Finding the Elusive Perfect Paint Color

Photographs by Heidi Farmer Piccerelli

I so often hear from clients that what worries them most about redecorating is choosing the wrong paint color.  Ironic given that we all grow up delighting in the blending of primary colors into complex ones with finger paint and pouring over the delicious shades in a large box of crayons.  Why should we be so uncertain of our ability to find a paint that will do the trick?

The key to selecting that elusive perfect color is to understand the very simple and fundamental science of how colors are blended.  We all learn as children that there are three primary colors: red, yellow and blue.  My studio painting professor in college stubbornly insisted that there are in fact ONLY these three colors and everything else is a derivative.  While this may sound insane at first it is actually quite a revelation.  Start with red.  If you see what you would identify as pink, it is really red with some white added to it.  It is still red.  Purple is a combination of red and blue but it is mostly one or the other.  Lilac is blue with a little red and white added.  Fuchsia is red with a little blue and white added.  Brown, the trickiest blend, is a combination of all three primary colors but one of the three will still be dominant.  Once you can get your arms around the ability to dissect a color and see its base you are truly on the right path to making an educated choice.

In an ideal decorating scenario, the time to pick the paint color is not first but last.  As humans our first visual impression of a space, before we see shapes or textures, is the color.  Painted walls are the glue that holds a room together; they are the defining parameters of the space.  As such, having the ability to look at all of the other elements in the room - the upholstery, the floor covering, and the window treatments -- allows you to analyze the underlying similarities and contrasts in the color palette.  Determine whether you would like for the walls to make a statement or recede.  For a statement select a color that is only lightly touched upon in the room, perhaps as an accent in the textiles.  If you would like for the walls to recede, choose the color that is most prominent in your color palette. 

If you have decorated with yellows and would like to paint the walls yellow examine what items you are working with.  Are they a primary yellow or do they lean more toward the orange or green side?   Determining the derivative of the color gives you a clear direction when looking at paint samples.  In fact, many paint companies show their color palette in such a way that on the same strip there are selections from very dark and saturated color to almost white.  Even if what you are looking for is a subtle hint of color on the wall look closely at the darkest color on the swatch as it is the key to the derivative. 

Most paint companies now either sell a "tester" size container of paint or provide at a nominal cost a poster-sized sample for you to look at in your space before you commit  In the case of the "tester" don't paint the color directly on the wall rather on a piece of foam core board.  This will allow you to move it freely around the space and see how the color changes in shadowy corners and in more brightly lit parts of the room.  Paint shops often use fluorescent lighting which visually alters the way a color will look in natural light.  This step is your opportunity to confirm you have chosen well and adjust if necessary.  Once you see the right color on site you can move forward and enjoy the confidence of knowing you have made an informed and beautiful choice.