Now, I am not an expert on this by any means. I am not a color theorist, not an interior designer, and I don't have tetrachromacy (though I really wish I did). I do however love color, decorating, and am frequently asked by friends to help them choose a color for their house. I also love to research colors, how the appear with different light types and temperatures, and most of the time I think the colors I've chosen have worked great in the space. My friends sometimes agree and sometimes don't, but as I learned in a recent book I read, Love the Home you Have, don't rely on friends to give you your own color preference, and don't worry if they don't like what you chose!
Now, everyone has their own way of going about picking colors. I used to be the go to the store, pick a color, buy the paint, and have a painted room two days later. I was lucky and hadn't picked out anything so obnoxious I couldn't live with it, but I've had my hits and misses. The shade of green in our bedroom is still just a tad bit too cool to work well with the warm brown of our furniture. I also spend five years in a bedroom whose lavender color went from cool blue to bright pink depending on the light, time of day, and season. The blue wasn't a problem, but the pink drove me crazy when I was unlucky enough to be home during those few hours when the afternoon sun squeezed in between my house and the next door neighbor and shone a two-foot wide swatch through the narrow window.
I have since developed a few steps I try to follow when choosing paint.
- Spontaneous Painting will NOT get you a reliable result
This one is really hard for me, because most of my projects start in a whirlwind of activity where I decide that I must, RIGHT NOW, start this awesome thing. I usually have an idea, and I want to execute it while I have the drive and energy. It works great for some things. I've cleaned the garage in one day, made a baby blanket, and put together our yearbook this way. But I've managed to tell myself that painting is a task I cannot get started on whenever the urge strikes me. Instead, I tell myself to channel that first burst of energy into picking a color.
- Don't limit yourself when selecting swatches
Paint looks different in the store than it will in your house. Therefore, you cannot really judge a paint color by the way it looks on a well-lit wall in Home Depot (or your paint store of choice). There are some judgments that you can make. First, if you hate a particular hue (I really am not a fan of pink), you can be fairly certain that you will not come to love if you surround yourself with the color. Second, you probably know how intense of a color you will be happy with. Some people love bright colors on their walls, others know they want a more subtle or neutral shade. There is no need to look at the Sunshine Yellow if you know you are looking for something off-white. Similarly, don't look at pastels if you know you want a dark maroon wall. Third, if there are restrictions of what color you can choose, like your landlord saying "neutrals only" or your child asking that her room be painted blue, there is no need to get colors that don't match that description.
Outside of that, get all the samples that meet your color choices. I usually know a general color I want to paint (a green bedroom, a gray craft room, white trim, etc.) so I only get colors that match that general idea. I like to get both warm and cool shades of each color because I have been surprised before at what worked well with my current carpet and light at my house. For my last painting project, a spare bedroom turned into a getaway for me, I had over 50 shade of gray (no pun intended) in my original choices.
- Eliminate obviously wrong shades in the space to be painted
Lay out all of your paint choices in the room you'll be painting. Put aside any that you immediately know do not work. These are the colors that clash with your furniture, look like vomit in the light, or blend so much with the carpet you cannot tell where one started and the other began (unless of course this is a look you're going for.) I find that the first elimination to be pretty easy. Don't worry about throwing away a "perfect" shade by accident: if there is something you dislike about it at first glance, it'll never grow on you.
- Eliminate until you have 3 or 4 shades left
Hopefully, your first elimination round got rid of a dozen or two. Either way now is the time to eliminate. Get rid of any color that's too dark (this one is usually pretty easy). Get rid of any color that's too cool or too warm. This one can be tough for people who do not do well with warm/cool colors. Warm colors have undertones of red, yellow, or orange. Cool colors have undertones of blue or green. Purple undertones can be either cool or warm. Some rooms, especially empty ones, can lend themselves to either warm or cool shades, but in most cases, you want to match coolness or warmness to your carpet or furniture. This will usually eliminate half of the paint chips you have left. After that it gets harder, but I usually just put away any paint that I don't like, no matter how trivial the reason (except the name of the paint, do not use the name of the paint for any reason, they don't mean anything). Keep eliminating until you have 4 shades. Then, unless you are really going for bold, eliminate the darkest one. I will often keep the darkest shade if I'm painting the room more than one color, but for a single color, eliminate it.
- Look at your chosen swatches in different lights, on different walls, and at different times of day
I usually throw the swatches on white paper to eliminate the interference of the existing color (this is not always needed if the existing walls are a neutral white). I use sticky tack to put them on the walls (not right next to each other), and every time I pass by the room, I look at them. It takes me at least two days, and usually a week, but by then I have usually found a color I liked.
If you have a hard time visualizing the color from a small paint swatch. If that's the case, buy sample paint colors of your choice and paint a 2' x 2' (or bigger) swatch on your wall. don't put the samples right next to each other and make sure you put them in a spot that has a lot of light changes. Alternatively, paint boards, so that you can move the paint swatch around the room. Remember to put something white in the back.
- Choose your paint
Hopefully, a color or two has presented itself. If i can't decide between two colors, and they work together, I will sometimes use both, especially on different walls. If you really can't choose, flip a coin. After all, paint is not a permanent decision you have to live with for the rest of your life.