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Choosing Perfect Paint Colors for Your House Using these Five Smart Steps

Amazing color use in this room by Barry Dixon

In all my years as an Interior Designer and Decorator the question I’m asked most often has to do with choosing paint colors for rooms in your house.  The growth in technologies in the paint industry has multiplied the number of color options significantly making an already difficult task seem insurmountable for many home owners.  The list of questions having to do with paint colors for rooms grows monthly but seems to fall into one of three categories:

  1. I have no idea where to start
  2. I’ve begun the process but am drowning in options
  3. My husband/wife/partner and I disagree

While no system is perfect I’ve created a system made up of five steps that will move your closer to choosing perfect paint colors for rooms in your house every time.

Here they are:

  1. Have a clearly defined goal or objective and write it down. You’d be surprised how much anxiety can be calmed when instead of feeling overwhelmed by a whole house of rooms (that eventually need paint selections) you focus on one or two rooms you plan on painting immediately.  Set aside your fears about the house not “flowing” when all the rooms are painted.  If you follow these steps you will realize you are in control and will make great decisions when they need to be made.  So be clear about the goal of this (and only this)  project: “We are painting the Living Room and Entry Hall and need paint selections for walls, trim and ceilings in these two rooms.”
  2. Document the key, permanent elements in each room. Is there a red brick fireplace in the Living Room? If so, take a digital picture.  Do both rooms share the same dark brown oak floors? If yes, then document this in the form of a clear photograph.  Are you using existing furniture (key pieces you plan on having for 3-5 years)? If this is the case then a clear photo of each is needed.  When done with this step you will have digital representation of every key element in your room.  Unless you are building from the ground up and are not bringing any existing pieces (furniture, rugs, art…etc.) into the room(s) this should be a simple project accomplished in under 10 minutes with your phone or any digital photographic devise.
  3. Gather images of new elements being brought into the room. For some this step may take a bit of time (if you’ve not done your shopping) but others you may have images, cut-sheets and brochures on hand of all the new things you plan on bringing into the room. Even if you can’t agree on the new sofa color (gather images or samples of both) or you’re not convinced of your partner’s choice of area rug for the Entry Hall, an image (not agreement) is all that’s required.
  4. Take pictures of your 3 favorite professional outfits. When heading to the office, or our respective places of work, we all have outfits, filled with colors and textures, which make us feel great.  Pick three of these outfits, lay the elements on the bed (preferably against a neutral background) and snap away.   If you have an open mind, you may learn something new about that other person in your home.  And that’s the point.  You may discover your spouse/partner has navy blue as their “comfort color” while you prefer more vibrant jewel tones or purple, emerald green and fuchsia. Nothing wrong with either but its important information to have on hand when it’s time to create a color pallet for your Living Room that makes you both smile.
  5. Print images from steps 1-4 and lay everything out on a table. Once everything is “on the table” it’s time to pull out your paint deck or fire-up your laptop.  From your printed images determine the top two color families (red, blue, green, yellow, brown…etc.) represented in the images on your table.  This is not open to interpretation….count how many items fall into each category and list the results.  Note the top two colors and set this information aside.  Now go to your online paint selector or your color wheel (which can be ordered from any paint company via their website…sometimes you can pick them up for free or for a very small fee at your local paint store).  It’s time to play around with basic color theory.  Now pull out the top two colors from your image file.  As a reminder these are the two colors that appear most often in the images of your current possessions, soon to be acquired possessions or are favorites in you and/or your partner’s wardrobes.  Remember, these are not good or bad colors these simply are the colors that appear most often in your current life.

If color theory is new to you I suggest creating an analogous (colors rest side by side on the color wheel) scheme or a complimentary (colors rest opposite each other on the color wheel) scheme.  If your current top color is blue a complimentary color of paint for the walls might be found in the yellow/orange/red hues directly opposite blue on the color wheel.  So for instance if your area rug and sofa are blue you might find a soft yellow or pale peach to be a successful wall color.

Once you’ve determined which color families you will be pulling color from (based on  your top two existing colors) then find medium to soft versions of your complimentary colors (paint deck or your online color charts are where you’ll find these) and each of you should pick 3 values you find of interest.  Then order larger samples (this can be done on-line with samples mailed to you or picked up at your local paint store).  When the samples arrive fix these to the walls in the room or rooms being considered and live with these for 2 or 3 days.  When two favorites emerge purchase pints of each color (either matte or eggshell finish) and paint 36” squares on each wall of the room.  From these painted samples you will find the one shade that works best with your key, permanent items.  This is the color you should use.  Call your painter immediately and schedule the work as soon as possible!

If you wish to streamline this process do NOT include the opinions of anyone who does not reside in your home unless they are a paid professional.  Friends, family and well-intended neighbors will only confuse you and your spouse/partner  in the decision you are undertaking.  Trust me on this.

Color used by Barry Dixon

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About the author, James

With the launch of the new podcast, Million Dollar Decorating, James Swan adds media-host to his career accomplishments. The interview-based show becomes the first daily podcast devoted to the worlds of design, decorating and beautiful living and features interviews with the world’s leading designers, decorators, architects and artisans. Life-style leaders like Robert Couturier, Sandra Nunnerly, Vicente Wolf and Timothy Corrigan populate the podcast where unguarded conversations reveal behind-the-scenes sources of inspiration, resources and stories that inspire and motivate.
James Swan has built a career crafting classically influenced interiors across the United States. Swan has been featured in House & Garden, House Beautiful, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The Chicago Tribune and wrote for the “Trends & Shopping” column in House & Garden magazine. His book “101 Things I Hate About Your House” won a 2011 American Bookseller’s Award.
Television appearances on HGTV’s “Homes Across America,” speaking engagements with the professional design industry association NEOCON, regular guest spots on national radio programs have consistently placed Swan in the media spotlight.
Swan’s career took off back in Northern California at a noted San Francisco architecture firm, where he managed residential interiors. After that, Los Angeles beckoned, specifically the prestigious design firm of Frank K. Pennino & Associates, where as senior designer he managed high-profile projects, and earned a reputation for refined classical design that succinctly reflected his clients’ lives. In 1999, Swan opened his own firm in Beverly Hills.
Swan has a Bachelor of Arts degree in theology and music from Southwestern College in Waxahachie, Texas, and studied in Arizona State University's Architecture and Design master's degree program.
Swan is a past member of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, serving on its Executive Board of Directors. His other commitments include PAWS/LA, which assists with the care of pets for people living with disabilities, and KidSmart, an art education foundation for inner-city youth. In his free time, Swan may be found furthering his passion for skiing and traveling. Currently he lives and works from his home on the Maine coast.