How To Choose The Right White Paint

We always get a lot of questions about white paint around here. And while it’s not rocket science, I totally get why people are apprehensive at first! There are so many different shades at the store and there’s nothing worse than painting an entire room only to have regrets and want to do it all over again.

So, today’s question is: How do you choose the perfect white paint? What rooms should we not use white in? 

Elsie: It was only recently that I discovered a lot of people don’t love white walls as much as I do. And I will say the new trends of boldly-colored walls are truly inspiring to me! Like wow! But, even still, there is nothing that feels like home to me as much as a clean, fresh palette of mostly white. So this post is all about white walls (and trim, and bookcases, and cabinets and whitewashed floors) and why they make me so happy. Feel free to disagree with me because I love hearing different opinions and I definitely consider this an opinion post not some kind of “design rules.”

Here’s what I love about white paint:

It reflects light!

So, the room photographed above is actually one of the darkest rooms in our home because the windows are shaded by a giant magnolia tree. When we first moved in, I had read a post on another blog about how it’s not best to paint dark rooms white. So I painted it grey (and hated it) and then painted it darker charcoal (and hated it too), and then finally resolved to just go with my gut and paint the whole thing white. White walls, white fireplace, whitewashed floors, white shelves. And I LOVE it. It feels bright and airy in the daytime and cozy at night when we’re catching up on Westworld.

A neutral and low contrast look is easy to pull off.

-A colorful or high contrast room takes a lot more work and talent to pull off. I feel like white and neutrals are very forgiving. It’s easy to pull together on a lower budget because you can just paint something white if you don’t like it.

It feels like home to me.

-This is different for everyone, and a total opinion, but I don’t relate with people who say all white rooms feel clinical. I think they feel great! One way to discover this for yourself is to just notice how other people’s rooms (and also restaurants, hotels or shops) make you feel. A lot of white feels comforting, fresh and clean to me. Almost like I can breathe easier.

Here’s how I choose the right white for my rooms:

-I like to stick with bright, untinted white for trim, cabinets or bookshelves. This is pretty much across the board for me. I also like to do semi-gloss for those so they are a little shinier and  brighter white, allowing them to pop a little bit.

-I know a lot of people, including Laura, use untinted white on their walls (I’ll let her talk more about that below). For me, personally, I never want my white to read as blue because I have a strong preference for warmer tones. In our previous home, I went with a color with a pretty strong warm tint and in our current home, I went with one that is closer to pure white with a subtle warm tone.

-I prefer to use ONE color of white throughout the home because it’s easier to keep track of and touch up over time. I mean, do you really want to keep track of different shades for different rooms?

The way I choose is I paint a (large) sample section of the white I am considering in the brightest AND the darkest room of our home. Then I look at it in the daylight and at night in the artificial light to make sure there are no surprises. Simple!

To answer the second question: What rooms should we not use white in? My personal opinion is that there is no wrong room to paint white. I have heard that advice, and like I said above, I even followed it. But I truly believe that the FEEL you want in your rooms should be the ultimate deciding factor. For my personal preference, I like to use wallpapers, colors or patterns in rooms where we spend less time (guest room, entryway, formal dining room) and fresh white paint in rooms where we spend more time.

I’ll pass the baton to Laura now.

Laura: Like Elsie said above, white is definitely a subjective choice based on your preferences. I always use an untinted white because I personally like my whites to be as bright as humanly possible! I do have a few shades of white decor items that aren’t a totally pure white, and I’ve become OK with that lately (any hint of off-white or cream used to drive me crazy), but I still choose a totally pure white for all my paint colors and large white pieces. I think for me, the pure white just looks and feels the freshest out of all the white choices and I never have to remember what color shade I used for which room.

It makes rooms feel larger.

-While pretty much all lighter shades of paint also do this, especially if you are repainting a small space that was originally a darker color, white that gives you the maximum amount of space. Our ’60s ranch-style home has a lot of small rooms with small windows and white definitely helps the rooms feel larger.

Is there a downside?

-I will say there can be one particular downside about having white walls at times, and that is you can have some “color bleed” from other large areas of colors in the room that project themselves onto your white walls, making them look a different color at times. For example, I have mint-colored closet doors in our bedroom and depending on how the light is hitting the space, that green can bounce off of the rest of the white room and make the white areas a bit green, too (this tends to show up more in photos than in real life, for some reason). So, just a note to be aware of that if you have white walls and then paint a green ceiling (which we had at our last office space) you’ll have a bit of a green bouncing off of the white in certain scenarios. This happens mostly with large areas of color rather than a pillow, but just something to be aware of if you think that will bother you.

We hope this was helpful for some of you! Don’t stress too much about white painting … just do the testing that I mentioned above and you’ll be good! xx – Elsie

Credits//Author: Elsie Larson and Laura Gummerman, Photography: Amber Ulmer. Photo edited with A Color Story Desktop.

  • Thank you for this insight! My husband and I just bought our first home and, after some renovation upstairs, we’re almost at the point of painting the whole interior. I love the look of white walls for all of the same reasons you shared here (fresh and bright for rooms with less natural life, light and airy, and a blank canvas for decor and furniture. I think I almost have my husband convinced that it’ll look great. Fingers crossed!

  • Hi! Thank you so much for sharing, you have a lovely home! Would you please, please share what paint colors you used for the trims and the ceiling? Is it Marshmallow too?
    Thank you so much!

  • Old post, but I thought I’d give it a shot … I noticed a lot of people asking why people don’t like white. I think maybe it’s because it tends to be associated with builders grade white maybe? My parents had a house built when I was a teenager and after it was built they never did anything to decorate or personalize it. The walls stayed a boring flat white and got scuffed and felt sort of cheap. I always vowed to do things differently.

    I just bought my first (and possibly last – I’m starting late in the game????) house and it doesn’t have as much natural light as I was hoping for. I want to brighten it up and like the idea of a fresh, clean, flexible palette. But I can’t shake the feeling of how boring and ‘cheap’ white walls seem (despite seeing and loving so many gorgeous examples online).

    Does anyone know what I’m talking about? Do you have any advice for how to avoid that ‘builders grade’ look?

    TIA ????

  • What color was used in the above picture? I’m painting a very, very large room white and would like something with maybe a pink undertone?

  • Hi Elsie! Just bought my first place and considering whether it’s worth it to have the newly painted off white everything repainted to the perfect white… These pics make it very tempting! Did you paint the ceilings the same white as the walls?

  • Hi! Great advice! Elsie, I feel like you spoke exactly my thoughts. Thank you. Can you tell me what color white you used in the living room photo above? Is it Marshmellow? I am getting ready to repaint my walls. I do like using the same color throughout. Currently I have a greige and would like to go more of a white greige. It is hard to pick for some have too much pink or blue. Thank you!

  • Hi Elsie! Love your page! My husband and I started flipping houses recently. We are working on our 5th one right now and are actually going to live in this one for a while. I’ve always used a certain color of white that has a very subtle warm tone to it for our houses. I love it but wanted to maybe try out a new one since we are going to live in this one. Just wondering if you could tell me what color you used on the interior walls of your home. Also, not sure if you painted the exterior of your home white or if it was already white. I need a good white for our brick also.
    Thank you for sharing all of your design talents with the world! You have been an inspiration for me to start putting myself out there to start doing some designing of my own. Not to mention, adoption has always been on my heart ???? Thank you so much for sharing your stories!

  • I’m closing on my first home this week fingers crossed and can’t wait to put a fresh coat of white on the walls. You mentioned semigloss for the trim, do you use a flat paint for the walls?

    • I use flat or eggshell for walls. Flat is prettier, but it needs more touch ups and scuffs more easily. Eggshell is easier if you have young children. 🙂

  • I’m trying to find the right white now! We are redoing our kitchen going with white walls and repainting cabinets (color TBD) -its a hard decision!

  • I like white walls, but I don’t recommend using the same paint color in every room. The same white paint can look very different from room to room, depending on whether the room has southern or northern exposure. Benjamin Moore’s White Dove is gorgeous in our south facing living room, but cold and dingy in our north facing dining room. We’re about to repaint the dining room for that reason. To keep track of which paint is used in which room, I simply write “living room” and “dining room” on top of the cans. No big deal.

  • My living room is white, and it gives me so many possibilities to style the room!

  • I’m such a fan of white walls. I remember listening to a podcast Elsie did on the pros of having white as a staple color in homes, and I’m so in agreement!!

  • Awesome post man keep sharing your valuable thoughts in between us.

  • This post couldn’t have come at a more perfect time! We just closed on our house and I just finished meeting with painter today! Now to choose a white to paint our very colorful new home! I love how bright and airy white walls make a home feel, everyone keeps saying are you sure you want just white?! Like I’m crazy but look how beautiful your home is! When I think of whitewalls I think I think of your home every time.

  • I want so badly to paint our walls white! I’m hesitant to do so because the previous homeowners painted the trim in the house a weird white color, and they did a terrible job. I’m worried that painting the walls the white I like would make the trim stand out and show how dingy it truly is. I found a soft grey– “white metal” –and that seems to have been a good trade off for me.

    Love hearing the advice on selecting a white paint!

    • Yeah- if they trim is dingy you should probably consider repainting it. I’m sure that isn’t what you want to hear though… sorry! xx!

  • I grew up with white walls and I think they were pretty dingy by the time we finally painted them (maybe 20 years after moving in?). I never associate them with brightness, just boredom. That said, I’m almost never satisfied with the colors I choose for the rooms in my house for more than a couple of years, so I am seriously considering white right now.

    Do you have any advice for using more than one shade of white throughout the house? What I mean is, I’m considering painting my hallway subfloor white (this is a long story). I get, like, ZERO light in the hallway. Would it make sense to do the floor one shade of white and the walls another (yes, I know you can’t really tell me since you can’t see it).

    • I have mixed whites in my kitchen. My walls are Simply White by Benjamin Moore (slightly warmer) and then I painted my cabinets in a white with a creamy, slightly green undertone. I did this to highlight the retro green-toned tiles that are the backsplash. I personally think it looks great because the cabinets are a separate entity from the walls so it gives them some extra depth in the space. For a floor, I would say it would be fine to do a different shade because they are also a separate entity with different angles than the walls. One thing to consider though is your trim and the actual difference in the tones you select. If your trim is going to be white, you probably don’t want 3 different white tones and you also probably don’t want two very strongly-toned whites competing. Maybe choose one of the whites to be untinted or. Dry neutral and the other with a stronger undertone.

  • My favorite white is Falling Snow by Behr. It is ever-so-slightly rosy, never looks blue or yellow, and looks good in all light conditions and with different light bulbs.

  • I never thought I’d like white walls until I moved into a new house and I just went ahead with white in a couple of rooms because I couldn’t make any more decisions. It felt boring at first until we went with blue trim in our kids room (inspired by elsie’s sunroom) and black doors throughout. The white gives me a little rest for my eyes where color would feel too much. It’s not right for every space, but I’m definitely more pro-white walls than I used to be.

  • I cannot get enough of an airy and bright space that only white walls can provide! I love the attention drawn to the beautiful decor! That sofa is perfect! Do you mind sharing where you got it?

  • I fall into the “untinted white” category. This is the second house I’ve used it in and it just feels right for me. My husband on the other hand feels like it may be to asylum-like lol. He eventually warms up to it once we start adding colour through artwork and furniture.

  • Elsie, I just bought a small condo and prior to closing I was researching white paint and kept reading your blog posts and visiting all the local paint stores. In the end, I went with your choice Marshmallow and I LOVE it! Its a great white! Thank you!

    • Oh yay! Glad you like it!!!! & congrats on your new home!

  • Never really thought about it reflecting light (which I know it does because I know photography!) but never thought it would brighten a room so much!

    xo Jessica
    My Style Vita

  • I’m a white wall girl as well. It took a while to discover this. I painted my bedroom a soft blush after buying my house, which was pretty, but in the end drove me nuts and I repainted. I also enjoy a slightly warmer white and use it through the whole house. My best friend on the other hand loves color on walls and doesn’t have a single white wall in her house. Definitely a personal preference!
    I agree with everything above. I love to add pops of color in my space and the white walls allow a lot of flexibility for that. One downside is that scratched walls are more noticeable for me, but it’s worth it and I don’t mind doing touch ups once a year or so. ????????????

    • Same! I love the novelty of a colored room. But after I have take photos and lived with it a while I always want to go back to neutrals/white. It’s a built in instinct I think!

  • I can’t believe people don’t like white walls – I LOVE them! This post is so helpful, seriously. I’ve bookmarked it for future reference when I get my own place (can’t wait)! 🙂

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

  • I LOVE white walls! I’m currently building up the nerve to paint my office white right now, and need to head out to find some paint samples when I get the chance – Anything to cover horrible Builders Magnolia! xx

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