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Paint colour selection rules for your home

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When furnishing, decorating or painting the interior or exterior of your home you should consider the following rules when selecting colours:

Rule no. 1: Decide on a mood or theme before you begin

When people see the interior or exterior of your home, and the various spaces that make up your home, what do you want their senses to tell them? Cool or warm? Cosy or business-like? Bright and cheery or subdued and reflective? Cute or grand? Correct colour selection is the first step towards achieving your mood or theme.

If you have existing furniture that you intend to use in your newly decorated room make sure it fits the intended mood or theme, or can be altered to do so.

Rule no. 2: Choose a paint colour scheme before you begin

To help choose a paint colour scheme buy a colour wheel like the one shown in the pictures below and which can be purchased from art supply shops. Let one colour dominate the space or surface.    In addition consider getting a colour fan deck from a paint manufacturer (note: usually these are not free). An example of a fan deck is shown below. (Note: you can single-click or double-click the colour wheel to see the reverse or enlarge it - except on a mobile device.)

Rule no. 3: Choose different tints for your selected colours

Paint colour tints and where they should be located:

  • Darkest tints at feet level
  • Medium tints at eye level
  • Lightest tints above head level

In other words select darker colours, shades and tints on the floor, medium colours, shades and tints on the walls, lighter tints for ceilings (see rule 4).

Rule no. 4: Use neutral paint colours on the ceiling

Ceilings encompass the entire area of an interior space and affect the mood of the entire area, unlike a wall, which when painted has a more localised effect, and unlike a floor which can be broken up with rugs, carpeted areas, tiles, etc. If you select the wrong colour for the ceiling it will ruin the intended mood or theme. Dark colours on the ceiling generally do not work, they give a room an oppressive mood, whether used in bathrooms, living spaces or kitchens.

For more information on the use of neutral colours read Colour Consultant Samatha Bacon's case study.

Rule no. 5: Use feature walls

Painting all walls the same highly saturated or intense colour does not work. Even shades or tints of the same colour might not work if the colour is too intense. If you are going to paint a room all the same colour, use a neutral colour. Thus it is common practice to paint one wall with a bright colour and to paint the remaining walls a neutral colour (white being a common choice).

Better Homes and Gardens recommend that a feature wall should ideally have the largest area within the room or space, it should not contain any windows or doors, and it helps if the wall has interesting angles or something else eye-catching like a fireplace. The "red room" shown below is a great example of a room with a feature wall that not only has interesting angles, but a fireplace as well!

Rule no. 6: To make a room seem warm and cosy...

To make a space seem cosy/warm use warmer colours on walls; e.g. tints of red, warmer browns, red-violets, etc. The lounge room and bedroom shown below are perfect examples of what can be achieved.

Rule no. 7: To make a room seem cooler...

Put tints of blue, green and violet on the walls to make a room fell cooler. Two examples are shown below:

Rule no. 8: Consider the size of the space

If your space is large use 30% strong, darker colours, 60% medium and 10% lighter colours. This will make the space feel welcoming, but using the same colour scheme in a smaller space will make it feel cluttered and even smaller than it really is. In a smaller space the percentages should be 10% strong darker colours, 30% medium and 60% lighter colours.

Rule no. 9: Use accents

Use items such as paintings, pieces of furniture and vases to accent a room with complementary colours. For example: place a green vase against a red feature wall, or put a brightly coloured painting with a complementary tonality on a wall painted in a neutral colour. The fisherman's cottage show here makes use of red trim to complement its main exterior colours.

Rule no. 10:
Use lighter colours on textured surfaces

Rough surfaces (like brick walls) appear darker than smooth surfaces (because the reflected light is more scattered). Thus it is prudent to select lighter shades or tints when painting these types of surfaces.

Rule no. 11: Don't forget about lighting & reflections

Remember to be careful when picking colors for brightly lit spaces. If you are considering white bear in mind that reflected light causes glare which in turn can cause headaches. Also remember that when light reflects off an object and hits another object it affects the colour of that object. The brighter the light source the more noticeable the effect. Thus a shiny red object reflecting on to a yellow-orange object can make the yellow-orange appear to be red-orange.

Take advantage of natural light whenever it is practical and cost effective to do so. If a room seems dark consider installing a skylight or window, or use a bold colour on a feature wall to lift the atmosphere. Alternatively create a cosy atmosphere by using soft artificial lighting and warm colours.

See our article about light and lighting for more information on this subject.

Rule no. 12: Confirm and double check your colour decisions

Try one or more of the online tools provided by various paint suppliers. Here is an incomplete list: