Walk into a stunning space and it's likely that the last thing you'll notice is the most important: the shade of white paint adorning the walls. Acting as a crisp blank canvas, it's one of the most underrated aspects of an interior, and, according to color consultants, one of the most common mistakes among renovators.
We hear you: White is white, right? Not quite. Anyone who has ventured to the paint aisle at Home Depot can attest that this seemingly simple decorating choice involves hundreds of swatch options. It's a minefield. "Although white paint chips can look very similar, on walls, white colors can appear vastly different," says Erika Woelfel, vice president of color and creative services at Behr. "If you choose a shade with the wrong undertone for your lighting and space, instead of feeling airy and bright, it could end up looking dingy, cold or dusty."
Put down the paintbrush and ask yourself these six questions to help you choose the perfect shade of white paint for your home. It just might be the most important decorating decision you make…
"Color does not live in isolation. It's relative to its surroundings, so you want to be mindful of the existing colors when choosing paint," says Hannah Yeo, Benjamin Moore's color and design expert. One of the easiest ways to narrow your search for the perfect shade is to consider the tone of statement furniture in the space.
"Typically, cool-toned furniture and décor pair best with cool whites, and the same goes for warm-toned pieces and accents," says Woelfel. "There can be some mixing of tones, but larger furniture items like sofas or significant focal points should share undertones with your paint color."
There's one key aspect to consider that most decorators overlook: the style of your home. Woelfel explains: "In older or more traditional homes, it's probably best to use a warmer white—especially if your home features a fair amount of woodwork. Warmer undertones with pair beautifully with wood tones and really make those details shine," she says.
If you want your interior to mirror the heritage of your home, take photo references to a paint specialist, who will be able to discern the difference between two similar shades. "If your home is more modern, you'll likely need to use a cool-toned white. Blue and green undertones will play better with modern color palettes, fixtures, and appliances," she notes.
The single most important factor to choose paint that complements your room is sunlight. Too much, and a crisp white paint color could be startlingly bright; too little and your home could look tired and gloomy.
"If your space enjoys significant sunlight, I would suggest using a flat or matte finish paint to absorb some of that light and prevent glares," says Woelfel. "If you enjoy a fair amount of light but could use a little more, try a glossier finish—it will help reflect the light you receive and brighten up darker corners."
An easy way to gauge whether your space needs a warm or cool shade of white, consider the direction windows face. "North-facing rooms appear cooler than south facing rooms," says Yeo. If your room lacks the warmth of the sun in the afternoon, she recommends warmer whites, "as the yellow and red undertone imitates the sun's glow."
You've picked your perfect shade, painted a swatch on the wall, and can't understand why it looks so different to the paint chip in your hand. The reason could be artificial lighting. "When you turn on electrical lights in the evening, it can greatly affect how your chosen hue appears," says Woelfel.
To adjust the glow, experiment with swapping out cool and warm-colored lightbulbs. "The best strategy here is paint large swatches of whites that match the undertones of items in the room and observes them as light changes throughout the day," she says.
If your room is small or dark, there's a solution beyond adding more lamps and pendant lights: "There's a popular opinion that painting a small or dark space white will make it seem larger and brighter, [but] it can do the exact opposite in a small space with little light," says Woelfel. To brighten a dark space, she recommends choosing paint "with a significant amount of pigment or strong undertone."
Paint isn't just aesthetic; high-traffic areas such as an entryway or staircase call for durable paint that won't mark with time. Woelfel explains: "It's very important to consider sheen when painting a room. Not only will sheen impact how your color appears, it also impacts durability and how easy the surface is to clean, should it get marked up or stained,” she says.
Unsure which type best suits your space? "Flat or matte sheens are nonreflective and will hide minor surface imperfections, but they are best used in low-traffic areas" such as bedrooms, she says. Meanwhile, "satin, semi-gloss, and high-gloss enamels will all reflect light at varying levels and are easy to wipe down, making them perfect for moderate- to high-traffic areas" like hallways and entrances, Woelfel adds.
Every shade has the power to change the personality of your room and evoke a different emotion—white shades with red and yellow undertones are comforting and inviting, while whites with blue or green undertones are refreshing.
If you're convinced you've found your perfect match, do one last exercise: the blindfold test. The names of paint colors can seriously sway your decision and could lead you off-course. "We put a lot of thought into our paint colors, knowing they can sway consumers toward one shade or another. We choose names based on the imagery and mood each color evokes," Woelfel explains.
"As the saying goes though, you shouldn't judge a book by its cover," Woelfel adds. "At the end of the day you should choose a hue based on its appearance in your space and not its name—however carefully it's chosen!" When it passes the test, you can pick up your paintbrush.