"Help me find a color...."

So I've been wanting to write about this for a while now, the dilemma of choosing paint colors. So many Houzzers ask the question, "what color should I paint my room?" or "what color is on the walls of this or that room?" in a photo. It's not a question that can be answered remotely, online, or from a photo or computer monitor.

Here are some illustrations of the problem. The following three photos are of rooms painted with Benjamin Moore's "Edgecomb Gray," one of their most popular colors. As you can see, the first photo looks to be a taupey gray, the second a very light pure gray, and the third looks beige.

Mill Valley Estate · More Info

Chappaqua Deepwood Kitchen · More Info

Lehman Renovation · More Info

Let's look at another example of rooms painted in Benjamin Moore's "Wedgewood Gray."

Laguna Beach Residence · More Info

E Oceanfront Ave, Newport Beach · More Info

Dining Room · More Info

Here again, the colors appear very different in the three images. The first looks to be a pale blue, the second a darker blue, and the third looks like a very toned gray, with a slight greenish cast.

In case you think this illusion is limited to pale colors, consider these three rooms all painted in Farrow & Ball's "Stiffkey Blue." This first image shows a very bright, saturated blue.

Library/ Music Room of 18th Century Federal Farmhouse · More Info

Here is a much more muted darker blue:

Country cottage bathroom - New England style · More Info

This color looks like a very dark navy blue, with an almost purple cast to it:

Stiffkey Blue Powder Room · More Info

You might wonder how do I know what these colors are in reality? All were taken from the answers posted by the designer or homeowner in the question sections of the photos.

The only way you can determine how a color will look in your room is to test it in your room, with the lighting that exists in your space. Color is a function of light, and the lighting can totally change your perception of a color. Just think of walking into a very dimly lit room--everything looks gray and colorless until the light hits it.

So the next time you need color advice, you can START your search online, and get others' ideas. But the only way to end your search is with the actual color in your actual space.

Comments (23)

  • hollybar

    Brava! All so true.

    edit to add: but ya gotta admit it is fun to speculate and guesstimate.

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked hollybar
  • mjkjrobinson

    This is what I"ve been saying for years! I love all the blue so pretty no matter what you call it"s gorgeous!

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked mjkjrobinson
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    Need help! Help me find the perfect colors for living/dining room


    Comments (25)
    Nbb - the colors I sent marked gray are really taupe. Don't shy from names - gray is the in shade now, so they have named a lot of neutrals gray when they are really what you would think of as beige or taupe. If you don't like the blue-gray that is no big deal - if you are still interested in color blocking, find a medium shade between the two light taupe and dark bronze. To find one for your accent wall, look at sw urbane bronze and then go up the shade chart up two tones. Replace the blue with that middle shade in the scheme. If you wanted to buy a beige, you probably came to the wrong place for advice. We are trying to give you instant style with your paint. Easy to buy and put up a beige - if that is what you want, look at sw naturel. Great looking couch. Do you like the idea of having chalk paint on your column so people can write on it or you can draw on it or put up basketball brackets for March madness? Finally, when people give color suggestions, you always have to test them in your space with your light and things. The way to do this that most people find most successful is to paint a foamcore or cardboard poster - split a big poster in 1/2 for this exercise - then move it around your room. this way you can test beiges and taupes w/out worry.
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    Comments (23)
    Thank you all! I'm scared that some colors may turn blue, because I'm really not a blue person, but I love the blue/green colors, but it does seem that they change depending on light. I ordered a sample yesterday of "Silver Sage" from RH, so we'll see how that goes. Someone said that the RH SS is the same as BM SS, does anyone know if this is true? Also another post I read said that RH SS, is the same as BM Gray Wisp at 50%. I'm confused....
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    Dining room dilemma! Help me find my paint color!


    Comments (18)
    If you're in the northern hemisphere and your dining room faces north, I am sure that you will not like any gray. We have that and have been lacking time to repaint. On the other hand, if you are facing south, we have something very similar to Sherwin Williams 7657 Tinsmith. It's a very green gray which looks nice against view of the back woods behind our condo. We also have that same color in our kitchen, where we actually eat and use the north facing gray dining room for TV.
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  • PRO
    Lori A. Sawaya

    I'd add the images of paint blobs from Pinterest and blogs, i.e. "The 7 Best Greiges".

    #1 "Best" according to whom. #2 As with all online color, the color of the blobs means nothing.

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked Lori A. Sawaya
  • PRO

    Great post!!

    To which I will add this: Think of color like fragrance. You head to the perfume counter and you start sniffing. You spray one wrist.........the other wrist..........then the back of a hand. with yet another scent. Suddenly, you can't smell ANYTHING. You walk away. You have nose numbed confusion.

    The very same thing happens with any paint color. Five six seven blues, grays on a wall....tiny areas painted...little sample pots. Not ONE looks like the chip in the paint store.!! Your eye can't tell one from another, only that none are "right".

    Whenever possible, You test a big wall, and near your trim white. At the very least, you try a LARGE poster board, all alone, next to that trim.

    You accept that different exposures, the time of day, and your own lighting or lack of it will cause any color to morph. Color does not exist without light. If we painted the inside of one of your closets, stuffed you in there and yanked the door closed and asked you to tell us WHAT color was on the walls? You'd not be able to answer. Could be yellow, purple, red, would not know.

    So it is with paint. Narrow your selection, TEST BIG!!! .......and test all alone,. Think five feet x five feet...not five inches by five inches ) Don't numb your own eyeballs.

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked JAN MOYER
  • PRO
    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC

    Thanks, Jan, for expanding on my comments!

    Love the "fragrance" analogy!

  • teddytoo

    Talk to paint professionals as well if the samples you try aren’t exactly what you want. I have had excellent luck in finding the perfect color by trying a few that look right on samples and then talking to my paint store managers or long term employees and explaining what didn’t work with those colors and they have helped me nail it each time. I start with three that seem to be right and then list what didn’t work with each and take it with me to get the fourth sample that has always turned out to be the right color.

  • WalnutCreek Zone 7b/8a

    There are excellent messages on this thread concerning colors. Learn from them. I learned this about 20 years ago as stated in another thread ( and went about educating myself regarding color. There is so much information out there. However, I realize some don't have the eye for color and need to consult a color specialist. I learned so much from Lori A Sawaya ( and Maria Killam ( Maria used to post on this forum but no longer does because she is so very busy. She offers wonderful e-design consults ( and is very, very successful at it. Thanks to you two professionals for teaching me so much about color and being able to determine the undertones.

  • cawaps

    My previous laptop had atrocious color rendering, particularly with any color with yellow in the mix (a problem I was never able to correct, despite my best efforts). Oranges came out pinker than they should, blue-greens came out bluer, etc. When I filtered for yellow paint colors on the Benjamin Moore website, some looked out straight-up pink. The lower the color saturation, the worse the rendering. I eventually learned my lesson and stopped engaging on questions about neutral colors at all unless I was on my work computer. Or whites. "Should I choose White Dove or Cloud White?"

    The new laptop is better; at least all colors described as yellow actually appear to be in the yellow family (and the same with reds and blues and greens). But I know well that no two monitors are going to show a color quite the same way, and it will be different from the color itself.

    My paint selection strategy is start with an initial screening using paint swatches. I tape a bunch of swatches to my wall and eliminate the non-starters. Look at them again at a different time of day and take down the worst. Move them to a different wall and remove the worst. When I get down to a reasonable number for an actual paint test, I buy paint samples and paint foam boards. I then view those at different times of day and in different locations around the room. Sometimes I end up with a few colors and realize I would be happy with any of them. In other situations, there isn't one color that is my favorite at all times of day ("I prefer this one in the morning, but that one in the evening"). Then I just have to decide what time of day I am more likely to look at it, and whether either is truly objectionable in the less flattering light. I had that problem painting the inside of my front door, which has west-facing glass. Any color was going to look dramatically different in the morning with filtered light vs. evening when the light from the window blows out your ability to perceive the colors surrounding it..

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked cawaps
  • WalnutCreek Zone 7b/8a

    Excellent post, cawaps. Also the differences in the quality of light during Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter is totally different and will effect the way colors look.

  • thinkdesignlive

    And to expand on this good advice (and similar to what Jan said) this color pro wrote a blog about how to test correctly.
    There are also many helpful blog posts from her that also tell you step 1 - where to even begin on the color wheel for your conditions. Summary: always choose paint LAST when designing your spaces.

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked thinkdesignlive
  • PRO
    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC

    Haha, Lori, I agree with not paying any attention to "the 10 best whites/blues/grays/greens/etc." No color can be great in all spaces, or all things to all people.

    Many years ago, before I had any color training, I wanted to paint the same color in a kitchen and an adjacent hallway. The kitchen was dark and the hallway full of natural light. I realized that I needed to paint a darker color in the hallway than in the kitchen for the colors to APPEAR to be the same due to the difference in lighting. Lesson learned.

  • PRO
    Lori A. Sawaya

    Thanks to you two professionals for teaching me so much about color and being able to determine the undertones.

    Hahaha! Well, I apparently wasn't clear enough. And lumpin' me into the same sentence with the word "undertone" kinda makes me want to gag a little but I understand it was a totally innocent mistake. :) No harm, no foul.

    So, allow me to clarify.

    The theory that you can subjectively judge color under random light sources and assign it to a category of "undertones" is flawed on so many levels we'd be here all day itemizing the specifics of what's wrong with it.

    The Emperor's New Clothes is the perfect analogy that explains why and how people have gotten sucked into the undertone shtick.

    Identifying a color's core attribute of hue doesn't require practice or "training your eye".

    That's absolutely ridiculous.

    It's almost 2020 and there are NUMEROUS free resources for looking up a color's hue family - from your phone, tablet or computer.

    These sources all use the same color science and international standards which is why the data is so reasonably consistent resource to resource:

    1. EasyRGB

    2. Spectro 1 app from Variable. It's a free app and you do not have to own or connect a Spectro 1 device to use the app. This app is literally the closest to a professional color lab you can get. And, again, it's free. iTunes and for Android

    These are the two I recommend most often.

    Find the hue angle which is the "h" in the LCh data set, LCh(ab) on easyRGB, find the degrees on the Color Strategist Color Wheel, see where the degrees align with the hue family spokes on the inside of the color wheel and -BOOM- you know what hue family a color belongs too within a matter of seconds.

    No endlessly shuffling paint chips, no visual gymnastics or guessing required.

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked Lori A. Sawaya
  • beckysharp Reinstate SW Unconditionally

    To which I will add this: Think of color like fragrance. You head to the perfume counter and you start sniffing. You spray one wrist.........the other wrist..........then the back of a hand. with yet another scent. Suddenly, you can't smell ANYTHING. You walk away. You have nose numbed confusion.

    To add to what Jan wrote, to me it's more like finding an amazing fragrance on your best friend or cousin or co-worker that smells absolutely gorgeous, and then you buy it yourself but it smells totally different, and not in a good way. Same perfume, two very different body chemistries.

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked beckysharp Reinstate SW Unconditionally
  • eastautumn

    This thread has some excellent advice, but I love to look at paint colors (in magazines, books, online, and in real life) for inspiration even though I know colors change based on lighting and surrounding elements. If I love the mood a color inspires, it can be convenient (though not necessary) to know the paint color as a starting point and work from there to find an actual color that has a similar effect and works with the lighting and other elements in a given space. I love to play with color, both outside (foliage, blooms, etc.) and inside (paint, fabric, etc.), so I often enjoy the threads on this forum about paint colors... Except for the "what's your favorite true gray" ones ;)

    I know it's like nails on a chalkboard for Lori when people use the term "undertone" as it's not the proper term, but it doesn't bother me as much when lay people use it. I do find it annoying that some designers and online consultants use it when they should know better.

    Reading this forum has taught me a lot, and so has making mistakes. I'm a lot more confident now than I used to be when it comes to selecting paint colors, and haven't made the kind of paint choice mistakes I used to (and that I read about routinely on this forum) in a very long time.

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked eastautumn
  • PRO
    Lori A. Sawaya

    but it doesn't bother me as much when lay people use it.


    If someone is comfortable with the word itself, then it's my job to meet them where ever they are. I know what they mean when someone talks about undertones.

    The issue and why I'm so insistent about explaining WHY the theory is flawed is because all the new color tools we have now, and all the new innovations coming, are based on basic color science - that's how they ALL work.

    The theory that one can subjectively judge color under random, unspecified light sources and conclusively categorize it in to silos of undertones does not align with how color really works and how science has quantified how humans see color.

    To be clear, it's the science quantifying how humans SEE color which does not necessarily encompass how humans experience color.

    Because the theory of undertones is not based on science. It's one of many homespun color theories that seems viable surface level but falls a part when dissected.

    I'm so passionate about this issue because we're waaay past the point of no return with the tools, and the apps, and the access to authentic color science.

    It's about color literacy.

    Big picture is technology is going to little by little influence everyone to become more color literate and modernize how color is defined, described, and communicated.

    The same kind of evolution that made CD players, fax machines, Yellow Pages, etc. obsolete.

    (And you may or may not remember the crazy lady on the Garden Web who kept talking about what was coming.)

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked Lori A. Sawaya
  • PRO
    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC

    Lori, words mean a lot, and I agree that when speaking about anything, you should use the appropriate language. I've read enough of your blog posts and answers to Design Dilemmas to bristle at the word "undertone" whenever I read it now!

    I think you mentioned in one of your discussions the comparison of describing color to that of describing music. Imagine if when describing a musical note we said "it sounds like a lark/wren/hawk" instead of correctly describing the sound as "a flat/b natural/d sharp"? No one would know exactly to what you were referring. There is a science to describing a musical tone based on sound waves/minute (A440 or 440hz), just as there is a science to describing colors. Maybe someday the science of color will be as commonplace as the science of music.

  • PRO
    Lori A. Sawaya

    I think you're talking about a quote from Munsell.

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked Lori A. Sawaya
  • PRO
    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC

    Aha, yes! I couldn't remember exactly who said it! Thanks, Lori!

  • PRO

    Many things are science and system.. Baking a perfect cake or pie, or a fluffy souffle is indeed that; far different than than tossing a chicken breast on a grill.

    My long deceased granny would love to know her recipe cards (minus any direction or amount) and typically stating "Butter, eggs, flour..............baking soda" , never prevented her from cluelessly churning out perfection, over and over again until she died. : )

    If you slap some gray paint on your walls, and you "see blue" see it. Go right ahead and change it. Just don't call it undertone lol.

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked JAN MOYER
  • PRO
    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC

    Jan, you make a great point. A great symphony, like a beautiful room, is a meld of art and science. The science of music, with pleasing harmonies and accurate notation, is just the beginning. Then artistry takes over. Just as with a room, it's more than the sum of its parts. Getting the wall color right is one piece of the puzzle. The combination of good space planning, accurate drafting, patterning, and color is the beginning of a great room. Then artistry takes over. It's like the difference between a great technician and an artist.

  • PRO

    As one of the successful UN schooled, I love it when someone says, " how did you know?!" Same answer......".I don't KNOW how I know, or how i knew. , and does it matter if we are both looking at it and think it's wonderful"?

    Does it matter that I COULD use a level, a tape measure, paper templates, to hang that group of prints, ( but won't 99% of the time) ?. Or could you just get out of my way for thirty minutes and I'll bang them up, stand back and then say "oh, hang on, one of these is a 16th of an inch lopsided to the left................" Done!

    Science and knowledge are wonderful, But we shouldn't punish a lack of those, or the vocabulary that may go with them, as long as the result WORKS. : )

    The science and Knowledge might be the shortcut to "perfection" .It's just that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Not to mention, perfection is highly overrated. A topic for a different thread.

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked JAN MOYER
  • J Williams

    I kind of feel like saying well, duh. When I make suggestions to people I am only going with a feeling with what might work, which is why I make no definitive statements. I am no professional, and even if I was, I have no way of visiting the sites posted online to get a better sense of the quality of light, or how the view outdoors may be influencing a feeling you get indoors or that 3/4 of their personal possessions are purple or brown or black or beige. But I am old enough to have lived through multiple decades or have been influenced by them. And see them repeat but maybe a little bit altered.

    I did grow up in a home where my mom made a good quantity of my clothes and I spent a lot of hours in fabric stores and studying patterns and fashion magazines, so sometimes I was seeing the evolution of trends and styles, my grandparents were also home stagers, so that was part of my life a little bit too.

    I am actually conversant in our local plant material enough, that I actually do know what a tuxedo weigela looks like vs a wine and roses or a little princess spirea vs a gold flame. Putting together plant combos is what I do, it is working with colours, volumes, textures etc.

    I am also an artist so again, colours, textures, depth, subject matter, context....

    Everyone is bringing their personal experiences to what they see now. Colour is subjective, context matters a lot.

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked J Williams
  • PRO
    Lori A. Sawaya

    What you all need to understand is the science, the technology isn't "instead of" anything.

    It's not instead of a creative eye.

    It's not instead of artistry.

    It doesn't replace anything.

    And that's what makes it powerful.

    The reason why the new technologies are so powerful and such a game changer is because they provide a supportive and organized framework for the creative eye.

    The science offers a color order framework for the artist where none existed.

    The tools and technology make accessing that framework almost instant.

    It will make you a better artist.

    It will make you a better designer.

    It will open doors creatively undiscoverable without it.

    But you can't know this, you can't understand this by making assumptions and speculating about how you think this works.

    Also, you can't successfully argue against it unless you understand it.

    If you want to have a better argument to marginalize and dismiss the science and new innovations, then you should educate yourself so you can speak to it from a place of informed vs. assumption and what you think you know.

    But here's the thing.

    Every single person I have ever challenged to go educate themselves and then get back to me with a better argument, hasn't.

    Or I guess hasn't yet. I'm still waiting.

    Diana Bier Interiors, LLC thanked Lori A. Sawaya

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