Springtime, at last! That gentle, miraculous reawakening of life and color right outside your window. Visiting yellow birds stopping off on their way to, I don’t know, somewhere. And those once-failed bulbs you dumped along the fence a couple of years ago? They’ve transformed themselves into graceful purple lilies. Such magic.
The Easter Egg coloring kits are already on display at the grocery stores, and their magazine stands are jammed with articles on creating a “color riot” and “banishing beige” in your home or apartment.
I get it. How can you not think of color this time of year? I used to have my very own paint love-fest every spring. I once painted a dining room in Book Room Red, a bedroom in Ballroom Blue, and a guest room in Card Room Green. I swooned for weeks. All I could see were the walls, making sure to catch a glimpse every time I walked by.
And then came that jarring instant when everything shifted focus. When my fave pale gold chair looked relatively dreary. And the patio looked almost garish through the windows. When I felt like I was living in a covered candy bowl. And I wondered, aloud—why didn’t I use this paint in a smaller room, where it wouldn’t be too much of a good thing?
So it was over—like some ill-fated, unseemly romance. And like clockwork, someone in the family would admit that they’d found the color “unbearable” all along. These problems are magnified in a small home or apartment, where it can be hard to put some distance between you and your colorful mistake—and that’s AFTER you get to the point of admitting it.
Time wasted, money down the drain, passing color trends. I have come to embrace the aesthetic of white and neutral (greys, taupes, browns) interior paint colors, because I’ve learned the hard way that a cohesive range of whites and neutrals works best to create flow, harmony, and interest throughout a small home. Or at least throughout each individual floor of your house if you’re working with a second story or a finished basement.
Another excellent reason to paint with whites and neutrals is that they’re better suited to the way we live and decorate today. We operate at a higher “refresh rate,” changing out artwork, lamps, rugs, window coverings, and even upholstered furniture far more rapidly than homeowners did 20 years ago. West Elm actually has a new program for renting bed linens and throws—that sounds like fun!
But whatever your desire for change, if you’ve got neutral paint in the room, you can stay flexible with your other design elements and always achieve a beautiful look and feel. That’s a BIG plus!
When I was a kid, my mother would “take a notion” to repaint the kitchen walls above the wainscoting, or maybe some badly scuffed trim. And we’d stop at the hardware store and ask for a gallon of Devoe in White. That was it. Except to specify a finish. (There was also an Antique White on the shelf, but the clerk censured it as “never for a kitchen.”)
These days, you can spend weeks wandering the paint aisles—half giddy and half bewildered. But if you go with a white or neutral color scheme, you’ll chop your decision down to something very manageable, not something bland.
Because here’s the thing. If you buy high quality paint, and you choose the right range of whites and neutrals in the same “family,” you will get brilliant results! You will not be bored. And you will never feel like you’re standing in the same room you just left.
Table of Contents
The Main Factors to Consider
Here are the main factors to consider.
- The style of your home’s architecture, and the style of the space you’re painting now, in particular.
- The amount and quality of light in the space. (This is SO important.)
- Your own personal tastes and style.
It’s a short list but it encompasses a lot, so let’s expand on these points.
There are no hard and fast rules. That’s good news and bad news, yes? It’s very liberating—and maybe a little scary, too. You could paint your Victorian cottage in traditional colors with dark trim, or you could paint everything a mid-tone grey and use a positively wild mix of colorful furnishings and art. I’ve seen both schemes work beautifully, and you probably have, too.
On the other hand, if you have a mid-century ranch, it will probably look awkward painted in traditional Victorian colors. You can do whatever you want, but instinctively you know when something is “off” from a color standpoint, so. Sometimes it’s just a little too late when you know that you know.
Next, consider how much light the space receives and, importantly, what direction it’s coming from. Is there bright, yellow sunlight bouncing around the space all afternoon? You might want to balance this effect with a cool white.
Does the room receive a north light?—a favorite of artists for its steady, cool qualities. This will emphasize any blue or green undertones in a paint, and you might prefer to balance the look in this particular room with a warm undertone, instead. (If you’re south of the Equator, this would be a cool southern light for you.)
Also, consider how and when you use the space. As an office occupied primarily in the mornings? If so, do you work best in a calm, relaxed space, or in a bright, invigorating one?
Is the room connected to a lush patio or courtyard that’s visible through large windows or French doors? If so, is some of that green being soaked into the room?
I seem to spend much of my at-home life (happily) in the kitchen. Do you? Yet I rarely enter the dining room before 5:30 pm, and I always use the dimmer switches at dinnertime (it has a weird civilizing influence). So make sure to give it some thought.
The point is that color never succeeds or fails in isolation. It will look decidedly different throughout the day depending on the light. Other design elements in the space, including the shape and volume of the room, will also shift perceived color. So look at your sample boards (more on that later) when and how you’re most likely to be using the room. This is key.
- Also, do NOT worry about whether a color, white or otherwise, will make your room look bigger. This is not the point, is it? Consider, instead, whether it will make your room look BEAUTIFUL!
Color Undertones in White and Neutral Paints
Now for the fun part!
If you really want to be over the moon with the results of your painting project, you’ll also want to understand which undertones are present in your chosen color formula. There are literally thousands of white and neutral paint colors available today, and the overwhelming majority of them possess an undertone that will either work for your tastes and style, or not.
Here are the undertones you’ll find in whites and neutrals, and sometimes there’s a touch of black or grey mixed in.
White paints with red and/or yellow undertones are perceived as warmer, and tend to produce a more traditional feel. White paints with cool blue, green, and violet undertones often feel more modern and architectural. But not always. Sherwin Williams lists green as an undertone of their Cool Whites line that “conveys modernity.” But Farrow & Ball indicates that grey-green undertones in their Traditional Neutrals impart a “been there forever” quality. But in a good way, I should add, as this is top-quality and very sophisticated line of paints.
Neutral whites are just that. They’re very pure whites with no hint of an undertone. Art galleries use them for this reason, so you’ll focus on their exhibit or collections and not on the walls. They’re very stark, and maybe a little clinical, but a touch of grey or black will keep it neutral without the need for sunglasses as you enter the room.
Why does all this matter? Let’s say you find a paint color in a very chic, very cool, light grey. You love it. You take the paint sample to work and stare at it when no one’s looking. You can’t wait to wallow in gallons of it back at the house. But it’s got strong blue undertones. And your new 16 x 16 foot, deep-pile, wool rug is brownish—with red undertones. I don’t know, you might love the look. But it won’t be for its harmonious qualities. A warm grey color on the walls would relate to your rug, and create greater harmony in the look of the space.
Seeing the Undertones
So how to determine the undertones? Well, it can be a little tricky—but it will become VERY obvious once you paint the room. Hmm. So go to the paint aisle in person, and stand back and look at the entire range of sample cards in the area that says something like Whites & Pale Neutrals. Now squint a little. I’m serious. You should see a small expanse of very subtle pinks, then of lilacs, then blues, and greens, and so forth. If not, the lighting is probably hideous, or the cards are arranged by theme or collection rather than by undertone. But it’s not you.
Don’t give up. If that fails, you can compare your color choices to a true white. Camera shops and electronics stores (like Best Buy) have these true white (and grayscale) cards available that are used to meter a camera. They cost around six bucks and are handy to have if you’re looking for undertones. Color wheels and decks often contain a true white, too.
Get a hold of a true white card, and the undertone will likely pop out at you in comparison. It’s like comparing a navy blue sweater to a black one when you can’t distinguish either at first.
If that doesn’t work, look for a fan deck or those multi-sample cards at the paint shop (the tall, narrow ones), and examine the range of values—the lighter tints and darker shades of a basic color. The closer you get to the bottom color, the more obvious the undertone will become to you.
Sherwin Williams has a color called Nonchalant White, which reminds me of an old pair of khakis, the kind my Dad used to kick around in on weekends. Khaki tends to have a green undertone and, sure enough, as I scanned my way down the color samples, I found an unmistakably green one named Green Vibes. There you have it.
Still wondering? There’s sometimes a description on the manufacturer’s website. Benjamin Moore has a color called Consentino Chardonnay. Well, some of us still drink Chardonnay or we have guests who do. So there’s a clue right there. And double checking the website (because you simply can’t be too sure before plunking down the money) I find that Benjamin Moore describes this color as having a hint (undertone) of golden yellow, being a light, creamy neutral etc.
NB: Proceed with a bit caution here. I sometimes think they’ve run plum out of ideas for names. Valspar has a color named Pearly Violet, which they categorize as a “Warm White.” And among Benjamin Moore’s “Best Selling Oranges” is a color they named Fennel Seed. So do a little cross-checking just to be sure—before spending any money.
What to Do with the Trim?
Now that you’ve trained your eye to detect undertones, I thought I’d pass along a few hard-earned painting tips on trim and doors, for what’s it worth to you. I’m not a huge fan of bright white trim in a small home, but if punchy contrast is your thing, then carry it throughout the house or at least throughout the same level of the house. If you don’t, you’ll create jarring transitions from one room or space to another.
I prefer a more subtle tone-on-tone look, which can be achieved by painting trim and doors in a color similar (in undertone) but lighter (in value) than the walls. Give it some thought before you run out and buy Ultra White in semi-gloss just because it’s on sale right now.
My favorite way to paint in a small house is to use the same color on the trim and the walls. Curious naysayers used to drop by while I was painting and tell me it was just too modern or just weird. Really. Any Jane Austen fans out there? I like this old 1995 production of Persuasion, in which the central hallway of the fictional Kellynch Hall is painted all one color—an ethereal pale blue. It was a favorite paint scheme of the Georgian era (late Georgian/Regency in the case of this novel). You might hate the look, but it isn’t a particularly “modern” one, except insofar as everything old is new again.
Here are a few good reasons to give an all-one-color scheme some serious consideration.
1. It’s a beautiful way to downplay ugly trim. We’ve all been cursed with this misfortune at some point.
2. It will make your space look larger, even in a darker neutral, because your eye won’t make the “mental stop” (at windows, doors) it otherwise would if the trim were a contrasting color.
3. It creates drama and interest!
4. It provides an excellent backdrop for displaying collections of artwork, traditional or modern.
If it just seems too risky, consider using the same color, but in a flat finish for the walls, and in a glossy finish for the trim. Your results will be subtly different but unified.
There’s another way to handle trim, and that is to paint it darker than the walls. Don’t cringe. It can absolutely work and with very elegant results. Here are a few advantages of using this scheme.
1. It can create the illusion, by slight color contrast, that the walls are even lighter than they are, thus making your space feel more diffuse and airy.
2. It can introduce a touch of glamour—perhaps in a little powder room with the trim and door painted a glossy off-black against neutral pink or light khaki green walls.
3. It can create flow and rhythm, producing a satisfying visual transition through a sequence of doorways in a corridor or hallway.
4. If you adore your stunning trim and want to leave it stained, try to pick up its color in the undertone of the walls.
There is historic precedent for dark trim. Victorian homes spring immediately to mind, with all their incredible mahogany trim. These, of course, were often enormous homes.
So when considering dark trim for your small home, remember that it will shift the room’s focal points (to windows, doors) and perceived scale. If you have low ceilings, your eye will register the height of the ceiling against highly contrasted dark trim. (And the same goes for highly contrasted white trim on darker walls.) So toss the possibilities here into the mix, and then decide if it’s right for your tastes and style.
Creating Flow and Cohesion in Your Small Home
There are a couple of options to give your small home a cohesive look and feel when choosing a color scheme.
1. Pick three or four whites and neutrals in the same “family,” or with similar undertones, and use them differently throughout the house. So you might use the darkest color in a powder room and the lightest in the kitchen. But you might repeat the darkest color on a single wall of a bright space that appears it might float away if you don’t give it some “grounding.” You don’t want to create a slapdash or checkerboard effect, but think of it as a way to link spaces together while injecting interest.
2. Paint all the ceilings the same color. I recommend this very strongly, and it doesn’t have to be a blinding white. It can be the lightest of your four picks, if you wish. It can also be one of the darker colors, even if it’s darker than the walls in the room.
3. Paint all your trim and doors the same color. Full disclosure here. I must admit that I can’t help violating this principle, as I LOVE painting the inside of a door (the side seen from inside a bedroom or sitting room etc.) in a gorgeous accent color from textiles or wallpaper in the room. So have a paint color scheme that holds together but have some fun while you’re at it!
White Walls in the Children’s Rooms?
What about the children’s rooms? It depends on their ages, and how soon you think they’ll outgrow floor-to-ceiling Electric Lime or Be My Valentine. Of course, it’s a deeply personal decision for you. But there are so many other ways to bring color into a child’s space. A plaid rug, a big yellow club chair, a closet interior in tangerine, mint green baseboards, or a bookcase painted violet. Patterned wallpaper on a short wall under an angled ceiling. Not to mention colorful textiles, lighting fixtures and lampshades, artwork, and wall hangings.
If you decide to stick with your home’s neutral paint scheme, and the walls of your child’s room are a warm white, a palette of corals, yellows, and warm greens might please you both. Warm white paint with a modern-rustic color palette might suit another child better. And cool white walls with a palette of blues, purples, reds or pinks has almost limitless angst-free possibilities. So once you kind of know where you’re headed with your project, get everyone together and have a “pizza and paint samples” night. Good luck pitching your best ideas to the gang, but it should be fun, just the same!
How to Make Sample Boards
You can’t walk around the house squinting at those little chips from the paint shop and get it right. Some sample chips are actually dyed to closely mimic the paint color but they’re not quite a match. You have two options here.
1. Purchase a few pint-size sample jars from your short list of choices and get a couple of inexpensive brushes. Don’t paint the samples onto the walls. Instead, cut some lightweight cardboard (not shiny) or plain heavy paper into a few large squares. The bigger the better. I use 24 x 24 inches for sampling wall colors, and 24 x 4 inches for sampling trim colors, because it’s best to look at the colors somewhat proportionally.
Next, paint TWO coats of a sample onto a board and allow it dry down. Now you can move your sample boards around the space to different walls, and look at them in relation to furnishings and whatever might be visible in an adjacent doorway. Affix your boards to the wall with non-marring masking tape, and make sure they’re flat against the walls. This way you’ll get a more complete picture, and not muck up the walls while you’re deciding.
2. Or you can try samplize.com. They’re out of Nashville, Tennessee and they paint a real paint sample onto 12 x 12 peel-and-stick paper that you can move around the room. Currently, samples run $5.95 each, and their website indicates they ship out in 24 hours. Popular Sherwin-Williams, Farrow & Ball, and Benjamin Moore samples are available. They’re partnered with ASID, and accept Amazon Pay, Apple Pay, and major credit cards. It might save you some time to go this route, and maybe some money, too, depending on how many samples you want. I’ve just ordered samples today and will update this post after they arrive.
But whatever you do, do NOT skip the step of looking very carefully at sample colors on the walls of the rooms you want to paint!
What About the Money?
Let’s talk about the money. I’ve heard so many people—well-meaning friends, designers, builders—say, “Well, if you don’t like it, you can always paint over it.” I’m not buying that one. It costs money to paint.
So gaze at your sample boards when you have some available mental space. Ponder the look and feel you want for your home. Take your time. Buy the very highest quality paint your budget allows, as superior formulations are more complex and subtle in color, and have a higher concentration of pigment. Then make your decision. And it will be money very well spent.
Almost every aspect of home improvement has become more expensive and more competitive in the last 25 years. Paint manufacturers have been forced to up their game to stay visible in the market. And high-end paint companies are more accessible via their websites. Sign up for their mailing lists to receive promotions and special offers. Don’t rush into a decision. And don’t buy something just because it’s on sale for 30% off this weekend if you’re not yet sure.
So Let’s Sum It All Up!
I hope I’ve encouraged you to consider a white or neutral interior paint scheme. I believe it suits small space living so beautifully, and here’s why.
- Works best to create flow, harmony, and interest throughout a small home—or throughout each individual level of the house.
- Provides flexibility with other design elements so you can refresh textiles and furniture, and always achieve a beautiful look and feel.
- Pares your decisions down to something manageable, not boring.
The main factors to consider are:
- The style of your home’s architecture.
- The amount and quality of light in the space.
- Your own personal tastes and style.
If there is abundant, yellow sunlight in the space, keep in mind that a cool white paint will balance this effect, and a warm white will emphasize it.
If there is heavily filtered light (through trees or structures) or a north light in the space, a cool white paint will enhance this effect, and a warm white will balance it.
A neutral white is, well, neutral, without any hint of violet, lilac, blue, pink, red, yellow, or green. It’s perfect for displaying collections of modern artwork. A touch of grey or black will keep it neutral while not too stark.
Consider how and when you use the space. The time of day you’re in the room matters. The shape and volume of the room matters. What you can see through an adjacent doorway matters, as does an expansive view to the outdoors. And don’t forget to consider how the paint will look against the color of your floors. And on different walls in the same room.
It’s crucial to determine what undertones are present in white and neutral paint colors. All whites—except the neutral whites—will have an obvious undertone once they’re on your walls.
Don’t depend on your computer or phone. Go to the paint shop and squint at the range of whites to train your eye to see the violet, pink, red, blue, green, and yellow undertones. Use a “true white” card (available at camera shops and some fan decks) if it isn’t obvious, or check the paint manufacturer’s website for a possible description.
What to do with trim? Basically, there are three options here.
- Paint the trim lighter. Personally, after many painting disasters, I prefer a subtle tone-on-tone look as opposed to stark, contrasting white trim. To achieve this look, paint the trim and doors in a color similar (in undertone) but lighter (in value) than the walls.
- Paint the trim and walls all one color, all one finish. My favorite for small homes! Alternatively, paint everything the same color but use a flat finish on the walls and a glossy finish on the trim. It produces a subtle but noticeable difference.
- Paint the trim darker. Slightly darker trim can make the walls look even lighter and more diffuse, a beautiful effect if this is what you’re after. Very dark trim can create rhythm and flow in certain spaces like a hallway, or add a touch of glamour in a small bathroom. Be judicious here. Strong contrasts in trim (whether much darker or much lighter) will shift the room’s focal points and perceived scale.
There are a few ways to give your small home a cohesive look and feel when choosing a paint scheme.
- Pick three or four whites and neutrals in the same “family,” or with similar undertones, and use them differently throughout the house (walls, trim, flooring).
- Paint all the ceilings the same color. I recommend this strongly.
- Paint all your trim and doors the same color.
Children’s rooms are a very personal decision, but if you want to stick with the neutral color scheme you’ve already used elsewhere in the house, there are many other ways to bring color and warmth into a child’s space. Textiles, artwork, lampshades, furniture, and rugs are just a few. I love using colorful paints on closet interiors, and I often find them in the clearance aisles at home stores.
Don’t paint the samples onto the walls. Instead, paint two coats of your sample onto lightweight cardboard (not shiny) or plain heavy paper cut into a few large squares. Or try samplize.com for peel-and-stick samples painted with real paint. Do NOT skip the sampling step. It’s crucial to look at colors actually on the walls, and at different times of the day (and evening).
When looking at paint colors, consider how you want your home to feel, as well. What kind of atmosphere do you want to create? Cozy? Artsy? Modern? Timeless?
Sign up for deals and promotions either online or at the paint stores. But buy the best quality paint your budget allows. It’s money well spent, as you’ll get more subtle, sophisticated results, and better coverage from less paint, to boot.
And most of all, good luck! There’s an element of risk here. And it can be a stressful decision, I know. But I hope my myriad past blunders will help guide you to some enormously beautiful results in your small home!
Now go forth and paint,
P.S. If you simply can’t drag your decorating-self kicking and screaming to the “neutral camp,” not to worry. But consider that some paint colors behave almost neutrally in practice. Have a look at Sherwin Williams Filmy Green (SW 6190), or Abalone Shell (SW 6050), which my mother used recently in her dining room—to GORGEOUS effect. It manages to add very flattering, barely-there color, without being a throwback to that hair-rasing 1990s Bella Peach that is STILL on her bedroom walls. (Love you, Mom!)