Color Part I:

The abundance of color

Erica Fay

Sampling the dizzying choices of paint colors.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of three articles on Color, discussing how to choose it and how to use it. 

There are a lucky few who can get up on Saturday morning, decide to paint the dining room, go to the store, spend five minutes picking a color from the thousands offered, go home with their custom mixed purchase, set up, paint and live happily with the results.

For everyone else, there can be a sudden faltering upon seeing all those well-ordered color strips happily nestled in their slots, each one hoping you will choose them above all others. Not only are there so many, but each strip has all those variations! Some brands offer single color cards – nice of them, but still, so very many choices. Of course you would immediately know that the bottom ones are just way too dark, but what about the lightest one     

Being creative with color. Why limit yourself to just one? Photo: Erica Fay


Let me offer some tips for the task of selecting paint colors for walls. These suggestions are aimed at repainting a room that you have already put together. In a later article, I’ll reveal some guides to choosing colors when you are assembling all the elements of a room. In that case, you may have a color in mind, but won’t select the exact shade until other items with fewer choices like fabrics, rugs and wood finishes have been chosen. Then the paint color choice can be narrowed to fit with your samples.

So, when repainting a room that is already furnished, you first ask questions. Do you want the walls to make a statement with color? Do you want the color on the walls to repeat or augment your overall scheme or some individual item in the room? Or, do you want the wall color to simply support other things in the room? What do you want to grab the most visual attention? This is part of establishing what I refer to as visual hierarchy.

How we actually see color is about the science of light, the eye, and how the human brain processes visual stimulation. But that knowledge isn’t helpful when you are nervous about which blue to choose. After all, even if you are doing the painting yourself, it’s expensive and it takes time.

Let’s say you’ve brought home several sample strips or chips from the store. You sit at your kitchen table and compare what you have, folding over the strips to isolate each color and considering its merits. You eliminate two of the strips; they seem greenish in this light – not what you want. You get scissors and cut the little rectangles apart sensing that this will get you to your goal. You slide several to the side – the reject pile – leaving about six remaining. You take them into the living room where the paint will be used. You put the candidates on the sofa to see how each looks, then put them down on the rug, then hold them up to the drapes. Some look better with one and some with another. Why isn’t this easy? Why do they make so many colors the same, but different? You can’t decide and it’s really irritating. Maybe you’ll just toss them in the air and see what lands face up closest to your feet.

In design school (it’s been a while, and I hope this is no longer true) we learned nothing at all about selecting specific paint colors. By making plenty of mistakes on my own walls, I developed good, reliable methods for choosing. This has made it easier for me to work with others and to teach, saving a lot of unnecessary pain.

A guide to matchmaking with color

Don’t rely on the tiny samples on the strips or the color cards for your final choice; they are just an introduction. Once a color is used over a larger area, the components in the specific mix of pigments become more apparent. If there is a lot of white in a formula, the color will seem to lighten as it spreads out. There may actually be a touch of black that modifies the clarity of the color making it more sophisticated, more muted.

Do use at least two larger samples of the colors you are considering. Many paint brands offer these – some on up to 8 ½ x 11-inch sheets. Ask the dealer or look at the brand’s website. There are some lines that offer small containers of colors already mixed or you can purchase quarts of your choices. I order the sample sheets for clients as part of color consultations.

The use of large color samples provides a more accurate representation and helps you feel more confident in your choices. Photo: Erica Fay


Don’t paint your sample colors in patches directly on your walls. Not only have I erred by doing this, but also have clients who did the same. Paint has thickness and you set yourself up for added prep work smoothing the edges, even if it’s the very shade you choose. If you paint an entire surface, that’s another matter.

Do use poster board which is cheap and can be cut into halves or quarters if you are painting your own samples. You can tape these samples right up on the wall. Be sure to use a “painter’s tape” (in blue or green) so the adhesive doesn’t make a mess when you remove the samples. 

Don’t judge your colors by looking down upon those that will be seen vertically – on a wall.

Do post your samples on both your lightest wall — usually across from a window — with another on your darkest wall — next to a window where no direct daylight shines.

Do view your choices in all the lights in which the room will be seen. In both daylight and with your various electric lighting schemes at night.

Don’t try more than one color at a time unless you have them far enough apart to avoid confusing your brain, which would rather compare than choose.

Don’t over-match colors. Twice I have had clients choose a color from within a print in a fabric used in the room. In one of those, it was a brilliant blue that in the fabric looked like a jewel. She picked a paint color that was perfectly matched to that little portion of the print. When that paint was applied to the walls, the room was completely overwhelmed by it. The attractive spot of blue in her draperies was no longer noticeable. I had the room repainted using the paint she had used, but I diluted it by adding one quart of her strong color to a gallon of white. The result allowed the walls to relate to what she had been drawn to, without drowning the room. I used some of the intense blue that remained on a side table for an accent.

Do try using modifications of a color in the same room. This works well with upper and lower sections divided by a chair rail or wainscoting. As a rule the darker color is used below – because it won’t be the entire wall, you can use something bolder. I usually cut the darker color (by half or a quarter) with white for the area above. You can also choose a lighter formula from the color strips.

Adding a portion of your chosen color to a white base will give you a richly muted tone of the same favored color. Photo: Erica Fay


Before you commit to a color, you might allow yourself to experience color in other environments and notice your responses. Trendy restaurants, museums and boutique hotels will put you in a surrounding that is not your ordinary style of decorating. Pictures in magazines or on Pinterest show you a color in use, but you can’t really experience it as you would if you were surrounded by it. We build our own design and color sense by experiencing and noticing.

I loved hearing about a couple who were invited to see their neighbor’s freshly painted dining room. They were awed to enter a room painted in a brilliant Chinese red. The accessories had an Asian feel making it all work together. The couple admired the effect so much that they decided to repaint the walls of their own dining room. They agreed that what they owned would fit well in a tropical interior, and they talked of the bright colors they saw in the Caribbean. But when it came time to buy the paint, they turned tail and ran for beige. Oh, well. A formal dining room and powder rooms are two places where being adventurous can be fun without being overwhelming. Try a little color adventure of your own!

Photo: Erica Fay


In the next article in this series, I’ll write about combining colors. In the third, I’ll explore using color as an accent.

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