7 Simple Rules for Picking Wall Paint Colors

Cans of paint

Overwhelmed by the number of wall paint colors to choose from? Here’s why you shouldn’t be.

Back in the day (I can’t believe I say this now), I rented my first apartment and was so excited to decorate… until I made my way to the paint swatch aisle and broke out in hives. Seriously, how are there so many colors?

And do we really need 75 different shades of white? I’m not a fence-sitter by any means, but I didn’t expect choosing wall paint colors to be more complicated than finding a guy (I think I need to take a course or something).

It’s not like you’ve got an interior decorator to throw you a bone, so here are the hard-and-fast rules of finding the perfect wall paint colors for your humble abode:

1. Choose a point of inspiration
Your home is a reflection of who you are – in a sense, your wall paint colors can say it all. You might choose a bright green that punches people in the face… or you might chicken out and choose a kinda-off-white-but-not-really. Both say everything without saying anything.

Go through your belongings (especially ones that will stay in the room you’re painting) and pick out the ones that inspire you the most. Do you see common threads of color? Are there colors you’re drawn to? This will help you establish a starting point.

2. Define the space’s mood
Don’t look at how the space currently is, but what you want it to become: Do you want it to be a relaxing retreat? Or a lively meeting place? Or a creative oasis? The mood you want to achieve will help you research suitable color palettes.

3. Do an inventory
Take note of the flooring, lighting and other key elements of the room you’re choosing wall paint colors for. You don’t want to fall in love with a color, only to find it clashes with your carpeting or your lighting makes it look washed out.

4. Choose your boldest color first
Use the 60-30-10 rule: 60 percent of a dominant color, 30 percent of a secondary color, and 10 percent of an accent color. In the case of your room, 60 percent are your walls, 30 percent upholstery, 10 percent a funky lamp, flower arrangement or painting.

If you’re going with two bold colors (one as your primary, one as your secondary), make your accent a neutral to give your peepers a breather. Since I live in a small space, I tend to go with bold primaries, neutral secondaries and bold accents – you know, to avoid living in a dungeon.

5. There’s an app for that
Most paint brands now have apps to make choosing wall paint colors less overwhelming. Check out these ones from Benjamin Moore, Dulux, Glidden, Olympic and Behr. There’s also a super cool app called Paint My Place that allows you to paint your room without lifting a brush.

6. Take your wall paint colors for a spin
Like I said, you never know what a paint color’s going to look like until you test it out. You might find your room’s lighting makes it look darker than you’d like it to be, or it’s not creating the mood you’d hoped for. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, buy a paint sample along with samples that are a shade or two lighter (since paint tends to dry darker).

Take each paint color, apply them to pieces of foam board and stick them to your walls. Position them in several parts of the room to gauge how they look throughout the room as the light changes.

7. Don’t be afraid to be bold
Go with your gut: If you’ve fallen in love with a vibrant green or a neon orange and you just have to fit it into your home somewhere, then do it! You want your home to scream, “This is me,” not whisper, “This is kinda sorta maybe not really me.” Paint isn’t permanent – you can always change it, but you can’t change what-ifs.

Once you’re at the store, paint-chip in hand, ask about their selection of environmentally-friendly paints. The majority of paints available today are harmful to the environment and the air quality in your home. They contain:

  • VOCs: Volatile Organic Compounds pollute the air in your home and can cause nausea, dizziness, eye irritations and respitory issues. They can creep their way outdoors too.
  • Fungicides and biocides: These extend the paint’s shelf life and can be detected in the air up to five years later. What’s worse, if the leftover paint’s not disposed of properly, they can seep into the groundwater.
  • Pigments: These are used to tint the paint to your chosen color. Avoid chemical pigments and look for paints made with all-natural.

Most brands now have environmentally-friendly paints available. Look for paints that have low VOCs, low biocides and natural pigments. Study paint can labels and company websites for more details.

Steer clear of oil-based and solvent-based paints. Your best options are milk paint, natural paint and latex paint with very low biocide and VOC levels.

How did you decide on your wall paint colors?

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Image: Scott

Krissy Brady

Krissy Brady is a women’s health + lifestyle writer who’s so out of shape, it’s like she has the innards of an 80-year-old. Instead of learning how to crochet, she decided to turn her emotional baggage into a writing career (genius, no?). You can follow her shenanigans on Twitter (you know, if you want).