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Remodeling 101: How to Choose the Perfect White Paint


Remodeling 101: How to Choose the Perfect White Paint

July 20, 2017

We’re on an eternal quest for that home design Holy Grail: the perfect white paint. And given that spaces, lighting, moods, and personal preferences all vary, there are many factors to be considered—and also many right answers.

For guidance, we turned to members of the Remodelista Architect/Designer Directory. Their advice from the trenches confirmed our hunch: As architect Amy Alper says, “It really pays to take the time to find the right white.” Here’s how:

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Above: A study in white featured in Lessons in Reinvention: A Victorian Girls’ School Reborn. Photograph courtesy of architects McLaren.Excell.

1. Get to know the nuances in white.

Artists and others who work with color know that white isn’t one hue but many—and that some are whiter than others.

“White paints can come with bluish, reddish, yellowish, and even greenish undertones,” says Amy Alper. To see the variety, head to your local paint shop and ask for help spotting whites with a variety of undertones and compare them side by side. Or take the suggestion of interior designer Ellen Hamilton and hold the samples against a sheet of white paper. The complexity of each color will reveal itself to you.

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Above: The San Francisco office of interior designer Alison Davin. Photograph courtesy of Jute.

2. Size up what’s in the room.

Before selecting a paint shade, size up the palette of everything that will be in the space. “Are the colors cool or warm?” asks Alper. If they’re warm, you’ll want to lean toward whites with warm-colored undertones (pink, orange, red, yellow). If they’re cool, consider cool-inflected whites (with undertones of blue, purple, or green).

What if the furnishings are neutral? “If neutral, I go with a warmer white,” says Alison Davin of Jute. “If there is a lot of color, a cooler white.”

Keep in mind that your furnishings will affect your perception of any paint. Says architect Ian Read of Medium Plenty in San Francisco: “Sometimes getting a ‘warm’ white doesn’t actually come from the paint, it comes from the entire assembly of the space.”

Project M Plus Murnane House Los Angeles Mimi Giboin Rmodelista 38 0
Above: A living room play space featured in An LA Cliffhanger: Go High or Stay Low? Photograph by Mimi Giboin, courtesy of Project M+.

3. Assess the lighting.

Because color is a phenomenon of light, the amount of natural and artificial light in the room impacts the tone of the walls. Says Alison Davin: “A pure white looks best with a lot of natural light. With less natural light, the white can have a base with more of a pigment.”

Note that geography affects light as well. According to interior designer Ellen Hamilton, “In New York, the light tends to be gray and warm. This means the best white is sympathetic to a warm gray. Ideally, it would have warm gray as the undertone.” However, “in Miami the same color may look like it has an orange cast. This is because the light in Miami has pure blue filtering through it. The blue in the light will make the warm gray paint look pink.”

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Above: Swatches of favorite paints in 10 Easy Pieces: Architects’ White Exterior Paint Picks. Photograph by Katie Newburn for Gardenista.

4. Choose several whites you like.

Take what you’ve learned about the furnishings and light in your room and choose a few whites. When selecting, consider these tips from the pros.

  • A pure white reads more modern than one with some color in the mix. (Interior designer Alison Davin)
  • The best whites aren’t really white at all. In most cases, bright white needs some tempering with color. (Architect Michael Howells)
  • If struggling, err on the side of a neutral white, in between what you can clearly read as “warm” and “cool.” (Interior designer Ellen Hamilton)
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Above: Interior designer Michaela Scherrer mixes her own white paints, including the one she used in her Pasadena guest room, shown here. Learn how she does it in DIY Paint: Designer Michaela Scherrer Mixes Her Own Shades of White. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.

5. Put your favorite shades to the test.

Our designers insist that paint should be tested at home. Says Gretchen Krebs of Medium Plenty, “A white that seemed warm on a smaller paint chip may suddenly look too pink or sallow. Or a white that looked crisp and modern may feel way too cold in a larger application.”

However, our designers were divided on whether to paint a sample directly on the wall or use a movable swatch:

Why paint on the wall? Ian Reed suggests painting swatches “as big as you can and in several places. Colors shift from ceiling to wall, wall to wall, room to room. It is all about direction of exposure, proximity to windows, and artificial light.” If you’re working with a designer or contractor, he says, make sure that these tests are required as part of your contract, and even specify how many.

Why use a movable swatch? Says Amy Alper, “It makes more sense to paint a large panel so you can move it around. The same color will appear differently on different walls in the same room depending on the amount of light on that particular wall. Take note of the paint during the day and evening, in natural light and artificial light.” Or, says Alison Davin, use the paint line’s largest sample cards and tape them up.

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Above: The Montauk beach house of shoe designer Elisa Restrepo is painted entirely in Benjamin Moore’s Super White. It’s featured in The Simple Life: A Montauk Beach House for a Creative Couple. Photograph by Kevin Greenberg, courtesy of Space Exploration.

6. What if I still can’t figure it out?

There are a handful of whites we hear about over and over again, all from Benjamin Moore. Here’s our cheat sheet.

Alison Davin suggests Farrow & Ball and C2 Paint for rooms without much natural light. “Their mixes have more depth to them, adding dimension without having to add windows,” she says.

Also take a look at our previous primers on white: 10 Easy Pieces: Architects’ White Paint Picks and 10 Easy Pieces: Architects’ White Exterior Paint Picks.

Find even more paint advice in:

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Frequently asked questions

What is the article 'Remodeling 101: How to Choose the Perfect White Paint' about?

This article is about how to choose the perfect shade of white paint for your home renovation project.

Why is choosing the right shade of white paint important?

Choosing the right shade of white paint is important because it can affect the overall look and feel of your space. White paint can reflect light and create an illusion of more space, so it's important to choose a shade that suits your preferences, lighting, and decor.

What are some things to consider when choosing a shade of white paint?

Things to consider when choosing a shade of white paint include lighting, the undertones in your space (such as flooring or furniture), and the mood you want to create in your room.

What are some common white paint shades and their undertones?

Some common white paint shades and their undertones include 'Simply White' with a warm yellow undertone, 'Decorator's White' with a cool blue undertone, and 'Chantilly Lace' with a pure white undertone.

How can I test a shade of white paint before committing to it?

One way to test a shade of white paint is to paint a small area of the wall with a sample and observe it in different lighting throughout the day. You can also try a peel-and-stick sample or ordering a larger sample from the paint manufacturer.

Can I use white paint in every room?

Yes, white paint can work in every room. However, consider the type of activities that occur in each room when choosing the shade of white. For example, a pure white shade may not be practical in a high-traffic area like a kids' playroom.

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