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How to Choose the Right Colors


By Barbara Jacobs

More items for Color + Design

That’s the question, and it applies to both interiors and exteriors of homes and other buildings.

What’s the answer?

Well, it’s suspenseful. I remember reading and enjoying an article in the New York Times a while ago written by one of my favorite contemporary fiction authors, Lee Child. Child is a master in creating compelling characters and situations with a very particular flavor in the “action” genre. If you’re looking for entertaining, fast-paced reading, I recommend his work.

His article, “A Simple Way to Create Suspense,” is essentially about his own process in creating suspense in his writing.

How can that idea possibly translate to selecting the best colors for our homes or workplaces?

Ask Questions

Well, it’s a process. First, we must ask ourselves the right questions.

color decisions
© iStock.com / warrengoldswain

By beginning each project by defining a sense of purpose and goal, you are well on your way to color selection.

Since just about every question you can ask about color will have some kind of answer—and ideally help direct you to a useful solution—try starting with these:

  • Where is the place?
  • Is your subject the interior or the exterior?
  • What do you, or others using the space, want to do there?
  • Do you have specific goals, or is the need a more general one?

By beginning each project by defining a sense of purpose and goal, you are well on your way to color selection.

Follow Guidelines 

There are also important guidelines that will help direct you to the best combinations of colors for your purposes. Qualities of space and usage, like wall size, texture, lighting (natural and artificial), and surroundings in general are a few of these considerations.

A client’s personal preferences play a role as well, but typically are just part of the bigger picture.

pink house
Courtesy of the author

What if the client insists on a specific color? In this case, it was pink.

Color trends, while interesting, often inspiring, and fun to follow, really have little to do with arriving at the most effective and supportive color palettes for a specific building or space.

The excitement and “suspense” is in the process and the evolution of results. Testing accent colors, for example, will lead you to transform a simple, earthy color into an interesting environment. Using colors that are just a little too bright can make a space uncomfortable and stressful instead of enjoyable and nourishing. 

Helpful Tips

Here are a few additional things to consider when making a color decision.

  • Overestimate the impact: Use your favorite super-bright colors as accents in furnishings, accessories, or smaller wall surfaces.
  • Textured wall and ceilings tend to “absorb” more color, while smoother surfaces reflect more color.
  • Lighting will affect your results, whether inside or outside. So be sure to see what colors look like in different times of day and evening.
  • Use less vivid colors for your larger surfaces.
  • Consider using the same color on walls and ceilings to minimize distraction, especially in smaller spaces.
  • Remember that your floors are large surface areas so consider floor color, including carpeting, when you’re thinking of wall colors.
  • For exterior projects, considering the roofing color.
  • Balancing warm and cool colors, and bright and soft colors, is important to create a comfortable and interesting space.

Testing and Completion

One of the most important parts of the process is testing. Use a roller and be sure to apply two coats over primer to get the most accurate color representation, just as you would do when painting your walls.

Interior paint colors
Courtesy of the author

Lighting will affect your results, whether inside or outside. So be sure to see what colors look like in different times of day and evening.

Remember: a one-inch color chip is never a reliable indication of a whole room or even one wall!

Then, enjoy the process! Please share your favorite color combinations in the comments, with a note about the goal and the use.

Editor’s note: A version of Barbara’s blog post first appeared on her website, integralcolor.com.


Barbara Jacobs

Can we talk?...about color, that is. That’s our objective with this ongoing discussion—a Color Exchange, if you will—in this Durability + Design blog. Whether we know it or not, color affects all of us, in many ways. So let’s engage in this exchange and explore this mysterious and exciting subject of color, its effects, and its applications.



Tagged categories: Aesthetics; Architecture; Artists; Building design; Coating selection; Color; Color forecasts; Color guides; Color matching; Color selection; Color trends; Consultants; Decorative painting; Design; Home builders; Interior design; Painters; Painting Contractor; Remodeling; Residential Construction; Residential contractors; Texture

Comment from Jesse Melton, (9/13/2016, 7:27 AM)

Don't forget the ceiling! With large ceilings architectural elements or suspended art can make for a nice ceiling by themselves. As the ceiling gets smaller it becomes more important in the way a room presents, even if people don't realize its effects. A white ceiling has become embedded in our minds as one of the "ugly" parts of modern life that we think we don't see, but it's actually stealing the show. Like power lines. Whether it's a window, something hanging on the wall or a person that white ceiling forces your mind to see the intersection of the wall and the ceiling and it takes away from the intended focus of the space.

Comment from Doreen Le May Madden, (10/5/2016, 3:48 PM)

The light sources in a space will affect colors. Warm light tones will "grey out" cool colors and whiter light sources can do the same with warm palettes in a room. Light sources with Kelvin temperatures in a mid range (2800-3100) will highlight both warm and cool colors best. Also, higher CRI levels in the 90s is the very best. For most art lighting, I use light sources that have these specifications, to make sure to highlight all details and colors. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule when doing custom lighting design.

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