“Yellow is absolutely the trickiest color to get right,” said Alexandria color consultant Jean Molesworth Kee. “After white, it’s the color that most strongly reflects light. Pick the wrong shade and it will scream on the walls.”
Kee said there are two important things to consider when choosing yellow paint: the size of the room and the amount of natural and incandescent light it gets. Small rooms that receive little or no natural light can handle bold, bright yellows. But if the room has large windows that face outdoor greenery, the reflected light can “quickly turn lemon into limesicle,” she said. So for large rooms, Kee advised sticking to the less exciting paint chips.
“They may look boring in the deck but they’ll look fabulous on a large surface,” she said. “You’ll still get the impact you want.”
Bethesda designer Kelley Proxmire said yellow has been a constant in her home for the past 16 years. The exact shades have changed with her tastes — she started with buttery shades and now leans toward citron — but she’s never strayed from yellow. Her favorite room is the dining room, where she said the yellow glows at night.
“It’s dramatic, cheery and strong,” she said. “It’s a stimulating color for conversation.”
When Sherry Petersik and her husband, John, of the popular design blog Young House Love, decided to make over their small laundry room in Richmond, they went bold. With only one window that looked out onto a carport, the space was dark and depressing, she said. A few coats of Benjamin Moore’s Sesame, which Petersik described as an “avocado yellow with a splash of green,” did just the trick.
“The quickest way to go wrong with yellow is to overdo it,” she said. “The laundry room has white shelving and appliances with natural tones brought in through baskets and wood floors. These balance the cheerfulness of the yellow-green and take it from a childish, one-note room to something layered and sophisticated.”
The Petersiks frequently experiment with yellow in their decorating projects. Sherry Petersik spray-painted a pair of horsehead bookends Sun Yellow by Rustoleum. She also updated a highchair her mother passed down to her when her daughter, Clara, was born by coating it in yellow.
Then, last summer, they put it on their front door.
That was when the Petersiks discovered how fickle yellow can be. After days of negotiating with swatches, they painted four test spots of various yellows and left them up for 48 hours, evaluating how they looked in the morning, evening, rain and sun and marveling at how dramatically the colors would change. Eventually they settled on Full Sun by Valspar, a color they love so much they dubbed it “sunshine in a can.”
“Yellow is a competitive color,” Sherry Petersik said. “Use it sparingly in spaces that are already bold. For neutral rooms, it’s a quick way to ‘happy them up.’ ”
Kee said Washingtonians are known to love Benjamin Moore’s Hawthorne Yellow because it befits traditional design and architecture. But it should be reimagined so as not to look dated. Designer David Herchik, who works in the District and uses it on the inside and outside of houses, said the trick is to pair the buttery shade with very crisp, bright whites and unpredictable accent colors.
“Hawthorne Yellow is a safe color, so you have to have fun with it for it to look fresh,” he said. These days, Herchik loves pairing yellow with shades of gray, which he called the new neutral.
“It’s true, gray is everywhere,” said Proxmire. Kee agreed, and added that the reason the two colors are so often paired together is because of the way gray lets yellow “sing.” But she cautioned not to discount white in the months ahead.
“White is going to come back in a very big way, and I think it’s going to come with really big pops of yellow,” she said. “It’s simple. Yellow draws the eye.”
If deciphering yellow paints becomes overwhelming, make it easy on yourself by bringing in yellow accessories. Here are a few we’ve recently seen online and in stores.