Seeing Colors: Tips for Choosing New Paint

When interior designers choose paint colors, they think about the tones, textures and scale of everything in the room: walls, ceiling, floor, trim, countertops, appliances and furnishings. They also consider light sources, both natural and artificial, because light has a huge effect on a color's appearance.

You can choose colors simply by personal taste, the way you might enjoy a glass of wine without knowing how much it costs or what kind of grapes were used. But when it comes to design decisions, understanding what factors affect the appearance of color can help you avoid disappointment and costly do-overs.

Light and color
The biggest mistake you can make is to select a color patch at the store and expect that the color will look the same on the walls of your home. When choosing paint, you need to consider the room's lighting - both natural and artificial. Light from windows, lamps and the fireplace and even the glow from a TV all influence your perception of color.

Direct sunlight contains the full rainbow of color, yet when you look at a painted wall, you see only a portion of the light spectrum. Pigments in the coating absorb certain segments of the light and reflect others, determining which colors your eyes detect. And because artificial lights contain only parts of the color spectrum, they create different effects to the eye.

To help shoppers appreciate the impact of lighting differences, some stores offer displays with a variety of light sources. Viewing a paint sample in incandescent, fluorescent and full-spectrum lighting can help you to envision how your room's lighting will affect the color.

Paint manufacturers offer other tools and samples to help make it easier to envision your results. One of my favorites is the 11 x 11-in. Big Swatch ($2.49) available at my local paint dealer. These swatches are coated with real paint, not ink, so when you tape the sample to a sunlit wall, move it to a shaded wall and position it near the drapes in the glow of your favorite reading lamp, you can begin to imagine how your paint job will look.

Devine Color was first to offer trial sizes so customers could test colors before investing in a gallon of paint. Benjamin Moore & Co. offers 2-ounce jars of paint in its most popular colors ($5). Home Depot will mix 8-ounce samples ($6.95) of Behr paint in any color so you can paint a small patch on various surfaces before you invest in a gallon. And Sherwin-Williams paint stores will custom-color a full "Color To Go" quart for just $5.

Tip: If you buy a small paint sample, apply it to a portable surface rather than directly to the wall so you can move it around the room.

Beyond their important functional characteristics, the texture and sheen of painted surfaces will also affect light reflection and play a leading role in a color's appearance. For example, semigloss paint, which is often used for trim moldings because it creates a highly washable surface, shines to nicely frame larger matte finishes on the walls.

By comparison, flat-finish paint downplays imperfections and creates a subtle, glare-free light show when used on an entire wall. If you paint a wall with semigloss white, it will appear brighter than if you applied the same white in a flat finish. Conversely, a flat black surface appears darker than a high-gloss black finish.

How we perceive a color also depends on nearby colors. For instance, if you paint walls a deep red and the trim white, the moldings might look pink. The red wall color will have a very different look if it's framed in rich wood tones rather than white. So when you look at a color sample in the room to be painted, try to visually block out the current wall color and focus only on the colors that will be adjacent to it in the final scheme.

Valspar and Sherwin-Williams offer color swatches with cutouts in the center so you can place the card over another color and see them in context.

When you're considering a big color change, plan to apply at least two coats of paint, and use a tinted primer for the first coat. Primer-sealers such as Masterchem's Kilz are formulated to block underlying colors from flashing through. They also cost less than premium finish paint. If the new color is going to be much darker or very different from the original, ask the store to tint the primer as close as possible to the finish color.

Citing the world's growing eco-emphasis, color gurus predicted that warm earth tones would be popular. If you visit any paint department, you'll see that the forecasters got it right. Today's popular colors are all about the earth. More specifically, they evoke earth, wind, fire, water, minerals and gemstones.

Despite the trends, your personal color choices should be just that: personal. For a snapshot of your favorites, look in your clothes closet. Better yet, find a decorative object that you absolutely love: a piece of art, a rug, an accent pillow or your favorite tie. Out of that item, choose three hues from which to build your palette. Whether your color scheme is inspired by a cloth napkin at a friend's dinner party or a paint brochure, stores with a computerized color-mixing system can match any sample, so you can get your favorite brand of paint in your chosen color.

A color wheel illustrates how blending the primary colors (red, blue and yellow) and adding white, black or gray results in infinite hues, tints and shades. This basic art school tool can help you select the ideal color schemes for any project (see "Colorful Language," below).

Do try this at home: With a color fan deck ($10 to $15 at most paint retailers), you can compare the nuances of hundreds of paint choices in your own surroundings. In addition, this tool helps you to identify the color of fixed objects such as you when shopping for fabrics or accessories.

Designing décor
Before you take the plunge, you can paint a virtual room at the store or on a paint company's Web site (such as Olympic and Glidden). From a gallery of photos, simply choose a room that most resembles the space in your home and "pour" color onto the walls, trim and ceiling. Experiment with how color changes the look of the room. This exercise is free and a lot neater than having your 12-year-old experiment with real paint in his or her bedroom.

Home centers and paint stores offer brochures that recommend complete color palettes so you can be confident that your base color and trim won't clash.

For the ultimate design experience, buy the CD or software that enables you to load a photo of your actual room. Then you can play with paint colors in the context of your own space by identifying an area with a series of mouse clicks and adjusting its color. I tried the Valspar Virtual Painter Interior Color Design Software ($6). Benjamin Moore offers a similar CD-based program. Behr lets you download a program directly from its Web site ($5).

Accounting for taste
If you need to tailor your color choices to the preferences of another person, you know that understanding the science of color is only half the battle. We asked Behr Color Trends Specialist Quinn Larson for some pointers on how couples can keep peace while planning a decorating project.

"Involve your partner," Larson says. "Draft several style scenarios with supporting color schemes. Explain your design goals and ask which one he or she favors. Be flexible and willing to shuffle color schemes. If you just cannot agree, try dividing up spaces. Allow your partner to design the rooms in which he or she spends the most time. Trade the kitchen for the office or the living room for the basement or garage."

Larson also shared advice on preparing one's home for sale in the current housing market. "Prospective buyers want to visualize themselves and their belongings in a space," she says. "Because color and styles are subject to taste, it's best to keep your interior as neutral as possible. Expand small spaces with lighter colors, and give the room a fresh appearance by painting trim a clean, bright white."

All of this information can help you understand what goes into decorating with color, but making choices is like that hypothetical glass of wine: It's about what you like. Here's hoping you see your glass - and bucket - half full.

Colorful Language
Though color appreciation is subjective, technical principles do apply. To help you verbalize your color preferences and goals, here are some important color terms.
Hue: another name for color
Warm hues: reds, yellows and oranges, which tend to shrink spaces and make them feel cozy
Cool hues: blues, greens and violets, which visually expand the space by making the surfaces feel farther away
Chroma: a color's intensity or brightness (brilliant colors are like pungent spices and work well as accents, whereas a subdued base color has a calming effect)
Value: the lightness (tint) or darkness (shading) of a color
Monochromatic color scheme: a combination of several values of one hue
Analogous color scheme: two or three related colors that are near each other on the color wheel
Complementary scheme: a combination of colors that are opposite (or nearly opposite) each other on the color wheel