Selecting wall colors for your home can be quite an exhausting experience. Sure, painting itself can be exhausting, but just selecting the perfect color can be pretty mentally draining, not to mention how physically tiring it can be repainting a space because you hate the first color you selected. Not that I’m speaking from experience… (I totally am, and you can read a bit about it here!) You might think that selecting white as the color for your walls is an easy option, but then you step into the paint section and see just how many shades of white there are! Unless you are planning on buying untinted paint, which I have done and enjoy in certain applications in my home, there are a lot of factors to consider that will affect the appearances of “white” paint in your home.
As much of a pain as it might be, I always recommend buying a sample paint can and painting a large area in your space before committing to a color. I usually skip this step and usually wish that I hadn’t! The impact of color is much more dramatic when painted in a large area, as opposed to just looking at a taped-up paint sample. Painting a large area of your wall will also help you as you consider the four major factors that affect how you might feel about color in your home: The brightness of your home, the style of your home, adjacent colors in your space, and your window orientation. Now let’s talk more about each consideration, and maybe you’ll see why it’s so important to paint a sample area.
CONSIDERATION #1: The Brightness of Your Home
That’s my dining room above, and where I spend much of my life enjoying meals with family and friends, crafting the day away on the table top, and hosting raucous game nights. Even though it’s the southern exposure of our home (more on that later) and has the biggest window surface area as well, this space and the kitchen that’s open to it has always been a dimly lit area in our home. Maybe it’s the heavy tree cover outside or the wide eaves on our house, but I just couldn’t take the darkness of our former dark gray walls and decided to paint them white.
Because this room gets even light, and because of the bold yellow curtains (shown below), I decided to try to find the most neutral shade of bright white at the hardware store. I wanted something just a touch darker than pure white, so I used the stark white of the back of a paint sample as my base and compared every paint swatch to it. I created piles of “too blue,” “too pink,” “too yellow,” etc. and ended up with just a couple of whites that truly looked neutral. Then I brought them home and taped them up on my walls to see the color alongside my curtains and in various lighting environments. At first I thought I had selected a really bright white, but seeing it next to my untinted white trim, cabinet, and chairs, it really looks darker than I had imagined in the recesses of the room. I’m really glad I chose a very light, neutral white for this space!
Less contrast in the dining space creates a soft background for limited color, while the adjacent kitchen has heavily contrasting cabinetry that makes a bold statement in a bright white kitchen. / photo by Mandi Johnson from Kitchen Renovation Reveal
The difference made by just some white paint was remarkable! It is so much brighter in there, making that whole side of my house feel much cheerier. But just because painting this room a bright white worked wonders for my home, doesn’t mean it will for your space. Why did it work for me? Well, for starters I have a large sliding patio door here to allow plenty of natural light into the area. The space is pretty open (as far as small ranches go), and there is some contrast in the room with our terrazzo floors, but not the stark contrast you’d get with really dark floors.
If my space had access to even more natural light from more windows or even a skylight, I probably would’ve selected a shade of white slightly darker than this. I’m glad I chose something as light as I did, though, because as you can see above, it isn’t as bright as I thought it would be when initially grabbing the paint sample.
I wouldn’t recommend using such a bright white in a room with just one tiny window that doesn’t give much light. Especially if the room is small. If your room is dimly lit because of these reasons, it’s best to just embrace its coziness and perhaps use a light neutral (like a light gray) for a fresh look, or maybe choose a more cozy or dramatic color for something different.
High contrast black elements create a bold impact on a white background. The use of neutrals and natural wood tones combine with use of black and white to create a Scandinavian-inspired look. / image by Janae Hardy for HFHS Dining Room Before and After
CONSIDERATION #2: The Style of Your Home
If you haven’t yet, it might be a good idea to determine the style you’re going for in your home. White can work with any style, but what you put alongside it will determine its cohesiveness with your space. If you have a more modern style, using white alongside darker pieces will add bold contrast that lends itself nicely to a modern vibe. This contrast-y look also works with Scandinavian style, which easily encompasses a variety of design genres, like rustic, minimalist, and eclectic to name a few. If you like more feminine, romantic looks, then using shades that are more similar to each other creates a soft look. Bohemian spaces usually don’t utilize stark white walls, but a space that mixes modern and bohemian styles together might. It all depends on the mix you want. White doesn’t need to look stark, but it is okay if it does. Just determine what your goal is for your space—bold or soft, and consider the contrast in elements and how it impacts the total look.
The tint of white you select will also lend itself to your home’s style. A yellowy white has an antique look to it, working well with vintage-inspired spaces, while bluer grays tend to feel more contemporary. Both ends of the color spectrum can work, but keep in mind that the tint of white you select will be greatly affected by the rest of the colors in the space. Let’s talk about that next!
A light taupe looks almost white alongside a bold purple ceiling. The colors together provide a more subtle contrast and a perfect background for a fun, bohemian space. / photo by Janae Hardy for At Home With Janae Hardy
CONSIDERATION #3: Adjacent Colors in Your Space
The other colors in your room will also determine how white walls appear. It can change their appearance of stark brightness, gentle softness, or even the hue of white. Take a look at Josef Alber’s color theory, and it will blow your mind! A neutral gray color will appear yellow when in a purple environment and visa versa. So keep in mind, if you have warmer colors in your space, a neutral white might seem cooler by contrast. Also notice how environment affects the value of a color. If there are lots of dark colors in your space, white will seem very bright in contrast. Maybe you would choose to select a darker white to counteract this.
The same neutral gray appears completely different when surrounded by opposite colors. Likewise, the value (aka brightness of darkness) of a color is perceived differently depending on its surrounding colors./ image via Josef Alber’s Interaction of Color
What elements will most impact the appearance of white on your walls? Think about window dressings, flooring, large furniture, paneling, moulding, accent walls—those sorts of things. I have yellow curtains in my dining room, so I steered clear from using any cool grays, lest my walls appear purple by contrast. (I’m not particularly fond of purple walls in my dining room, or else that might’ve been a good strategy!) If you’re not quite sure about how the colors you’re considering for your space will interact with each other, there’s a fun and extremely educational app version of Josef Alber’s classic book—check it out here.
Adjacent colors can also affect the appearance of white in particular, because the light that shines onto a color (like curtains or an accent wall) can reflect color onto white. Check out the room below. A blue accent wall can reflect blue onto the wall perpendicular to it.
These white walls appear cool because of reflected light, and maybe also because of a northern exposure, as mentioned later in this post. / image by Katie Costik from At Home With Katie Costik in Los Angeles, California
Keep in mind that everything you put on a white wall will “pop”, so while you might be using less color on the walls, the accessories you choose have the ability to make your space feel super colorful by contrast. One way to tone this down is by using some natural wood elements, like the paneling in the room below. It’s a great anchor for a clean and colorful space.
CONSIDERATION #4: Window Orientation & Lighting
Something you probably already know by now is that the color of light from a lamp will greatly affect the appearance of a white wall in your home. The same color of white will look blue/green under fluorescent lighting and it will look red/yellow under incandescent lighting. With modern lighting technology, though, you can buy fluorescent lights in various color temperatures, so this is something that can be controlled when using artificial lighting.
Just as a lightbulb affects the appearance of color, so does the color of natural light coming through the windows. Yes, it’s true, the very same sun has the capability to shine different hues all throughout the day, and even at the same time. So how does the directional source of natural daylight affect color in your home? Eastern facing windows will receive intense warm, yellowish light in the morning, and cool, indirect light in the evening. Western facing windows will be dim in the mornings, but receive intense reddish light in the evening as the sun sets. Once the sun has crossed the horizon, the light in all directions will appear bluish until it disappears completely. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, a window facing south will receive the most light during the day, but the color and intensity varies through the day. A window facing north will typically shine cooler light than a southern exposure and benefits from indirect lighting, making it the most consistent in intensity and color throughout the day.
A white with a slight pink tint to it will look especially pink in a western facing room. It might look more lavender in a northern room, and will appear most true to its color, but vary slightly throughout the day in a southern facing room. / image by Morgan Trinker for At Home With Morgan Trinker in Birmingham, Alabama
Paying close attention to your window’s directional exposure will help you decide on a tint for that space. If you don’t want a cool gray for a northern facing room, then keep in mind that even a neutral color will appear blueish all throughout the day. You might want to select a warmer white to counteract that. If your room is western facing, it will receive warmer light through most of the day, so you might select a cooler color for a more neutral effect.
The next time you ask someone what color they chose for their room because you’d like the same look for your space, remember that the color might look quite different once you get it on your walls. It’s best to start from scratch, consider the factors I mentioned above, bring home samples, and definitely paint a small area before committing. But don’t be afraid or overwhelmed! Remember, it’s just paint, after all. –Mandi
Credits // Author : Mandi Johnson. Images noted individually.