How to Select the Right Paint Color for Your Space

Y’all, does this sound familiar? You walk into Sherwin Williams, head to the color selection wall, and — BAM! — you come face to face with zillions of paint swatches! 

And then, if you do manage to select a few to try out, you come home, paint a spot on your wall, and realize that the colors look completely different than they did in the store! Maybe that light gray is suddenly a powder blue, or that taupey beige looks like mud.

Talk about overwhelming, right? 

My friends, I can’t even tell you how often I hear stories like this. In fact, before I trained to become a True Colour Expert™, I experienced those same situations myself! Rest assured, y’all are not alone.

So today I want to share some advice for selecting the right color for your space.  It’s something we can all do at home under quarantine, and let me tell you, the right color can completely change how you live and feel in your home… and let’s be honest, we want to feel happy, safe, and at peace in our homes these days!

To illustrate the color selection process, I’ll be helped by my dear friend and loyal SC&D follower, Michelle, who graciously offered to be an example. Michelle and I hopped on a Facebook Live last week to talk about selecting some colors for her master bathroom.

Below, I’m going to share the process and results with you! But first…

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So drop me a line and then come right on back here, because today we’re talking everyone’s favorite topic: COLOR.

michelle’s master bathroom in Bassett Hall Gold

Alright, let’s talk about Michelle’s space. First, she gave us the grand tour of her master bathroom during our virtual mini color consultation:

bassett hall gold color consultation mt juliet tn black white floor

The first thing we noticed was the formerly trending color Bassett Hall Gold, which Michelle told us has been there for nearly 16 years. (If you have an older home, chances are good that you’ve seen Bassett Hall Gold before. We had it in my house too, way-back-when, and I’ve seen it all over Lebanon, TN.)

Yes, this hue had a glorious heyday, but as you can see from the photo, it makes the space look tired, yellowish, and small. Which is a shame, because would y’all look at that gorgeous flooring?! 

bassett hall gold walls black white floor color consultation lebanon tn

Michelle had these tiles laid a few weeks ago and she LOVES them. (Me too!) She now wants a fresh paint color that won’t steal the show but will help show off those tiles and brighten the room. But there’s another factor at play here too…

Michelle said that she and her husband are not yet sure if they’ll be staying in the home. They are considering downsizing. Which means we have to pick a color that this couple AND their future potential homebuyers will love.

(Good thing I’m an Expert Psychological Stager™ as well, with training in the best paint colors to specify for resale!)

So, where do we start?

step 1: look at your fixed elements & statement pieces

The first place I always start when giving color consultations is to look at the fixed elements in the space. In other words, what is attached and not going anywhere?

 In Michelle’s case, her fixed elements include tile flooring, her vanity cabinets in “Onyx,” and a vanity top, toilet, and trim (pictured in the previous photo) in white. Whatever color we choose for her walls MUST work with these elements. 

paint color consultation gold bathroom black vanity white lebanon tn

A look at the elements already fixed in Michelle’s space.

step 2: determine undertones in the space

The second step, determining undertones, is the one that takes a bit of practice. For example, I can tell that this Onyx-colored vanity is not a true black. My years of practice tell me that it has a bit of a blue undertone to it. The vanity top also looks like it has a yellow undertone — though that could be the reflection of the Bassett Gold. 

So how do you know?

The best way to determine your undertones is to compare and contrast, compare and contrast, compare and contrast. 

For instance, looking at the white paint samples from the article below, the undertones are easily seen in these whites.  That is because they are beside each other, with a WHITE background.  When testing paint colors it’s imperative that they be viewed with no contrasting colors behind them.

Looking at these paint swatches beside each other, you almost wouldn’t call them white.  But if you were viewing them alone, they would appear as white as can be. 

You could also use a color wheel (available online or at most home stores) to judge which color undertone is at play. Here’s a post about judging white undertones.

white undertones blue true offwhite cream greige how to tell side by side color


step 2b: let’s talk about white

Now, Michelle told me from the beginning that she wants a neutral, and she’s right. A bold color is difficult to resell and would distract from her tiles. But she also said that she doesn’t want to paint the walls white, and she’s a smart cookie for making that call. The problem with white is that 9 times out of 10 it’s not going to look good in a space.

Yes, I know we see white rooms all over Pinterest  and everybody is gravitating toward them, but here’s the secret — 99% of those photos are professionally photographed. They blow out the whites and the space looks amazing… but in real life, when your naked eye looks at the space, it is a very different story!! (Trust me on this!)

You have to have a very specific room for white or it falls flat, which is why I almost never specify a white. So, what can you choose instead? 

Answer: A neutral with a little undertone that mimics the undertones already in your space.

step 3: select a few paint colors to test

Once you’ve identified your undertones, you can select some colors that have the same undertone to essentially neutralize them. For example, imagine that you put two blues next to each other. Neither will really pop, right? But imagine you put blue next to its complement, orange — now both are going to look all the brighter!

It’s the same with undertones. Since I can see that Michelle’s space has blue undertones, I’ve suggested some neutrals to her that also have blue undertones. 

Now, how to select your colors?

Well, when you’re in the store, it can be really difficult to get a true reading on colors. They use different lighting and you’re seeing the colors next to each other, not next to the fixed items in your space. (Remember: the biggest influencer of color is its surroundings!)

I suggest taking a white piece of paper or poster board with you to the store so that you can look at the undertones and better see the color. That said, when you get home the lighting will be a bit different, so get several samples to try out. (I’ll teach y’all how to test them in your space in Step 4!)

These are my 2 picks for Michelle:

sherwin williams big chill color consultation suggestion

Sherwin Williams Big Chill

Big Chill is a neutral grey with a slight blue undertone, which means it will work really well with her vanity. As a neutral, it won’t draw too much attention but it will make her black and white floor the boss of the room!

sherwin williams sea salt color consultation bathroom off-white grey

Sherwin Williams Sea Salt

Another option: Sherwin Williams Sea Salt. This hue is one of my favorite neutrals because it can add instant freshness to a space. Again, it has a blue undertone to help balance well with the vanity, and I suspect it will look incredible next to those black and white tiles.

Now, it’s time to test them…

step 5: how to test your paint colors the right way

Now, I’m going to put Michelle on the spot for a moment because she is the perfect example of how most people (including myself back in the early days) test colors in their space: she took home 3 paint samples, grabbed a brush, and painted 3 patches of color right onto the wall to see how they would look. 

how NOT to test colors on a wall color constulation how to choose paint swatches

While it makes perfect sense to test colors this way, unfortunately you are not going to get a true reading. The creamy white she chose looks startlingly bright, and the two different beige tones look muddy and wrong. Why?

Well, remember when I said that a color’s appearance is most impacted by what’s around it? In this case, what’s around her 3 samples? That’s right…

Bassett Hall Gold! The gold is definitely skewing the look of her choices in a way that doesn’t tell us what it will actually look like in the space.

Here’s the best way to test your paint colors in a space:

  1. Get large paper color swatches of your selections
  2. Get a large white poster board or two (or three)
  3. Place your large swatch on the wall, next to a fixed element (like the corner of trim) and surround that swatch with the white poster board to get a true reading
  4. Repeat this throughout the day, morning, afternoon, sunset, and under your household lights in the evening
  5. Repeat this in multiple locations within the room!

Once you’ve gone through these steps, you should have a really good idea for what’s going to work and what’s not. And maybe you need to go grab a few more samples. That’s okay too. If you’ve never done this before, it’s a learning experience and you’ll be all the wiser when you’re done! 😉

get an in-person or virtual color consultation

After our virtual consultation with Michelle, we sent over some large color swatches for her to test out in her space. I’ll follow up with her soon to see how they look and make sure she finds a color that really works for her goals… AKA showing off that floor!

Here’s the link to the Facebook Live we did. This will show you exactly how we compared and contrasted, and how to use a solid white background to isolate each color option:

In the meantime, I want to extend the same color consultation invitation to you. With COVID-19 keeping us socially distant virtually social, I am so grateful and honored to continue serving y’all and making your living spaces more enjoyable. 

If you’ve been eyeing up a room that needs a color refresh, I hope you’ll reach out to us. Selecting a new color for your space can be a lot fun and totally transformative — and I won’t lie, I really love it too!

Until that happy day, my friends, I hope y’all stay safe and live well.


P.s. Our updated site comes with an updated Lighting Guide! Download your copy below and make the jewelry of your home sparkle. 😉

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