How To Choose A Perfect Paint Color | Undertones & Lighting

Some paint colors look amazing in the store, but when you get home and start painting, it looks like a completely different color.

This chameleon color shifting effect can happen for a number of reasons but don’t worry, they’re avoidable! The four easy steps in this paint color selection guide will help you pick a color that ends up looking exactly how you’re expecting it to – no surprises.

4 Steps To Choose The Perfect Paint Color For Any Room

1. Know Your Undertones

Paint colors are made by combining several colors to create a unique blend. This blending of colors results in a dominate color (or overtone) and one or more undertones. The dominate color is the main color that jumps out at you. Undertones are the subtle hints of color that are much less apparent.

What are undertones? Undertones are the less apparent, secondary color tones that can be seen in a paint color.

Undertones influence the finished look of paint in a big way. These undertones are the main thing that distinguishes one paint color from all the other similar colors.

The best way to spot undertones is to compare a paint color to a pure color. Seeing the two colors next to each other should make it easy to see undertones.

For white paints, compare the color you’re looking at to a bright clean white (use a piece of printer paper, poster board, or a true white paint swatch card). For other paint colors, use a basic paint color wheel and compare the color you’re looking at to the matching color.

paint color wheel
Paint Color Wheel

It’s common for paint colors to have multiple undertones. This is because designers utilize many different colors to create new paint colors that are complex, interesting and appealing. For instance, Benjamin Moore says that Creamy White (OC-07) is “a compilation of 152 white and off-white colors”.

Benjamin Moore Creamy White
A compilation of 152 white and off-white colors

Most of the 152 colors used to make ‘Creamy White’ melt together and leave behind only a few undertones.  In this case, yellow and olive are the visable undertones. 

Knowing the undertones of a paint is an important aspect of selecting a paint color for your home. In addition to selecting a  dominate color (overtone) that works with your interior design plan, you want to make sure that the undertones work as well.

When a paint color looks different than it’s supposed to, it’s usually because some of the undertones are being amplified or muted by other influencesThe biggest two influencers that cause paint color shifting are: lighting, and other colors in your home.

All the colors in your home affect paint undertones in a big way. Everything from the colors of the walls, floors & ceilings, to the colors of furniture, greenery, and even wall art – they all affect a paint colors’ final appearance. 

(Example 1) A blue accent wall will cause other paint colors in the same room to appear cooler. This is because light reflects off the blue wall, and projects cool blueish light into the room. This light brings out the cool undertones in other paint colors. It’s kind of like washing a pair of brand new blue jeans with a white t-shirt!

(Example 2) A brown leather sofa can cause paint colors near it to appear warmer. This happens because light that’s reflected off the sofa’s brown leather amplifies warm undertones. If a wall near the sofa has red, orange or yellow undertones, they’re sure to become a little more apparent. 

If you can’t prevent this color shifting effect, then what do you do? You design around it, or embrace it! Try to use paint colors with undertones that complement the other color palettes in your home. You wouldn’t pick a paint color that clashes, so make sure the undertones don’t clash as well.

The colors in a room make a big difference, but lighting is actually the #1 reason why paint colors end up appearing differently. To learn how lighting affects paint colors, keep reading Step 2. Consider The Lighting.

2. Consider The Lighting

The light in a room should be one of your considerations when selecting a paint color. Natural and artificial light both make a huge impact on how paint colors look in room.

Artificial Lighting

When it comes to the lights in your home (artificial lighting), you want to make sure their light color is neutral. This prevents the lights from making your paint colors appear warmer or cooler than they really are.

Using incandescent light bulbs or ‘Warm White’ LED lighting (2700K) will make paint colors appear darker and warmer than they actually are. On the other end of the spectrum, florescent lights, CFL’s and ‘daylight’ LED lights (5000K and above) make paint colors appear cooler and washed out.

Artificial lighting with a color temperature around 4000K is ideal for accurate colors, but I recommend using slightly warmer 3000K LED light bulbs in a residential home. This ‘Bright White’ color with a small hint of warmth keeps things feeling relaxed and comfortable without distorting paint colors.

To learn more about choosing the best lighting for your home, check out the guide I wrote call: LED Lighting Guide | Color Temperature, CRI and Lumens.

Natural Lighting

When it comes to natural light, the direction that a window faces affects the color of light it supplies to a room. In addition, the time of day, and even the time of year can make a difference.  Because of these variations, some paint colors are better suited for specific room types.

how natural light affects paint colors

 North Facing Rooms

North facing windows let in tons of beautiful natural light pour into a room. Northern light is a cool bluish color and accentuates cool undertones (blues, greens, purples). All paint colors are influenced by light, but keep in mind that white paint colors are especially susceptible to the influence of warm and cool light.

To deal with cool northern light, use a paint color that’s one shade warmer than what you’re going for. The final appearance will be slightly cooler (or less warm), just like you planned.

If you’re going for that bright and airy look, lighter paint colors with warm undertones usually look great in North facing rooms. Warm undertones are yellows, oranges, reds, browns, beiges, tans.

Some warmth is good in North facing rooms, but I recommend avoiding extremely warm colors. When you illuminate a warm paint color with cold light, sometimes it can look a little weird and unpleasant. 

South Facing Rooms

The windows in a South facing room let in cozy warm natural light throughout the whole day. This means that the warm undertones in a paint color will appear a little more prominently. Southern light is beautiful, and relaxing – its warm orange-yellow glow makes most paint colors look great. 

In our South facing master bedroom, we embraced the warm light and chose to paint the walls with Benjamin Moore White Dove. To add to the warm vibes, we also installed a walnut stained DIY wood plank accent wall.

White Dove’s warm undertones are strengthened by the Southern light, and the dark accent wall. This combination is perfect for bedrooms.

south facing bedroom
A South facing master bedroom

East and West Facing Rooms

East and West facing rooms are affected most by the time of day. The color of natural light changes throughout the day as the sun rises out of the East in the the morning, travels across the sky, and sets over the West during the evening.

Natural sunlight is warm in the mornings and evenings when the sun is near the horizon. After the warm light from sunrise fades, natural light quickly becomes cool and bright while the sun is high in the sky.

East facing rooms get tons of warm yellow light in the morning and then slightly cool light throughout the day. The opposite is true for West facing rooms. West facing rooms receive pleasant cool light throughout the day, and then warm orange-red light in the evening when the sun is setting.

Because of this evolving light color throughout the day, it’s important to consider when a room will be used. Keep in mind, neutral colors are always a good choice in East and West facing rooms because they look good with both warm, and cool light.

However, almost any paint color can look great in East and West facing rooms, so go with your gut. Choose a color that you love! Just keep in mind that that it may appear differently throughout the day. For East and West facing rooms Step 4. Put Your Favorites To The Test is an especially important part of the paint selection process!

3. Use Online Resources

Paint stores, and home improvement stores offer tons of paint color options. In most cases, they have an entire isle dedicated to displaying paint color swatch cards. The large selection is nice, but seeing hundreds of paint colors at the same time is overwhelming.  

Instead of going to a store, I like to start my paint color search online. Although digital screen rendered colors aren’t always 100% accurate, many modern screens have really good color accuracy. You should be able to get a pretty good feel for the colors using a computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Before starting your paint color search, you should have an idea what you’re looking for. Come up with a game plan before you start looking at colors. Going into the search, you should have a primary color in mind, plus undertones to look for, and undertones to avoid.

 Sort By Paint Color Family

I recommend looking at paint colors sorted by their color family. This makes it easy to see the differences between colors. Most paint brands have a user friendly website that make it easy to search for paint colors, even if you have something specific in mind.

Check out all of my favorite white, and gray paint colors:

White Paint Color Guide

Gray Paint Color Guide

Here’s two websites I personally use to search for new paint colors: 

Sherwin Williams White Paint Colors
Sherwin Williams – ‘Whites & Pastels’ Paint Color Family
Benjamin Moore White Paint Colors
Benjamin Moore Whites Paint Color Family

Use A Digital Room Painting Viewer

Most paint companies have online tools that let you view their paint colors in a room, however, the Sherwin Williams ColorSnapยฎ Visualizer is my favorite online resource.  You can use the tool to digitally paint walls, and trim with the colors you want to test out.

They have ton’s of different rooms and scenes to choose from, so you’ll be able to find a space that looks similar your room. It’s nice for quickly seeing how the colors will look in a room. This tool is very helpful, but nothing replaces seeing a paint color in your home, on your walls.

Sherwin Williams ColorSnap Visualizer

4. Put Your Favorites To The Test

Once you narrow your search down to a few favorite paint colors, it’s time to test them out and see how they look in your home. Viewing paint on the walls, in the actual room you’re painting is so important!

Be sure to test out a paint a sample on every wall in the room, and check it during different times of day to see how it looks in different lighting conditions.

You should also check out the paint samples with the lights in the room off, and then on. This will help you to identify if the artificial lighting in the room is skewing the look of your paint colors.

Occasionally, a paint color you’re excited about might seem to be the perfect fit. It can have a beautiful overtone, with the right undertones – but when you put it up on the walls, you’ll realize that it just isn’t the right color for that room.

Tip: Try painting a poster board with the color you are testing out. Instead of having to paint sample areas on your walls, you can just hang the poster board on a wall. This way, you still get to see the actual paint in your home, but without the commitment.

5. Choose The Right Finish (Sheen / Gloss)

Choosing the right finish of paint is important because it affects not only the look, but also the durability of a paint. A high-gloss sheen has the most reflective appearance, and flat/matte finishes absorb the most light (making it the least reflective).

Paint finishes with higher gloss levels are more durable, and the shiny finish can make colors appear a little bit lighter. Finishes with lower sheens aren’t as durable and make colors appear slightly darker.

Each sheen has pros and cons that make them ideal for specific uses. Check out all the finishes to see which one is best for the room you’re planning to paint.

High-Gloss Sheen

High-Gloss is the most durable sheen, and has the most stain resistance. It’s tough, easy to clean, and provides a bright shiny look that can make paint colors appear lighter.

So what’s the downside? If they’re so durable, why wouldn’t you use high-gloss for everything? Well, high-gloss paint requires more prep-work, and can require more coats of paint to achieve a proper finish. This is because the shiny sheen makes surface imperfections more visible.

Durability aside, high gloss paint does not look good on ceilings, and most people don’t prefer the look in bedrooms, and living areas. However, high gloss is perfect for cabinets, doors, and other high traffic or high humidity applications like kitchens and bathrooms. The bright shiny finish can also look great on trim, windows, shutters and molding.

Best Uses: Cabinets, Doors, and High Traffic or High Humidity Applications

Semi-Gloss Sheen

Semi-gloss paint retains most of same durability and stain resistance as high-gloss paint, but with less of a shiny, reflective appearance.

Although it’s slightly less durable, the tradeoff can be worth it to improve the look (if you aren’t into the shiny appearance). This sheen can be an excellent compromise between gloss and durability.

Semi gloss paint can be used in all the same applications as high-gloss. It’s perfect for cabinets, doors, kitchens, bathrooms, trim, windows, shutters, and molding.

Best Uses: Cabinets, Doors, High Traffic or High Humidity Applications

Satin Sheen

For paint applications where you want to avoid the shiny look and still need some stain resistance / durability, look no further than satin sheen. This Satin sheen is the most popular finish in residential interiors.

Satin sheen is a good choice for almost any room type. It’s a happy medium that has good durability and acceptable stain resistance without the shiny appearance. Satin sheen is ideal for dining rooms, kids rooms, and hallways.

And if you really dislike glossy finishes, you can make satin sheen paint work in kitchens, bathrooms, molding, and other high traffic / high humidity applications. It’s not ideal, but it can get the job done.

Best Uses: Dining Rooms, Kids Rooms, Hallways

Eggshell Sheen

The eggshell sheen is one level up from Matt and Flat. This makes it almost entirely non-reflective, but slightly more durable and a little bit easier to clean (than matte and flat finishes).

Eggshell is an excellent option if you want to keep things simple and use the exact same paint throughout most of your home. It’s a good choice for the ceilings and walls of nearly every room in your home.

Best Uses: Family Rooms, Living Rooms, Dining Rooms, Bedrooms

Matte or Flat

Paint companies offer either matte, or flat for their least reflective paint sheen. These finishes are minimally reflective, so they do not appear shiny or glossy whatsoever. Additionally, they excel at at hiding surface imperfections.

The matte finish absorbs light instead of reflecting it. It’s this non-reflective property that makes this paint type ideal for hiding imperfect spots on your walls. However, the ability to hide imperfections comes at the cost of durability and stain resistance.

With flat paint, you don’t need to be quite as diligent with surface prep, and less coats are needed to achieve a smooth even finish. Another benefit is that it’s easy to apply touchup paint.

This sheen is perfect for ceilings. I recommend painting all the ceilings in your home with matte or flat paint (except bathrooms). It’s also well suited for walls with low durability needs. Living rooms, adult bedrooms, and home office walls are good candidates for this paint sheen.

Use matte or flat paint finishes wherever the extra durability of glossy finishes are not needed.

Best Uses: Ceilings, Living Room, Adult Bedroom, Home Office

Tips For Choosing A Paint Color

  • Make sure the undertones of a paint color will complement the color palette in a room.
  • Use neutral colored lights in your home (artificial lighting).
  • Know which direction (North, East, South, West) a room faces, and use a paint color that is well suited for the natural light.
  • Start your paint color search online and use features such as sorting by color family, and digital room painting.
  • Select a sheen that is right for the room you’re painting.

So there you have it! These are my tips for finding the perfect paint for any room. I hope this helps you have more confidence when selecting the right color for your space. I can’t wait to see what colors you choose! Let me know in the comments below if you have any more tips.

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