14 Tips for Selecting Interior Paint Colors

UPDATE: A self-described “grandma” asks for YOUR paint ideas. See her comment at the end of this article and add your paint-genius thoughts!

Maybe it’s time to spin the color wheel again and energize your too-neutral interiors. Before you start adding more swatches to your paint chip collection, note this expert advice. Oregon Home asked interior designers, color consultants and professional painters to draw on their work with clients to give you a formula for successfully picking colors that work.  

[1. Don’t let your burgeoning paint chip stash become your sole inspiration station.]

It’s okay to genuflect before the Paint Chip Shrine that’s sprawled across half of the bulletin board in your home office, but it’s good to look for other sources of color ideas, too. “I tell my clients to go out and look at nature for color inspiration,” says decorative painter Ted Swift, who was educated as a landscape architect before launching Ted Swift Studios in Portland nearly 30 years ago. “You’ll find great colors in trees, leaves, water and stones.”

Karen Linder, the owner of Karen Linder Interior Designs in Tigard, Ore., says you can find inspiration for that perfect color just about anywhere. “You may find it in a piece of clothing in your closet—or as you walk through the produce section at your local grocery store,” says the designer, who has served as the resident designer at both the Sherwin-Williams and Powell Paint in Tigard, giving complimentary consultations on Designer Saturdays to customers who are having a difficult time choosing paint colors.


[2. Select wall colors that make you feel good.]

If you feel blah in your steel-gray living room, but energized in your Butterscotch kitchen, listen to what your home’s paint colors may be saying to your inner emotions. “Colors can have a profound effect on you,” says artist and licensed paint contractor Mary McMurray, the owner of Art First: Colors for Architecture in Portland, who loves to work with homeowners who live in historic houses.

In many public spaces, the walls have been painted with your mood in mind. “It’s well documented that certain colors create certain emotions,” says Jodi Kunzler, the owner of J Interior Designs based in Salem, Ore., who also has a BFA in painting from Brigham Young University. “Fast-food restaurant chains often use yellows and reds because they stimulate your appetite but keep you from lingering too long. And there’s a reason why TV show guests wait in a Green Room; greens relax you. Ask yourself how you want to feel in a room that you’re going to be repainting.”

[3. Memo to scheme stealers: You can swipe the perfect pink from the walls of your favorite shoe shop, but it won’t necessarily look the same on the walls in your foyer.]

You love, love, love the hue on the walls in your favorite shoe salon and—thanks to the stack of color chips you smuggled into the dressing room in your purse—you match it to a Fresh Salmon that looks like The Perfect Pink. Too bad once the color goes up on the walls in your 25-square-foot nearly-free-of-natural-light foyer, the space bears little resemblance to the 2,500-square-foot salon with its floor-to-ceiling windows.

The discrepency boils down to space and light, say interior designers, parameters that you must keep in mind as you assess each color option. Plus, says Linder, some national chain stores have paint colors mixed exclusively for them. Try as you might, you can’t exactly replicate them.

[4. If you’re outfitting a new home, don’t paint a room’s walls and then shop for furniture, rugs and artwork.]

Shop for the major elements of a room and then find a paint color that ties everything in together. “It’s a lot easier to find a paint color that will work with your furniture and artwork than the other way around,” says Kunzler, noting that there are hundreds of available paint colors.

[5. Don’t pair your latest-greatest wall color (think chocolate brown or citron) with primer-white trim and a blindingly white ceiling.]

A surefire way of making an interior designer wince is to extol the alleged virtues of a plain white or cream ceiling. “Ceilings definitely should have more tone than just white,” says McMurray. “You can either use a lighter shade of the wall color or it’s also fun to use a completely different shade on the ceiling. It adds another element to a room.”

Swift compares white ceilings to being in the middle of a snowstorm. “A white ceiling is just an eyesore,” he says. To create a space that flows together seamlessly, he advises his clients to put color on their walls and on the ceiling.

[6. Don’t jump on a color bandwagon just because everyone else is.]

“My favorite color to hate right now is red in a dining room,” says Linder. “It can be beautiful, but it’s overused in so many applications. Also, red is difficult to apply correctly. I see lots of botched applications of red paint.” It’s better to venture into newer, fresher choices that you haven’t seen in every Craftsman on the block.

[7. Don’t view decorating shows on TV as reality.]

Do you put your family on automatic pilot until a home makeover show’s big Reveal? While HGTV can give you some great paint color ideas for your own home, don’t get frustrated if your own results don’t look as flawless. “They make it look too easy, and they jam it all into half an hour,” says Swift. “What really cracks me up is to watch the HGTV designers paint a section of wall while dressed in their beautiful street clothes and high heels.”

Linder calls many of the home design TV shows a double-edged sword. “A lot of them give you good ideas,” she says, “but they don’t show you the whole process. All you see is the end result.”

[8. If you have to use the color of the moment, put it in accent pieces rather than on the walls.]

Michelle Obama Violet. Barbie Pink. Shimmery Coral. Bungalow Brown. Color pros say that you have to understand the difference between new and fresh and . . . overwhelming and trendy. “A color may be appealing to you on a color sample, but when you put it on the wall, it may vibrate too intensely,” says McMurray. Designer Kunzler learned this firsthand after she painted her kitchen walls a deep red. “At first I loved it—it looked great with the warm oak cabinets!—but the more time I spent in that red kitchen, the more I felt agitated,” she says.

She ended up repainting the walls a neutral shade, painting her cabinets white, putting in a white subway tile backsplash and honed black granite countertops—and limiting her beloved red to a large glass canister of pomegranates on the countertop. “I still notice my beloved red, but now I love to be in that space,” she says.

[9. Don’t make a final paint color decision on a Post-it-Note-sized paint swatch.]

McMurray advises her clients to buy quarts of their top three colors, paint them on one-foot-by-two-foot pieces of white cardboard and then tape them to the walls in several areas in the room. “That way, you can move them around and see how they look in different light,” she says.

Another technique is to paint one large section on the wall from corner to corner, says Swift. “And let it dry before you make a final selection,” he says.

If you’re using a paint strip as your guiding force, don’t forget to look at the whole strip to get a better sense of underlying colors (too much blue or green, for example) that may crop up in your paint job.

[10. Don’t turn your home’s interiors into a patchwork quilt of colors.]

Colors in surrounding rooms should all flow together and connect seamlessly. Just as the pieces of an outfit need to work harmoniously, so should your interior walls colors. Wall colors in different rooms need to complement each other, especially if you can see the kitchen from the living room or from the powder room. “Don’t just look at one room in isolation,” says Swift. “Put it in the context of other surrounding rooms. You have to consider the flow and connection to one another.”

Linder says this is especially important—and sometimes a challenge to pull off—in homes with an open floorplan. “Paint a dividing or partial wall a different color to break up the space,” she says. “Ideally, in a large room, you should use two or three colors that flow together.”

[11. Buy a cute pair of shoes on impulse, but work methodically when you choose paint colors for your home.]

Look through magazines and clip ideas, note colors you like when you visit other people’s homes, stalk your favorite paint store for handfuls of paint strips, purchase sample quarts and apply them, and mull over your results in different lights and times of day. And once you’ve made the Big Decision, do your prep work correctly for the best results. “Don’t just walk in and slap on your paint,” says Swift.

[12. Hire an expert to help you decide on everything from colors to the kind of paint to purchase.]

“A lot of people are fearful of selecting wall colors,” says Linder. “It can be an overwhelming experience because there are so many choices.”

An expert in interior design or color consulting can break down your decisions into simple steps and guide you through the process. “Just remember that, ultimately, you’re in charge,” says McMurray. “Whatever feels good to you is what you should do.”

[13. Don’t let a paint brand limit your palette.]

A “boutique” paint line that does a fabulous job of marketing itself doesn’t necessarily have the highest-quality paint. “It does matter what paint brand you use,” says Linder, who prefers Pratt & Lambert, Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams. She generally avoids Big Box store brands, partly because they don’t have the same expertise as a specialty store that works exclusively with paint.

[14. If your palette leans toward the dark side, opt for colors with oomph.]

“A lot of times in homes, I see colors that are just too dark,” says McMurray. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use rich colors, though. You just don’t want to end up with wall colors that look muddy. They take all the life out of a room.”