Choosing a paint color sounds simple, but it's not

Choosing a paint color sounds simple, but it's not
Assorted colors of paint in cans with paint brush. (Comstock)

They have been together for 10 years and they speak in the shorthand of couples who have grown comfortable with each other over time.

"There are just too many choices. When I get overwhelmed, I know I can call him," said Linda Forchheimer of Bel Air.

"She knows what she likes and what she doesn't like," said Jim Ryan. "That's makes it so much easier than someone who can't decide what they like."

Ryan and Forchheimer, interior designer and homeowner, are choosing paint colors for a bedroom in her townhouse that she is converting to an office and a comfortable reading room.

He fans his paint samples the way a dealer might fan a deck of cards, and the two hit on a warm and appealing color combination in just a couple of minutes. They decide on "Dromedary Camel" for the walls and "Ivory Tusk" for the ceiling in less time than it might take them to order lunch.

"She used to stay up at night and worry," said Ryan of Simply Grande Interiors in Forest Hill. "Now I do it for her."

That's what homeowners need, designers agree: someone to take the worry out of choosing what color paint to use. It seems like such a simple decision. But when there are thousands of hues, picking just one, or two, can seem overwhelming.

"And you don't know what color it is going to be when it dries," said Ryan. "That, and people just don't trust themselves."

Ryan and his client were choosing paint and fabric for the empty room. They took their cue from the window treatments that would remain: a pair of cornices in an earthy, textured paisley and solid drapery panels in a brown/clay color that give the room a warm and clubby look. The central pieces of furniture will be a leather chair and fabric ottoman with accent pillows.

"The worst thing you can do is paint a room and then try to find furniture to match it," Ryan said, as he and Forchheimer sorted through fabric swatches.

Stephanie Besch Chase of Besch Designs, who lives and works in Alexandria, Va., and Annapolis, said that though paint is the easiest and cheapest element of design to change, people are still afraid to make a mistake. So they call her.

"People think they can't afford a designer," said Chase, who charges $100 an hour. "But this is not an expensive thing."

Ryan charges $150 for a one-hour paint consultation. "Sometimes I make my suggestions, and we never see each other again," he said. "Some people want to do this themselves, but they need a starting place."

Chase often works with young families who don't have a lot of money to spend. "But they want their space to look nice, clean and well thought out. They tell me that they want it to look like they thought about it, that they tried to tie it together."

"Flow" is a popular concept in choosing paint colors, and one that homeowners find most difficult to master. If you are having trouble choosing paint for one room, choosing a group of colors that move seamlessly from room to hall to room to foyer can make you feel like you need to take a nap first.

"You remember the '70s," said Ryan, "when every room had a different color carpet? It was like living in a patchwork quilt.

"Today, homeowners don't want to feel jolted when they move from room to room. And I think we are helping them accomplish that."

Understanding color is a major part of a designer's job, and they are students of it.

"I go into a restaurant and I see a color I like, and before I even order, I ask somebody if they can find out the name of the color for me," said Chase. "If they can't, I take a picture of it and try to match it.

"My husband and I went to Venice, but instead of bringing back a big painting of Venice, I did it with color. Now the whole bathroom is Venetian."

Designers often ask homeowners what their favorite item is in the house. Or they ask to see their clothes closet to get an idea of the color palette the homeowners may be unaware they are drawn to.

And then they might kick it up a notch.

"I like to introduce [a color] and then I keep bringing it up. 'Are your sure? Are you sure?'" said Ryan. "People are braver than they think, and they are looking for someone to tell them that."

tips for painting

1.Know your walls. Are they drywall or plaster? Plaster absorbs more paint and the color often changes.

2.Fix the cracks. Take the time to repair the walls. Make sure the surfaces are clean and dry.

3.Try several samples. Spend the money and the time to purchase sample sizes of the paint colors you are considering or different shades of the same color. Prime the walls and then apply a square foot of paint in several places in the room. Or paint pieces of poster board and tack them up around the room.

4.Try the color near the trim. Place the color patches near the trim because that is where the color will "pop." Check back during the day to see how the paint looks in different kinds of sunlight and at night to see how it looks in artificial light.

5.Take time to prime. Always prime the walls before painting. That ensures an even color. And don't start a new can of paint in the middle of a wall. Even the smallest difference may be noticeable.

6.Splurge on the paint. Don't skim on the paint quality, interior designer Stephanie Chase advises. Even in the same brand, the premium paint will be heavier and made with a different base. It is worth the extra $10 or $15 a can, she says.

7.Powder rooms are for experimenting. A shiny surface is OK in the powder room, where anything goes. But use satin in high-traffic areas — it can be washed. Elsewhere, flat paint is best on walls; semigloss for trim.

8.Paint should take a back seat. In most rooms, the walls should recede and not steal the show from the furnishings. "The things in your house that you love should stand out. Not the paint," said Chase. The exception might be the dining room. "Since it is often used only for special occasions, it can be painted a dramatic color that will catch the eye of anyone passing by."

9.Look up. Every designer will tell you to paint the ceiling. "You don't give a gift in a box without a lid," said Jim Ryan. A soft yellow can make the room feel like it is filled with sunshine. A light blue will feel like it is open to the sky. When in doubt, just use a light version of the color on the walls. Crown molding will help separate the colors on the walls and the ceiling and give the room a formal look.

10.Term limits for paint. And finally, consider repainting every four years, Chase recommends. Trends come and go. Wear and tear will begin to show. And a fresh coat of paint is like a fresh start. "If you don't want to change the whole room, change one wall and make it an accent wall," said Chase.


For more resources on painting, check out these sites online:

Paint Quality Institute,

Benjamin Moore's Personal Color Viewer,

Behr's Paint Your Place at

Martha Stewart paints at's Designing With Color page.

Susan Reimer, from interviews and Consumer Reports' ShopSmart magazine