Color Theory

Choosing a color to paint a room certainly isn’t easy. Herewith, some things to consider:

A few weeks ago I received a message from a friend. “Can you help? I really need to paint my kitchen. What’s a good white?” Since I mess around with decorating and have painted a lot of rooms—a lot—it’s not an altogether unusual question.

But here’s the thing. This is a question that sounds very easy, but in fact requires a detailed and nuanced response. It’s not unlike “Mommy, where did I come from?” in that it usually catches one unaware and, while I might have some experience in the area, I’m not prepared to answer the question at hand at that moment.

“What color white should I paint my kitchen?” sounds easy, but the problem is that there are at least a handful of elements that effect the decision. To begin, “white” is about 150 different colors (give or take). There really is not one true white but rather a spectrum of colors that look white that have a little—or a lot—of yellow or blue or, yes, even red.

Beyond that, light is not static. As the sun moves through the sky, the light changes in a room. In addition, any other element can change the tone as well. Are the windows canopied by trees in the spring and summer? (More green.) Are the cabinets cherry? (Think pink.) We haven’t even begun to touch upon the fact that we all see color differently. (I score pathetically low on the color spectrum tests on the internet, which is always a crushing blow.)

So the only real answer to “What color white should I paint my kitchen?” is “Heavens, I don’t know.” But what I do know is how one figures it out. You have to try. There are several ways to go about this, but ultimately you’re going to have to put some paint on the wall.

I’m not telling you here anything you couldn’t read a dozen other places, but the best approach is to put some large swatches of paint on the wall of your kitchen (or wherever) and watch it for a few days. I painted a ceiling recently and had two colors of blue tucked in one corner. One seemed too pale in the morning; the other seemed too dark at night. I watched them change for a couple of weeks until I realized that I liked the lighter one specifically for its lack of jump; it covers my living room ceiling now.

On my ceiling the paint color is bordered by the crown molding. But in a kitchen, the color may come up against the crown and maybe cabinets, which may be stained. In this case, test the paint against both. It may be winning against the brighter white of the molding but tragedy against the pine yellow of the cabinets. You have to try.

Which is what I ended up telling my friend. While I would love to be a paint whisperer—color soothsayer—really, the only answer is to invest in a small sample can and go. The upside is, once you settle on a color, you’ve probably created a crazy patchwork of shades across the wall. Now there’s nothing left to do but paint the kitchen.

Color Me Happy

There are a few ways to settle on the best color. It’s a little bit like finding a soul mate. You need to know what you want and it takes a little time.

Hire a Decorator

This is often the best answer. Unlike me, who knows a few things, decorators actually know a lot of things. It’s not that test samples won’t go up and be either cheered or nixed, but you’ll have a knowledgeable resource who can consider the big picture of bordering paints, bordering rooms and, well, borders. This last category is a consideration. Children—from toddlers to teenagers—smudge fingerprints, run trucks into and paint flower gardens on walls now and again. When selecting a finish, it’s good to keep this in mind. Yes, decorators do cost money, but it’s often money saved in the long run.

Mag Hag

I’ve been reading shelter magazines for 25 years so I don’t get as much inspiration from them as I used to, but I still consider magazines a great resource for product and seeing things in a new way. While some magazines list resources and paint colors, they may not translate to real life. But what they may offer is the appeal of that creamy shade with the taupe and pale blue, which will give you a place to start.

You Should Go Online

I’ve given up on Pinterest (though I know there are bazillions of devotees), but I love Instagram. I’m taking screenshots and adding images to files on my phone for my (fantasy) third floor and kitchen projects. As with shelter magazines, the colors may not translate from the screen, but they will give you a point of reference when you start picking samples.