In reality, however, two coats of high-quality paint will cover a blue or green or coral wall as easily as it will cover a white or off-white wall. Another reality is that moving is exhausting and stressful, and figuring out what colors to paint your walls before you move in — on top of everything else you are doing at that point — is probably very low on the priority list. Perhaps the actual reality of neutral wall colors is simply that they are easier: It takes time to develop a color palette, and it is less effort — and cheaper — to settle for walls painted a generic, cookie-cutter shade of cream.
The benefits of adding color to your home are ample, though. Color can add visual depth and interest to a room; it can stimulate you or calm you down. Some research shows certain colors encourage people to linger longer after eating a meal or improve moods. There is an entire field of study on the psychology of color, including how a lack of color and visual interest in our spaces can have a negative impact on our mental well-being.
Among the benefits, though, is that thoughtful color throughout helps transform a house into a personalized, one-of-a-kind home.
When it comes to renovations, many clients initially request a neutral color palette because they do not want to offend or put off a future potential homeowner — even when they are not thinking of selling for another 10 years! Though this gracious consideration of a potential future entity is exceedingly kind and thoughtful, it is unnecessary.
Which is better: a space that has objectively good design or a space that is neutral? Here is the clue: One is “good” and the other is “neutral” (which, by definition, is neither good nor bad). Though humans are visual creatures, the general population has trouble visualizing space in new ways. It does not matter if the walls are painted cream or a dusty shade of twilight: Most people find it difficult to visualize what a space will look like once they move into it and make it their own. The perception that a well-designed color palette, instead of a playing-it-safe neutral color palette, makes this an even greater obstacle is a misconception. In fact, a house that is designed with a beautiful color scheme often leaves a more positive impression than a space that was designed to be neutral: good colors, good impression; neutral colors, neutral impression.
This is not to say a neutral color scheme cannot in and of itself be well designed. Light beige walls with taupe carpet and stark, black furniture — perhaps complemented by a beige/off-white art print inside a skinny black frame — is a sophisticated trend that combines light neutrals with high-contrast, accenting pops of color. In fact, there is a strong case for neutral backdrops to best accentuate bold colors, whether those bold colors are present in wall art, potted plants or throw pillows and blankets.
These palettes are most successful because they are intentionally composed, not just determined because that was the color when they got there and they decided anything could go well enough with it. Instead, a conscious design decision was made to work with only light, neutral shades of beige and concentrated accents of black. Or perhaps the accent color is a robust saffron red, or soft shades of blue-green and seashell pink (since the latter are closer in value to the base beige, they become less like accents, though, and should be treated more as equal parts of the overall palette). Off-whites and neutral bases do offer excellent opportunities for well-design color palettes — if you are intentional with them.
So what differentiates a “good” color palette from a “bad” (or even “neutral!”) one?
The eye draws in color from everything in the visual field. That includes walls, ceiling, floors, furniture and decor. So it is important to consider the entire color palette of your space, not just the color of the paint on the walls.
Another element to think about is contrast, or the difference in light values of the colors (two dark colors will have low contrast together; two light colors will have low contrast together; a dark and a light color will have high contrast together). Color psychology says that high contrast color palettes are more energizing — like a playroom with bold yellows, blues and reds all around — and low contrast palettes are more calming — like whispering teals with sea foam greens at a day spa. You can incorporate a balance of medium contrasts, too, if your space does not need to be on either end of the energy spectrum.
Lighting also plays a pivotal role: Natural daylight has a cooler tone and, as a result, will bring out the blues in colors. Purple, for instance, is made by mixing equal parts of blue and red (cool and warm colors, respectively). If there are windows in the room, the same color of purple will look bluer during the day and will usually look warmer at night (when there is no natural light and only electric lighting is being used). This was consistently the case with incandescent lightbulbs, which have a “color temperature” around 2800K or 2700K — a nice, warm, candlelight-like yellow light. These days 3000K is the most common color temperature for residential LED bulbs and is closer to a “pure” white (instead of yellow-white). Hospitals and laboratories are often outfitted with 5000K or 6000K lighting, which emits a blue-white color and brings with it a sense of sterile cleanliness. The kind of lighting, and its color temperature, will affect how colors look in each of your rooms; this is one of the reasons test-painting a few walls in your home is advised before you fully commit to a paint color.
What will ultimately determine how good a color palette is, though, are the colors themselves in the context of the given space. There are a few methods to go about choosing the right colors (and they are not mutually exclusive).
My strongest recommendation is to find inspiration. Perhaps you have a photograph or painting you love, or a blanket in a rich jewel tone you could not resist buying. Inspiration can come in all shapes and sizes: the vibrant blue on a beloved souvenir from your favorite vacation, pale buttercup pulled from your hanging collection of plates, historical burgundy from the leather-bound books across your bookcases. This can also be a great opportunity to pull out a collection you may have buried somewhere and make it a centerpiece within the room (the key is to look for consistent colors). Wherever it comes from, you can use this inspiration by matching a predominant color in it as closely as you can. (If it is a vibrant or very bright color, it is often best to use this is as an accent color within your palette.)
Another cheat I recommend if you just need a little guidance is to take a look at the resources already on the market to help with this very effort. For instance, Benjamin Moore’s Affinity collection comes in a color line specifically designed to coordinate with itself; you can pick any two or three or more colors (ideally, colors that you like) and they will coordinate. This can be a great strategy for painting adjacent rooms that have a line of sight to one another or exploring ideas for a two-toned room (like having an accent wall painted a different color than the rest of the room’s walls).
You also always have the option to hire an interior designer or architect: professionals trained to understand color and develop palettes that work throughout a home. Some designers even specialize in color consulting and/or color psychology to help with this very dilemma. This option can be done in conjunction with any of the above recommendations (but also does not have to be).
Painting the walls in your home can be a wonderful and high-impact way to reflect your own personal touch within the space and bring new life to it. Using inspirational artwork or pieces that you already love can help in the search for the right color combination, whether it is for your living room, bedroom or powder room. Why limit yourself to just a hundred shades of white when there is an entire rainbow out there?
Stephanie Brick is the owner of Stephanie Brick Design in Baltimore.