how to paint a small roomBy Jennifer

If you bring a good deal of confidence and experience to the task of choosing colors, it’s the most enjoyable part of decorating.  If you tend to agonize and worry about others’ opinions, you’ll find it painful.  And if you’re like me, and alternate between bold decisiveness and painful self-consciousness, you will alternate accordingly between pleasure and pain.  In fact, if you end with the former rather than the latter, the process of choosing and implementing a color scheme becomes practically erotic.

More than any other aspect of design, the colors you choose will reflect your taste and style.  As if that weren’t daunting enough, selecting anything other than demure cream or taupe can prove remarkably complex.  Painting a house — particularly one with an open floor plan — feels like one of those logic problems from the LSAT that requires you to seat 12 antagonistic people at a table according to rank, native language and dietary restrictions.  As you’re choosing paint colors, the key to enjoyment is to remind yourself that there are innumerable correct answers, and that if you should blow this particular test, it’s easy enough to repaint.

how to paint a half bathroom

Trying to draw inspiration for the half bath wall color from my Michael Copeland painting.

In the next three articles, then, I’d like to ease your pain by making aspects of the process explicit:  in this installment I’ll suggest common sources of inspiration; next, I’ll help you to eliminate or modify a few of the great ideas you generate; and finally, I’ll address how to choose secondary colors to set off your main accent wall.

accent wall for stairwell

1.  The surest way to pick an accent color is to draw inspiration from art you love.  Margie Deeb describes this process in detail in her excellent book on jewelry making, The Beader’s Color Palette.  A quickie version:  to develop a palette, pay attention not just to the prevailing colors, but also to contrasting touches.  Most painters mix a surprising range of shades into landscapes and portraits that might seem, at first glance, to be almost monochromatic.  It’s best to choose colors that are subordinated in the painting, since if you use the prevailing one, the painting may seem to disappear into the wall.  Also, remember that cool colors like blue, lavender and green recede against a warm background, so a blue painting on an orange background may well take on an unfortunate grayish cast.  If your artwork is very subdued or cool in color, choose an equally cool color for the wall.  If you take this route, don’t hesitate to bring a print or painting to the paint store, since most people cannot remember a color accurately for more than a few seconds.

accent wall on stairwell

The upstairs landing accent wall had to be a vibrant splash of color.

2.  Consider the room’s primary use.  Is it public or private?  Will you need to be productive in there, or will it be primarily for relaxation and play?  Cool colors work well in private rooms intended for rest, and bold, warm, or dark colors are best reserved for public spaces or work spaces.  We chose a lush green for the bedroom partly because it’s a restful shade; in the office we used a much brighter spring green coupled with pale orange and yellow.  Blue is typically too calming for a kitchen and dining room, but we felt confident breaking that rule because our South-facing kitchen can be dauntingly bright on a summer afternoon in the desert.

3.  Look at the furniture and soft furnishings you already own.  I’m not going to paint the kitchen to match my tablecloth — though a good tablecloth is dismayingly hard to find — but cherished objects can help you to clarify your taste.  One pitfall here: sometimes a color you adore is best confined to soft furnishings, and would look ghastly on a wall.  In that case, go with contrasting wall colors that will make those objects pop.

4.  Flip through several books featuring color schemes and mark everything you like, whether or not it seems practical or appropriate.  When you look back through, you’ll notice common themes that you can adapt to several rooms.  I stay away from interior design books, since they tend to favor the stark look I’m moving away from; instead I look to books on jewelry design for inspiration.  Any craft book that deals with color theory would work, however, particularly one concerned with landscape painting.

5.  Look at the views from any large window.  How can you best frame a dramatic or calming view?  The picture window in our office opens out onto the foliage of bright green eucalyptus trees, and on summer evenings we often enjoy fiery orange sunsets.  This helped me to come up with the spring green and pale sherbet orange that we finally settled upon.

Once you’ve got several candidates, you’ll want to start the process of elimination; in my next installment, we’ll begin there.

Posts in This Series

  1. Choosing Your Wall Colors I: Pleasure and Pain
  2. Choosing Your Wall Colors II: Editing Your Good and Bad Ideas
  3. Choosing Your Wall Colors III: Color Theory for Amateur Designers