The ceiling represents one-sixth of the space in a room, but too often it gets nothing more than a coat of white paint. In fact, for decades, white has been considered not only the safest but also the best choice for ceilings.
There are times when it really is the perfect solution, but if you never consider anything beyond ordinary white, you may be missing an opportunity to add excitement and drama to a room.
Light vs. Dark Ceilings: As a general rule, ceilings that are lighter than the walls feel higher, while those that are darker feel lower. "Lower" need not mean claustrophobic: Visually lowered ceilings can evoke cozy intimacy.
Light Sources: As with wall colors, consider the source and strength of light the room receives during the time you're most often using it. Bright daylight bouncing off a blush pink or sky blue ceiling creates an airy feeling; candlelight and lamplight reflecting on tomato red produce a rich glow.
Paint Finish: Ceiling paint is usually flat, but an eggshell or satin finish paint offers just a hint of reflective sheen -- a benefit if you're using a darker color. Realize, however, that a ceiling must be in near-perfect condition since higher-sheen paints can call attention to surface flaws.
Color on the ceiling can enhance a room's character, but beware of excess: for primary living areas, keep the ceiling treatment simple so you don't grow tired of it.
White ceilings are often the best choice for a room. White overhead tends to disappear, so your attention focuses on the walls and furnishings.
A white ceiling also offsets intense wall color: boldly colored walls look crisp and sharp, and the ceiling feels higher. If the walls are pale and therefore space-expanding, a white ceiling opens the space even more.
In rooms that receive scant natural light, a white ceiling helps boost the perceived illumination by reflecting whatever light is available.
Like any other color element in the room, a white ceiling needs an echo, something to help integrate it into the scheme: Woodwork, carpet, draperies, and even bedding can serve the purpose. Otherwise the room will feel out of balance.
Which white is right? The basic ceiling white can look too stark and clinical, but paint companies offer a range of cool and warm whites, so select one with the warm or cool undertones you'd like to bring into your room.
Applying a contrasting color to the ceiling can dramatically alter your perception of the space. It's like a reflector bouncing light down into the room, and the quality of that light affects the room's character.
Disregard the rule that low ceilings require a light color. Apply a dark base to the ceiling and then use a glaze of the same color over it. The glaze softens the effect, and the sheen reflects enough light to keep the ceiling from overpowering the room.
Here are some terrific colors to consider for a ceiling:
-- Sky blue
-- Pale peach
-- Butter yellow
-- Blush pink
-- Warm tan
Applying the same hue to walls and ceiling wraps the room in a cloak of color. This approach isn't for everyone -- it can make the space feel smaller or more enclosed, because there's no "escape hatch" of lighter color at the top.
If the look appeals to you, however, you'll find that in a small room, seamless color evokes a restful, soothing mood, perfect for a bedroom or bath. In a larger room, the one-color treatment unifies the space and focuses attention on the furnishings and accessories that fill it.
If you'd like to repeat the wall color on your ceiling, but want the look to be lighter, dilute the wall paint with white in a ratio of about 80 percent white to 20 percent wall color. Since ceilings appear in shadow, the resulting diluted color will still relate favorably to the wall color.
If a room is oddly shaped and has a multiangled ceiling, carrying the wall color across the ceiling can simplify the shape and unify the space.
A same-color ceiling seems lower, so it makes a room with lofty proportions feel more intimate. Applying the same color to walls and ceiling also makes your painting job easier, because you won't have to tape off the molding at the ceiling line.
Whether you show off the crown molding and other trim with a contrasting color or paint them to blend in depends on your personal preferences. Highlighting the trim accents the architecture and calls attention to its shape.
Vaulted, cathedral, or multiangled ceilings can pose a special problem. Where do you start and stop color? In low attics, carrying the same color across the ceiling from wall to wall is a practical solution.
However, you can increase the apparent height of the ceiling with a little visual trickery: Add a chair rail around the wall at about hip height; then paint the area below the chair rail a darker hue than the area above.
Hand-painted stripes emphasize the vertical dimension and further tease the eye into perceiving the ceiling as higher than it really is. Because attic rooms often receive natural light through only one or two windows, keep the walls and furnishings light in color to brighten the space.
If you want to create a sense of snug retreat, choose muted, darker colors. Or let your furnishings and accessories provide the color in a white, light-reflecting space.
If you have a cathedral ceiling, don't feel compelled to carry its color all the way to the floor just because there's no crown molding to define the top of the wall.
Architectural features, such as molding or timber framing, do make it easier to know where to stop and start color, but wherever one plane or flat surface meets another, you can change colors. When painting, you'll need to tape off the ceiling carefully to keep the dividing line sharply defined and straight; an uneven line where the two colors meet will spoil the look.
Changing colors where the wall meets the ceiling will focus attention on the living space instead of on the soaring height of the ceiling.
In a room with walls that angle sharply to the ceiling but offer more headspace than traditional attics, extend the wall color onto the angled walls up to the flat part of the ceiling. This will keep the room from feeling cramped. If necessary, add crown molding to define where the walls end and the ceiling begins.
Color need not come only from paint. If you like the look of wood, consider covering the ceiling with wood paneling.