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Here's How I Pick the Right Paint Colors Every Time

First of all, let’s just be clear here: Choosing that perfect paint color is challenging for anyone. Sometimes even the pros.

So if you’ve ever stood, staring at an array of tiny color swatches, feeling completely overwhelmed, you’re definitely not alone.

Not only are there thousands upon thousands of colors to choose from, but once you finally land on a winner, it might not look the same once it’s painted on your actual walls.

Portola Paints & Glazes North Hollywood Showroom displays their hand-blended paints, unique Lime Washes and sophisticated Roman Clays. Photo Courtesy of Portola Paints

Choosing the right paint color is part art, part science.

For me, choosing paint is such a living organic, in-the-moment process. You can’t just put down a paint color and say “That’s the one!”

Even if I’ve used that paint color in another project and it worked out great. (Although I’ll contradict myself in a minute). Sure, seasoned design pros have their go-to hues. I do have a few paint colors that — after years of experience — I can *almost always* guarantee will work in a pinch.

But there are tricks and things you need to know to pick the right color for your specific walls.

To find the right paint color: don’t make a snap decision in the paint aisle

There are SO many factors at play, it’s nearly impossible to choose a color from a swatch. Not only is that swatch tiny, but it’s perfectly smooth. Walls aren’t. Real walls (even the smoothest walls) have a visible texture to them. This means the light reflects off the surfaces at various angles and alters the appearance of the color. It looks completely different on a wall than it ever does on a sample. Even the large ones. So pick a few that you think could work, but take the time to test them in your space.

I swatch up to three paint options on several walls throughout a space to watch how the hues change in the light and shadows - and throughout the day.

Paint multiple test swatches directly onto your walls

Every paint color looks different in different spaces. Even on different walls in the same room.

I’ve actually had clients argue with me about this — the same color looks so different in the kitchen than the breakfast nook that they’re sure the paint crews made a mistake. This is why it’s so important to test your colors on each wall. What’s lovely and bright white on one might look yellow and dated on the adjacent wall. This, more than anything, is why I believe I can’t offer virtual design services. I wouldn’t want to recommend paint colors offhand to clients. Because they’re just not that prescriptive. A color that looks beautiful in southern California’s golden afternoon light is going to read very differently in an NYC apartment. (And vice versa.)

You really have to physically see the sun in the space, to watch the light move across the test swatches on your walls. And not just little dabs of a few paint colors. The larger the swatches, the better. I paint roughly 2’ x 3’ squares to help me get a good sense of the color in each space.

Sit with the paint swatches for a few days

Once you’ve got a few contenders painted on each wall, it’s time to wait.

The sun’s light is very different at 6 am, at noon, and at sunset. And, artificial lighting from overhead fixtures and reading lamps will shift the paint’s appearance, too.

Pay attention to which color looks best on each wall and at various times of the day. Make notes and compare them as the week goes on. On my projects, I recommend clients sit with their color swatches for about a week. By then, it’s usually really clear which paint color is right for them.

One of my favorite shades of whites by Portola - Dimly Lit. Photo Courtesy of Portola Paint

Once you’ve found your perfect paint color, be sure to find high-quality paint

The quality of the paint itself is as important as the color.

For LA locals, I recommend Portola Paints. It’s who I’ve begun to specify for my projects and I absolutely love their product and process.

Located in North Hollywood, they’re a small family-owned company that does things old-school. Each color is matched by eye — they don’t use a computer like the big companies do. It’s impressive to see.

Plus, their paints are all eco-friendly and really reasonably priced.

For non-Angelinos, Benjamin Moore has great colors and products, and they’re available at retail locations and hardware stores nationwide. Do a little research, visit showrooms, and ask the experts for high-quality paint and finish recommendations for your room.

One last note: Sheen and finish have a huge impact on the final look, so take your time to test a few and choose the right one.*

*And for the love of god, don’t paint your walls in a satin finish. EVER. (Never ever ever.)

Flat, pearl, or eggshell finish only on drywall. Yes, even in bathrooms and on ceilings. I know after a year in quarantine we’re all going a little nuts, but you’re not living in an institution, my friend!

There’s just really no ‘one size fits all’ paint color.*

I’ve shared a few of my favorite hues with Elle Decor and House Beautiful in the past: including a creamy white, timeless teal, or classic red I’ve used and loved.

I also keep a binder of successful paint colors from past projects. It’s got a few hundred samples and some notes on each one. This saves so much energy for me and my clients. Because like I said before, there are tens of thousands of colors. It’s just too much to sift through — it would be completely overwhelming.

Instead of showing up to client meetings with the duffel bag of paint decks Benjamin Moore sent me, I can bring this more manageable subset of colors. The ones I know work well with LA’s golden light, and that past clients have loved in their homes.

And while these are tried and tested, I still test them again in the current space before we ever paint a full room.

* My favorite no-fail paint colors

Now, I stand by the above advice. It’s how I prefer to make paint color decisions for each project. But there are some colors that I’ve used multiple times that consistently get great results. And, while I do shop with my friends at Portola here in LA, I wanted to offer a few tried-and-true paint colors readily available to readers nationwide.

Benjamin Moore’s White Dove literally sets the tone for the entire home in our Playa project’s entry. Photo by Meghan Beierle-O'Brien

Want a clean, pure white?

White walls have been a trend for a while, and it’s always good to have a pure white paint color at the ready.

My pure white paint color choice is Benjamin Moore White Dove OC-17. It has just enough warmth to not feel cold and sterile at night, but it stays bright and clean in the daylight, too. (The golden LA light can turn many whites yellow in the afternoon, which always feels off.) White Dove is the perfect Goldilocks of white paint. Not too cold, not too warm — just right.

A no-fail neutral paint color

For a neutral paint color option in a pinch, I always recommend Benjamin Moore Light Pewter 1464. It’s a perfect light greige that looks beautiful in any light. When someone needs a quick, safe decision, that’s my go-to

A gorgeous serine blue that works anywhere

If a pop of color is what you’re looking for, I highly recommend Benjamin Moore Normandy 2129-40. It’s a gorgeous shade of blue that Chelsea Sachs introduced me to on our Playa project.

I love it because it’s both high-impact yet easy on the eyes — and it looks beautiful with white or light wood tones. I’ve used the color several times since (including in my own home office!) and people ask about it often on Zoom calls. It’s always a hit.

Benjamin Moore’s Normandy is a perfect, soothing shade for this dreamy guest bedroom. Photo by Meghan Beierle-O'Brien

Struggling to pick the perfect paint color?

Follow these simple steps to choose the right one:

  • Let your furnishings and material choices guide you. Paint can be one of the last design decisions you make.

  • Find a few swatches that look close but have different undertones

  • Get small sample jars of each color. Make sure the finish is the same one you plan to use for the final coat

  • Paint large swatches — ideally at least 2’ x 3’ — on every wall you’re going to paint and don’t forget to label them!

  • Give it time to cure. Paint takes at least a day to fully cure and take on its final color. Also, I’ve found it takes our eyes about 48 hours to adjust to darker, more saturated hues and read them accurately. So be patient here.

  • Observe them throughout the week, making note of how each looks at different times of the day

  • Pick the winner!

  • Purchase high-quality paint from a trusted expert. Ask around if you’re not sure.

Whether you DIY the painting or let an expert crew take it from there, these steps will help ensure you select a paint color you’ll love for years to come — at any time of day.

Until next time,



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