal to you. On each wall, tape up the oversize color samples or brush out a 2-foot square patch and observe your choices throughout the day as the light changes. You’ll thank yourself for making this extra effort.

3. Choosing colors that are too bright

Colors that are clear and bright are too strong for most interiors. A very large, sunny room can handle sunshine yellow or kelly green, but most of us need colors for our spaces that blend with our environments, complement what we love, and disguise the features that are lacking. If you’ve always wanted a red dining room, move away from crayon red to something more subdued, like a brick tone or raspberry tint.

4. Picking colors that are inappropriate for the space

Warm colors tend to make people feel good and look great. Earthy reds, dusty warm plums, and rusty golds work beautifully for dining rooms and powder rooms. Cool colors tend to make people feel calm and restful. Silver blues, natural greens, and cheerful lavenders work best in bedrooms and living rooms. Green walls can make people look sickly in a bathroom, and bright yellows can make people feel anxious in a bedroom. Think carefully about how you want to feel and what you want to accomplish in each space.

Next: two sisters, two decorating styles

 

When it comes to our homes, my sister and I are like the tortoise and the hare. My husband and I looked for nearly a year before buying our first house, for example, while my sister and her husband found their place in less than a week. Our aesthetic sensibility is incredibly similar, but our means of turning that aesthetic into reality couldn’t be more different.

If I get it into my head to change something in my house, it’s not going to happen quickly. I need to sit with the idea, research it, and overanalyze it. When I don’t have this luxury of time, I’m usually dissatisfied with the result. If I need an impulse buy, I stick to the shoe department.

My sister? She’s the exact opposite. When Adrienne thinks it’s a good idea to paint a room, it should have happened yesterday. She’ll find a painter on Craigslist, speed over to the paint store, grab a can, and get the thing done by the end of the day. (Years ago, when we shared an apartment in New York, she decided the refrigerator was in the wrong place and relocated it down the hall. By herself.) Her spontaneity rarely disappoints her.

One day, after about a year’s consideration, I finally paint a small section of my bathroom a shade of bluish gray. After a few weeks of staring at it morning, noon, and night, I have a eureka moment, decide I love it, and inform my husband that he can go ahead and paint. Adrienne comes over, loves it, and decides she needs to paint something too.

Adrienne loves color and is not afraid to use it, but, interestingly enough, all the walls in her home are white. Once she gets paint on the brain, she thinks maybe what she needs is that proverbial color cure-all: the accent wall. But as the sibling who tends to overthink things, I suggest that she put on the brakes and bring in an expert before she picks up a paintbrush.

We call in San Francisco Bay Area–based designer Shannon Kaye, who, as host of the DIY Network show Fresh Coat, spends a lot of time thinking about paint. We talk first about the biggest challenge: picking the right color. “I’m a big proponent of color. It can totally change a space,” says Kaye. “But you’ve got to pay attention to your personality. Everyone wants to feel comfortable in their space but doesn’t necessarily know how to go about using color to make that happen.”

Next: go bold or stay white?

 

Adrienne, a global traveler who counts Greece, India, Morocco, and China among her recent destinations, thinks she knows what she wants. Having thought about it overnight (an eternity), she longs for some-thing a little exotic in her dining room. “Sometimes when I look at these white walls, I want something more vibrant,” she tells Kaye. “My husband and I do lots of entertaining and really want the dining room to be amazing. So I’m kind of thinking an accent wall in a Moroccan blue or meditative purple. But I have made bad choices in the past. When I’ve gone with a bold color before, it wasn’t what I expected.”

Resisting my usual sarcastic tendencies, I refrain from blurting out, “Really? A purple dining room?” Kaye, being the nonsibling in the room, approaches the situation with far more diplomacy. “Generally, I’m not a big fan of the accent wall, because people usually pick a color that’s too strong. I like white, but sometimes all white feels like an apartment. And if you have all white walls and paint just one, there’s too much contrast. Your eyes will get tired faster and you’ll feel overwhelmed.”

So what does Kaye suggest? Well, it’s somewhat ironic, really, because in this case, the color consultant’s cure-all is the very antithesis of color. “You have a lot of color in your furniture and accessories,” Kaye observes. “Most people are afraid to do that. But for the dining room, I’d pick a color you can start to tie things together with, something to enhance things. I’m thinking a pale shade of gray.”

This is an idea that makes sense. It would play off the tones of the living room curtains and the concrete fireplace, and would enhance, not compete with, the bold artworks by Rex Ray on the dining-room wall. And it isn’t purple. Adrienne loves the idea but ultimately decides on (for now, anyway) the ultimate un-accent wall in one of Kaye’s favorite neutrals―Benjamin Moore’s Super White.

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