Selecting Wall Color

Make a significant difference in a room by simply changing the wall color. Here's how to select the perfect wall color for any room.


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Upholstery and draperies are among the biggest investments in decorating. Paint, on the other hand, is relatively inexpensive and transforms a room more quickly than anything else you can do.

To make a change, let your fabric be your guide. In fact, this is a good approach to take even if you're starting from scratch. Fabric, carpeting, and tile are available in a more limited range of colors than is paint, so choose them first and then decide on your paint color.

Any fabric can suggest at least three options for wall colors, each of which will produce a different feeling in the room. Once you identify the options your fabric offers, decide which one creates the mood you want to evoke -- cozy, calm, relaxed, energetic, playful?

Of course, starting with the fabric works for any room in the house, not just a room with a sofa. Bedding and draperies provide easy starting points for adding color to bedrooms and adjoining baths, and even in a powder room, the window treatment can suggest an exciting wall color.

Paint swatches are also a key tool to use when selecting a wall color. Watch this video to learn how to use them like a pro:


How to use Paint Swatches

Getting Started

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To use your fabric as a starting point, take a fabric swatch (from a sofa or draperies) to the paint store. Look for paint chips that pull out the different hues in the fabric. The paint color doesn't have to match the fabric exactly -- in fact, if the wall color is slightly lighter or slightly darker than the color in the fabric, the results will seem "evolved" but harmonious.

The major exception is when the wall color and draperies match exactly. This approach enlarges the sense of space in the room by creating an unbroken envelope of color while softening the walls with dimension and depth.

To match a solid-color fabric exactly, take a swatch to the paint store or home improvement center; there, a spectrometer, which measures heat and light to determine color, can translate the fabric hue into a formula for matching paint. This only works on solid fabric, however. Any variations in tone will prevent the machine from reading the color.

Choosing a darker tone for the walls makes light-color upholstery pop by contrast, creating a more dramatic environment. If the draperies match the paint or are close to the same shade, the walls and draperies work together to form a consistent background, against which the sofa stands out as the focal point. If you choose a lighter value for the draperies, then the darker wall color will draw more attention to the windows.

As you narrow your choices, remember that a paint chip is only a general indication of how a color may look on the walls. Always test the color on the wall, or on a large piece of poster board, then view it in daylight and at night to see if the color is right.

Conversely, if you're considering neutrals, particularly for a large room, test a hue that's one or two shades stronger than the one you really like. Neutrals tend to become too bland in large spaces, so deeper tones will help punch up the room's personality.

Keep in mind your walls' texture too. Rough surfaces, such as stucco or brick, do not reflect as much light as smooth walls, so they'll look darker than smooth walls painted the same color.

Consider Mood

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What if your primary fabric (on a sofa or bed) is a solid color? Suddenly you're faced with too many choices. To narrow the field, refer to the color wheel for ideas about which colors will harmonize with your solid.

Think about how those colors make you feel. Are you comfortable with intense color on the walls or do you prefer softer, lighter, or more muted shades? After you narrow your choices, apply test swatches to the walls or to pieces of poster board to see how the colors work with your furnishings.

Denim blue upholstery with red piping, for example, might suggest yellow, red, coral, or periwinkle for the walls. Yellow would be warm, red or coral would be vibrant, and periwinkle would be calming.

Starting with a solid-color fabric yields a more evolved, less matched look. It also gives you more freedom to choose a color you love.

You can apply this approach to any color of upholstery fabric: Work your way around the color wheel or connect across it to find a partner for the fabric. Repeat the wall color in some other element of the room, whether accessories or floor covering, and do the same for the upholstery fabric to weave the separate strands of color into a unified whole.

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Color is light, and the color you perceive an object to have will change with the amount and type of light falling on the object.

The artificial light you rely on in your home is most likely to be incandescent. This light is yellowish and warm, although a new type of bulb corrects the yellow so colors appear truer and clearer.

Halogen bulbs produce crisp white light that makes colors look more intense. But halogen bulbs are expensive compared to other types, and they must be used and handled with care.

Fluorescent light is typically bright and clear. Buy warm bulbs or daylight-balanced bulbs rather than cool-light bulbs, which give a sickly greenish cast.

Natural light varies with the time of day, the weather, and your geographic location. (The light in the Southwest really is different from that in Maine or the Midwest.) To test the effect of natural light on the colors you plan to use, buy a quart of each and paint samples on poster board to move around the room.

If your house is surrounded by trees, the light that enters will have a greenish cast, which can change certain shades of yellow to an unappealing yellow-green in summer. Other colors may not be as affected by the filtering effect, and your eye (and your expectations) will compensate to some extent for any changes.

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