Our Best Tips for Choosing and Using Color

Want to liven up a dull room with color but not sure where to start? Use these helpful tips from BHG editors, interior designers, and color pros to learn how to choose and use color to add interest to any room.


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Testing Paint Colors
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Test Paint Colors

    Always remember to test out paint colors before diving in headfirst. Paint large sample swatches "by the window, next to trim, in the darkest corner, in the lightest corner." Let them dry, and give them a second coat so you can accurately assess the color.

    -- Grant K. Gibson, San Francisco designer

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Experiment with Hues

    With a few chips you love in hand, make your way to less-saturated chips. You'll likely find that a muted version -- one that looks almost too muted on a chip -- will work best.

    -- Kelly Berg, San Francisco-area color consultant

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Get Inspired

    Take the time to curate your color palette. Collect magazine pages, brochures, post cards -- anything with a color combination that intrigues you. Gather home-related items that catch your eye, such as fabric and wallpaper swatches, flooring samples, and paint chips, or even non-home items, such as natural finds. Take snapshots of things that inspire you. Edit and add to your inspiration board as you work through the decorating process.

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Set the Mood

    Decide what mood you want the room to embody. Different colors, tones, and saturations will naturally lend themselves to a certain persona. For example, if green is your hue of choice, a soft sage will project serenity and calm, while a seafoam shade will give the room a relaxed, cottage feel. A dark olive green will imbue a classic, reserved look; conversely, a zingy apple green will project trendy vibrancy.

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Neutrals: Mix It Up

    Neutrals get more exciting when you mix textures and materials. Contrast adds spice to a potentially boring color palette.

    -- Rebekah Zaveloff, Chicago-area kitchen designer

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Gather Inspiration

    Many people look to their closets for inspiration, but here's a better idea: Raid your accessories. Your handbags, belts, and jewelry are bound to contain more colors that excite you.

    -- Grant K. Gibson, San Francisco designer

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Lighten Up

    To translate a feel-good color into one that looks good on the wall, ask at the paint store about the color's light reflectance value (LRV). "The higher the LRV, the more light will bounce around the room. The lower the LRV, the more the color will absorb light, which will make the room seem moody.'

    -- Kelly Berg, San Francisco-area color consultant

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Myth Busting

    People are nervous to put dark colors in small rooms. But they don't make the room seem smaller, they just make them darker. Use mercury glass and mirrored lamps to make the room less cavelike.

    -- Kishani Perera, Los Angeles designer

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Spread Color

    When you're spreading color around a room, think about proportion. If you're using three colors, try a 70/20/10 distribution: Use the lightest color for 70 percent of the room's decor, the second lightest for 20 percent, and the boldest for 10 percent. For two colors, go with 70/30.

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Look Beyond Chips

    "Pick colors using objects as your guide -- an old celadon teapot, the burnt sienna in a paisley fabric, a blade of grass. It's so much more lively than paint chips. I always, always, always start with a thing.'

    -- Sasha Emerson, Los Angeles designer

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Rule of Three

    Follow the rule of three: When you pick a color, use it at least three times in a room. Here, yellow appears in the pillows, on the blanket on the bed, and as an accent color on the nightstand, as well as on the walls.

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Keep Hallways Neutral

    "Think of hallways as palate cleansers -- the sorbet that's served before diving into the next course. Keeping them neutral allows you to branch into any color in rooms that flow off them."

    --Barry Dixon, Washington, D.C., designer

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Make Accents Pop

    As a building block for a color palette, look closely at art and fabric. Pull out the background colors for room accents. The green from the rug is used as the accent color in the pillows for this room.

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Furniture Various

    "Break up a room of matchy-matchy wood furniture with one painted piece. It doesn't have to be a bold color. I like to combine natural wood tones with black."

    --Melissa Birdsong, Lowe's vice president of trend, design, and brand

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Mix Textures

    Use various shades of a single color to pull a room together. Add different textures such as suede and silk to prevent monotony.

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Warm Up White

    White brightens whatever it's with, but it can also be harsh. Try off-white instead. "When you put a warm white next to a color, it will still look bright and crisp."

    -- Barry Dixon, Washington, D.C. designer.

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Freshen Up

    Fresh flowers are a perfect way to add color to any room without a long-term commitment., They also help celebrate the season.

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Accessorize with Color

    "Everyone thinks of walls when they think of color. But using color in accessories--rugs, pillows, art--makes an amazing impression without going crazy on the walls."

    --David Bromstad, HGTV designer, Color Splash and First-Time Design

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Include a Neutral Color

    Neutral colors act as peacemakers -- they help bold colors and patterns get along. The neutral creamy tones of the rug used in this room balance the Kelly green walls, striped drapes, and paisley chair.

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Light a Room with Style

    Add a colored or patterned shade to a lamp to liven up a room. It's a quick change that makes a big impact.

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Enlarge a Small Room

    "In a small room, keep walls the same color as the primary upholstered furniture. The room will seem twice the size."

    --Jeffrey Bilhuber, New York City designer

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No More White Ceilings

    "The era of the bright-white ceiling is over," says Elaine Griffin, an interior designer in New York City. Paint the ceiling a shade lighter than the walls to visually raise it and avoid a jarring stop-start effect. Go a shade darker to bring it down and add coziness.

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Highlight Accents

    Wallpaper or paint the inside of a bookcase to set off what's displayed inside. To make the display more attractive, cover books so they match or coordinate with the new color.

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Paint a Disguise

    Camouflage a hodgepodge of surfaces -- an awkward dormer door, wimpy crown molding, or an ugly chair rail -- by painting them the same color as the wall. They'll fade away. Here, the column is painted in the same color as the wall so they blend together.

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Compare and Contrast

    To tell if a color has a pinkish, grayish, or greenish cast, look at similar color swatches side by side. It's all about comparison.

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Subtle Changes

    Don't sweat slight color variations between fabrics and walls. "The best rooms are slightly off -- stronger, lighter, softer, just not a spot-on match to a swatch," says Sasha Emerson, a Los Angeles designer.

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Picture This

    Get out the digital camera. It's amazing how a photo can point out problem spots. Add some colorful accessories, take a photo, and assess the scene.

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