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Choose the right colors for your rooms

  • Story Highlights
  • Color can help define interiors and create focal points
  • Painting ceiling same color as walls make room look bigger
  • Paint 4-by-4-foot swatch on wall, wait 48 hours to check color
  • Always to use primer so old color won't "haunt" new color
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By Jill Connors
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This Old House

(This Old House) -- When she hears people express a reluctance to paint their rooms in vivid hues because they believe it is inappropriate to the age or architectural style of their house, designer Susan Sargent waves away their concerns as though swatting flies.


Contrasting colors can play up architectural features in a room.

"I tell them to get over it. Truth is, every period of American architecture has welcomed colorful rooms," says Sargent, who is known for her bright-colored furnishings line.

Indeed, from the blue-painted hearth of a Colonial Revival to the deep red parlor walls of a Queen Anne to the teal accents of a Craftsman bungalow, there has always been a place for color inside the house.

Even in today's open-plan homes, where kitchens, living rooms, and dining rooms are often one large space, color is used to help define interiors and create focal points in relatively featureless rooms. The trick, of course, is figuring out which colors to use and where to put them.

Using color architecturally

One of the most effective ways to use color to transform a room is to play up its architectural features. Molding, mantels, built-in bookcases, arched doorways, wainscot, windows, and doors all offer an opportunity to add another layer of interest to colored walls.

For subtle emphasis, Sheri Thompson, director of color marketing and design for Sherwin-Williams, suggests painting molding or doorways just one step lighter or darker than the primary wall. "It's a subtle shift in color but it really brings your eye to the detail," she says.

Painting a metallic glaze right on top of an existing painted element, like a ceiling medallion, is another way to draw attention. "A copper or bronze finish is very translucent and it gives a nice shimmer that enhances the architectural feature," says Thompson. This Old House: Secrets of pro painters

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For a bolder approach, try using two different colors in the same room. For example, paint a built-in bookcase or niche a shade of green in a room with blue walls, which will highlight the items on the bookcase or inside the recessed area.

Of course, architectural elements can also provide continuity throughout a house if they are painted the same color in every room. Starting in the Federal period and continuing today, white and off-white have been the traditional choice for molding, windows, and doors.

A room containing wainscot provides a good opportunity for a contrast between light and dark. A dark wainscot below a bright wall will draw attention to the upper walls, while a bright white wainscot next to a colored wall will focus the eye on the wainscot. You can also use paint to create the effect of wainscot where it doesn't exist by covering the bottom third of the wall in one color and the upper walls in another; then place a piece of flat molding along the intersection and paint it the color of the lower wall to reinforce the wainscot look.

Where rooms are relatively featureless, painting an "accent wall" in a vivid hue where the others are white or neutral can add a dramatic, contemporary edge. Or, as Ken Charbonneau, a New York color marketing consultant, suggests, paint the primary walls a soft color such as beige or celadon green and the accent wall three shades darker. "The accent wall still gives the room some punch, but it's not as dramatic."

If drama is your goal, you might rethink the entire notion of painting a wall from corner to corner, says Doty Horn, director of color and design for Benjamin Moore, and you'll create an architectural emphasis where one doesn't exist. Moving around the room in a clockwise direction, try painting a third of one wall and two thirds of the adjacent wall, wrapping the corner in color. Then paint the last one eighth of the second wall and three quarters of its adjacent wall, covering that corner.

Another bold play: Take a big wall and, working in from both corners, paint it almost to the center, leaving an 18- to 20-inch vertical line of white space, and hang artwork down the center. This Old House: Step-by-step painting a room

Consider the ceiling the fifth wall of a room. Though sticking to "ceiling white" generally makes a space feel airy, a similar effect can be achieved by painting the ceiling a lighter shade of the wall color. Just take the paint sample card that has your wall color as the middle choice, then go one or two choices lighter for the ceiling color. The result will be a room that appears larger, because the contrast between wall color and ceiling color has been softened. In a small room, such as a bathroom, the ceiling can even be painted the same color as the walls to make it look bigger.

Of course, sometimes lowering the ceiling visually creates a welcome feeling of enclosure. In his own 19th-century brownstone, Ken Charbonneau painted the dining room ceiling Pompeiian Red. "People love to ask if the red paint doesn't bring the ceiling down too much. But you're sitting the whole time you're in a dining room, and you want to create a warm, cozy, intimate feeling, so why not?" Of course, his ceilings are 11 feet high. In a house that has ceilings just 8 or 9 feet high, painting a bedroom ceiling a pale robin's egg blue, for instance, would be a way to create a similar, soothing effect.

Choosing colors you can live with

In a world where thousands of colors can be yours for just $25 a gallon, it pays to consider the advice of architectural color consultant Bonnie Krims. "Always remember that while there are thousands of paint chips at the store, there are only seven colors in the paint spectrum," says Krims, referring to red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet (what Color Theory 101 students are often taught to remember by the mnemonic device, "Roy G. Biv"). "I always suggest eliminating a couple even before you go to the paint store."

Her sure-fire method for creating a color scheme? Start by selecting three colors from an existing object in your home.

"Take a pillow from the family-room sofa, your favorite tie or scarf, or a painting -- anything that conveys comfort or has an emotional connection for you -- and take that object to the paint store," says Krims. "Find three sample strips with those colors, and you instantly have 15 to 18 colors you can use, since each sample strip typically contains six paint colors."

The next step is to choose one of the three paint colors as your wall color and to save the other two to be used around the room in fabric or furnishings. To choose the colors for adjacent rooms, take the same original three color sample strips and select another color.

Finally, choose a fourth color that can be used as an accent: "Splash a little of that color into every room of the house -- by way of a pillow or plate or artwork. It makes a connection between the spaces," Krims says.

If you find yourself paralyzed at the paint store, unable to choose your color sample cards, Krims offers this tip: Look at the darkest color at the bottom of the strip. "If you can live with the one at the bottom, you know you'll like the middle and top, but if you choose by looking at the top, lightest colors, all the cards in that category start to look the same."

Once you have your colors in hand, consider the finish you'll be using. Though today's flat paints have increased stain resistance, conventional wisdom has long held that a satin (also called eggshell) finish is best for walls because it is scrubbable and doesn't draw attention to imperfections.

Semi-gloss and high-gloss finishes, it was thought, were best left to the trim, where they could accent the curves of a molding profile or the panels of a door.

Today, however, finishes are also being used to create visual effects on the entire wall. Paint one wall in a flat or satin finish and the adjacent wall in a semi-gloss, both in the same color, and "when the light hits the walls, it creates a corduroy or velvet effect," says Doty Horn.

Similarly, you can paint the walls flat and the ceiling semi-gloss to achieve a matte and sheen contrast. (The ceiling will feel higher the more light-reflective it is.) Keep in mind that the higher the gloss, the more sheen and the more attention you draw to the surface. Used strategically, color and gloss together can emphasize your interior's best assets. This Old House: The perfect paint job

5 common color mistakes

1. Being afraid

"The world is divided into two groups -- the color courageous and the color cowardly," says New York color marketing consultant Ken Charbonneau. "People who live in colorful interiors have gotten over the fear of making a mistake." The best way to get over that fear is to always start with a color you love -- from a rug, a painting, a fabric. Then test it on the wall. If it's too strong, consider asking your paint store to formulate it at "half-strength" to lighten it or to tone it down by adding more gray.

2. Putting too much on the walls

Be aware of the intensity of the colors in a room. "If you have an Oriental rug with five or six strong colors, don't paint the walls in equally strong hues. Let the rug be the focal point and the walls a lighter color," says Sherwin-Williams's Sheri Thompson.

3. Putting too little on the walls

If you think your room is boring, look at it in terms of the 60-30-10 rule that designers employ: Sixty percent of the color in a space generally comes from the walls; 30 percent from upholstery, floor covering, or window treatments; and 10 percent from accent pieces, accessories, and artwork. Translation: Liven up those white walls.

4. Rushing the process

The best way to find a color you can live with is to paint a 4-by-4-foot swatch on the wall and live with it for at least 24 to 48 hours so you can see it in natural and artificial light. "Taking the extra time to do the swatch test is worth it to find a color you'll love living with for years," says Benjamin Moore's Doty Horn.

5. Forgetting about primer

When changing the color of a wall, primer (white or tinted) is vital to getting the actual color you picked out. Michael Baillie, paint sales associate at The Home Depot, says, "Priming ensures there will be no interference from the previous wall color." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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