Fear of color drove homeowners Kendall and Tiffany Coleman into a neutral safety zone. “All the colors in our house were white and light gray,” says Tiffany, a closet designer.
“I’m not into crazy, neon colors and didn’t think I could live with them,” adds Kendall, an accountant.
But the Colemans’ renovation of their 1960s house in Reston, Va., finished last summer, completely changed their outlook. Now the couple enjoy walls painted in Benjamin Moore’s True Blue in the kitchen, Outrageous Orange in the powder room and Sunflower yellow in the basement. “They make a huge difference in brightening up the interior,” says Kendall.
How did the Colemans overcome their chromophobia?
“The architect wore us down,” says Kendall, referring to Richard Loosle-Ortega of Kube Architecture, a District firm known for vividly accented spaces.
“Rich did 3D models to show us what the colors would look like. That convinced us to try the paint colors,” he says.
For DIY homeowners facing the challenge of selecting colors without the coaching of an architect or a designer, some professionals recommend making a more gradual transition to feel comfortable with a new palette.
“Try colors out in a limited way, through accessories like pillows and blankets, and lamps and rugs, rather than recovering an entire sofa or repainting a room,” says Bethesda designer Kelley Proxmire, who is known for mixing bright shades like navy blue and coral.
Instead of painting entire walls, says Proxmire, apply color to crown moldings, baseboards and window and door casings. She recently transformed a sunroom in a 1920s Chevy Chase home with black-painted French doors and yellow walls.
Even before focusing on a color choice, experts say, start with a process of elimination. “I always ask my clients about the colors they don’t like,” says Loosle-Ortega, who made sure he didn’t use green in the Colemans’ home because it wasn’t a favorite color.
Think about tints or tones of a color, instead of the most intense hues, for trying out a new look. “You don’t have to go with dark teal,” says D.C. designer Annie Elliott. “Start with soft pastels like light blue, pale green or blush.”
Elliott calls her business Bossy Color and stresses the importance of a robust palette in home decor. “Color is the unifier in design,” she says. “It can make you feel cooler or warmer, bring you up or down. Every piece in a room requires a choice of color.”
While Elliott acknowledges that neutrals have their place, she warns that they can be more difficult to select because of their subtle color variations. “Every color has a warm — pink or yellow — or cool blue undertone, and the quality of light in a room can really bring those out. You have to pay attention to the undertones when choosing light neutrals such as gray or ivory to make sure the color is giving you the effect you want.”
When choosing paint colors, brush each sample onto a big sheet of cardboard or another movable surface to make the final choice. “Never select a color from a swatch,” says Loosle-Ortega. “We usually test a variety of colors on large pieces of drywall so that the samples can be moved around from space to space if needed and seen in different types of light.”
Keep the room orientation in mind because varying intensities of daylight can change color perception. Elliott recently applied Benjamin Moore’s Pink Moire to the walls of the north-facing living room in her Woodley Park rowhouse. The rosy shade is darker than her original choice, because the cool, gray northern light washes out colors in the space.
Experts say floors, ceilings and furniture should be considered as much as walls in contributing to a coordinated color scheme. Elliott refreshed the built-in shelving in her family room in Benjamin Moore’s Million Dollar Red and extended the color onto the floor with scarlet rugs.
“We use color to tie different spaces together,” says Loosle-Ortega. “Many times, we apply color to the stair wall, which usually runs the full height of the house, so the color becomes an element that connects the various floors together.”
In his design for the Colemans’ home, Benjamin Moore’s Honolulu Blue reappears in the entrance hall, home office and basement.
If you decide to paint the top surfaces of a room, Proxmire recommends going darker with the color. “When the whole ceiling is painted, it always looks lighter than the swatch.”
Loosle-Ortega often continues the color from a ceiling onto a wall to unify the space. “This gesture moves the eye up,” he says. “It accentuates a tall ceiling or a sloped ceiling.”
So what about the common advice to paint tiny spaces in lighter colors to make them feel bigger? It doesn’t always make sense to focus solely on the room size, Elliott says. “If you have a small dining room or bedroom that doesn’t get much natural light and is mostly used at night, embrace the coziness and put a dark, rich color on the walls.”
Open-plan kitchens and family rooms can be challenging for color selection because the spatial boundaries aren’t as well defined as those of conventional rooms. “The advantage of the open plan is that everything feels light and airy, so keep the walls light, too,” Elliott says.
Accent walls can bring open-plan areas together by visually connecting them with planes of color. “Balance is important, so we make sure to place accent walls in complementary locations within the floor plan,” says architect Janet Bloomberg of Kube Architecture. “The walls play off each other and carry color through the space, rather than being weighted in one area.”
Kube Architecture recently renovated and expanded a 1948 home in Silver Spring owned by photographer Muriel Hasbun and lawyer David Fosnocht and selected warm paint colors for the main, open floor.
A yellow wall runs the length of the house to unify the kitchen, dining area and living room. Orange walls define a boxy enclosure between these functions that provides a coat closet and access to a staircase leading to the basement. Warm white and grays are applied to surrounding walls and ceilings.
“This strategy allows the various spaces to feel more unified since they share a common color palette, as well as keeping the space from feeling boxed-in, which sometimes occurs when all the walls are the same color,” says Loosle-Ortega.
Wallpaper is another way to try color, particularly for small spaces. Schumacher’s brightly patterned paper, Chiang Mai Dragon, enlivens the entranceway of the Capitol Hill rowhouse owned by Bill and Ginny James, and it inspired a new color scheme in their living room.
“We weren’t afraid of color, but we couldn’t get different shades to work well together,” says Bill James, a retired Foreign Service officer. “We’d go to the paint store and end up with the same off-white palette.”
With the help of Elliott, the Jameses redecorated their living room by reupholstering their vintage Eastlake chairs and settee in teal blue fabrics to complement dark red rugs collected on their travels.
“Color brought out the best in the furnishings we had,” says Ginny James, a retired program analyst for the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The homeowners are now planning to refresh their dining room, now painted deep red, in a lighter palette to create a breakfast room. A taupe wallpaper patterned with green birds and leaves will line the walls, and dining chairs will be reupholstered in a pink floral linen.
For chromophobic homeowners, Ginny James recommends breaking out of the beige box by experimenting with bold hues in a small space, like a foyer or a powder room. As she notes, “Just a splash of color can add so much to your home.”