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Expert Advice: How to Choose Paint Like a Pro

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Expert Advice: How to Choose Paint Like a Pro

August 16, 2019

The last time I chose a paint color I was twelve. It’s a story that might sound familiar: After much campaigning, my parents let me paint a wall of my bedroom in a color of my choosing (so long as it was light enough to paint over eventually). As this story often goes, I picked a color I liked—a sunny yellow—and spent an afternoon rolling it on, slap-dash, with a friend. What I failed to consider is that liking a color and choosing a paint color for a room are two entirely different things. The yellow was almost completely absorbed in shadows and clashed with the carpet. I’ve been too daunted to consider anything but white since.

Before you even get to the process of painting, just choosing a color that will work in your space is surprisingly tricky. Colors seem to shape-shift once they’re on the wall, and the options can be overwhelming. How will the light affect it? Will it go with the cabinets? Will it make the room feel claustrophobic? We consulted Nicole Gibbons, the designer-entrepreneur behind new direct-to-consumer paint line Clare, which narrows down to the options to just 55 hues, a limited selection of trim paints, and all of the essentials you need (plus oversized stick-on swatches). Here are her tips for foolproof color selection and more.

Photography courtesy of Clare.

Clare’s Classic, a “chic beige.” All of Clare’s paints are $49 per gallon.
Above: Clare’s Classic, a “chic beige.” All of Clare’s paints are $49 per gallon.

Choosing paint can be overwhelming. What’s the best place to start?

Nicole Gibbons: Understanding the natural light in your space is an important starting point. Light has the biggest impact on how color is perceived in your home. The amount of light your space gets, the direction of your light source, as well as the context of existing colors in the space—rugs and furniture—can actually alter how colors appear. This is especially true with whites and neutrals, which tend to reflect any other colors present in and around your space. Bright, clean natural light will show color in its truest form, while southern light, for example, tends to take on a warmer tone.

Flatiron, named for the Manhattan neighborhood, is “brighter during the day, and gets deeper as the sun goes down.”
Above: Flatiron, named for the Manhattan neighborhood, is “brighter during the day, and gets deeper as the sun goes down.”

Anything else that should be taken into consideration?

NG: If you’re looking to make a small space feel larger, brighter colors will reflect more natural light and help open up the space. You also want to consider the other colors that are already prominent in the space so that your paint color choice feels coordinated. Next you’ll want to think about the vibe you want to create. Do you want to make your space feel cozy? If so try a deeper, moodier option. Finally, from a designer’s point of view, architecture is also really important. A modern space will lend itself well to clean, cool colors whereas classic colors may feel more at home in a more traditional space.

What’s the trick to getting a true sense of color from a swatch?

NG: Test your swatches during different times of day to ensure you love the way the color looks under daylight, in the evening when the sun is down, and when the artificial lights are on in your home. The beauty of our peel-and-stick paint swatches is that they’re reposition-able, so you can move them around really easily and they don’t require the mess and effort of dealing with old school paint sample pots.

Clare also offers semi-gloss trim paint, like this one in Shade.
Above: Clare also offers semi-gloss trim paint, like this one in Shade.

What should an amateur painter know going in?

NG: A good paint job is all in the prep! Preparation often requires more effort than the act of painting, so be prepared to spend a little more time than you think on those steps. Once your space is properly prepped, the rest of your paint job will be a breeze. Also: invest in high-quality tools. When you’re working with a more premium paint like ours, quality supplies will ensure a more flawless, professional-looking finish.

Another trick of the trade: Use an extension pole! Most people think they’re only for reaching high places, but if you have a lot of wall surface to paint, an extension pole is a must. It will give you greater leverage so don’t have to keep bending down to load your roller which reduces strain on your arms and back. With better leverage and less physical stress, you’ll be able to paint faster and more efficiently.

The cheekily named Dirty Martini.
Above: The cheekily named Dirty Martini.

Let’s say you want to use multiple paint colors. How can you still make your house feel cohesive, not color-by-number?

NG: Choose colors that coordinate and flow seamlessly from one room to the next. Different shades within the same color family always look beautiful together. So, for example, in one room you may have a more medium blue, and in the next room choose a similar color that’s a few shades lighter. Complimentary colors that feel similar in their levels of color saturation also work well. So if you have a medium blue in one room, you can choose a medium-hued gray or green in the next.

Grayish, a step away from neutral.
Above: Grayish, a step away from neutral.

What hue do you suggest for neutral lovers (like myself) or minimalists who want to get a little more adventurous?

NG: If you’re not confident with a bolder choice, definitely start with a more subtle dose of color. Softer colors are a great stepping stone to adding color to the home. One great option is Headspace, a pale, airy blue that is really easy on the eyes and has a very calming vibe. I also love Wing It: it’s a pale, barely there pink that we like to call a new neutral. It coordinates well with lots of other colors and feels very sophisticated.

Blackest trim paint.
Above: Blackest trim paint.

What’s the rule of thumb on white?

NG: Whites are the hardest colors to get right, which is why we’ve narrowed the options down to three perfect whites. Fresh Kicks is our “gallery white”—it’s our cleanest, brightest white with no undertones. Whipped is a beautiful warm white, and Snow Day is our coolest white with just enough warmth to keep it from feeling sterile. The key to getting whites right is definitely understanding your lighting and how you want the space to feel. A clean or cooler white looks great for a more modern look, whereas warmer whites have a more classic feel. You also want to think about balancing out the natural light in your space. If your space faces north, for example, the light is going to be a lot cooler, so a warmer white might be a nice choice to liven it up. A south-facing room will have warm, sunny light, so a cooler white is a nice option to keep the warmth from feeling too saturated.

Fresh Kicks.
Above: Fresh Kicks.

Eggshell or semigloss: What should you use where?

NG: Eggshell is the best finish for walls. It has a soft sheen to give it some dimension and is also very durable, so you can clean it with ease. Semi-gloss is perfect for trim and looks beautiful when paired with eggshell walls. It also has the most durable finish and can withstand a lot more wear and tear.

What’s your go-to color right now?

NG: I just painted my living room in Penthouse, so that’s definitely a color I’m loving.

Gibbons (and a wall painted in Headspace.)
Above: Gibbons (and a wall painted in Headspace.)

N.B.: Need more advice on choosing a color? There’s a quiz for that. See Clare Color Genius for a personalized recommendation based on your space, light, style, and room size.

More essential paint tips from experts:

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