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The Best Ways to Test Paint Colors and Avoid Picking the Wrong Color (+ Bonus Tips for Perfectionists)

Picking the perfect paint color can be stressful. But having the basic know-how on testing paint colors is the ticket to getting it right. This article breaks down everything you need to know, plus extra tips if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Narrow Down Your Selection

Start with an App

Let technology be your friend. Sherwin Williams Color Snap app is a fun place to start! Emphasis on the fun part. Use the app on your phone to change the colors in your room. It’s not perfect – see below where the wall meets the ceiling – but it’s a great place to start if you have NO IDEA what color you want.

Or Start with a Paint Swatch

It’s old school, but it’s still effective. I love picking paint swatches because you can see each color grouped with its color family in the same row. Plus, those freebie booklets that group paint colors together are fabulous eye candy to flip through. 

Take a bunch of swatches home and tape them to your wall. Take a few down every day that you don’t like. Once you’re down to two or three, go back to the store and pick up a sample paint pot.

Testing paint swatches to narrow down which trim color to use with my house’s cedar shake shingles.

Bring it Home

A super important step here, folks. I’ll repeat it: bring. the. samples. home. Do not decide in the store and buy a pricy gallon of paint without trying it at home first. The color always looks different in your house. I’m speaking from experience—end rant.

Make it a Large Sample

Like, LARGE. 

Our brains have a hard time imagining what the color will look like on a big scale. This is where the Sherwin Wiliams Color Snap app helps. Or if you’re savvy with the brush tool in Adobe Lightroom, that helps too. 

But in real life, making a large sample of at least 2’ x 3’. Yes, larger than just a sheet from your printer. Which brings me to …

Testing Samples: Paint a Posterboard or Paint the Wall?

Both!

Start with a foam poster board from the craft store. Or a big sheet of cardboard. I don’t recommend thin poster paper because the paper will curl up and be hard to work with when the paint dries. 

At least two coats of paint are a must to get an idea of the actual color of your sample. You get the perk of working with the paint and get a feel of the paint quality and how many coats you’ll need to paint your wall.

Lean it up against the wall and stand back to look. Move it around to another part of the room. And repeat.

If you’re deciding between a couple of paint color options, then you can move beyond the foam board and paint a bigger swatch. If you have enough sample paint, try to paint a floor-to-ceiling section. 

Compare Against Your Fixtures 

You know those crazy optical illusions where the square color looks different, but they’re actually the same color

The same principles apply in your home. In terms of design, paint color isn’t defined by itself. Rather, paint color is relative to the surrounding objects. 

With that in mind, compare your painted posterboard to your floors, hardware, lighting, furniture, rug – everything. You’ll be able to see what goes and what doesn’t. 

So many times, I’ve picked up a pretty paint swatch, but compared to the other things in the room, it just didn’t match.

Angles 

Looking at your paint sample from the right angle is SO IMPORTANT and something I just learned. When you compare your posterboard to hard fixtures – like flooring or trim – keep it at the same angle as the wall.

This is why: light hits the foam board differently when it’s up and down compared to when it is laying flat. That angle change will make a difference in how the color looks.

Take a look at the example below. It’s the same paint color (Sherwin Williams Heron Plume) and the pictures were taken moments apart in natural lighting. But the color looks different because of the angle.

Lighting

There’s a lot to say here, but let’s keep it simple. Take into account how the paint looks with:

  • Natural light – During morning, afternoon, and evening
  • In artificial light – lamps and overhead lighting
  • Natural light direction (a wall near a window with southern exposure will get more light than a wall with northern exposure)
  • Reflections: from the green foliage outside to brightly colored furnishings inside

Make the Decision!

If you’re guilty of letting paint samples sit on your walls for MONTHS, then you’re not alone. I’m guilty of letting one paint sample sit on the wall for TWO YEARS. 

Here it is in raw honestly: I left this paint swatch on the wall for WAY too long.

Set a time limit. Give yourself one week MAX.

This step seems stupidly easy for those who aren’t perfectionists. But if you’re unable to make a decision, give yourself the option to step away and reconsider the room’s whole design. The color selection you’ve narrowed down probably isn’t the way to go, and your gut is trying to tell you that. 

If that’s the situation, get back into inspiration mode! It’s okay to step back to redirect when things go awry. Find what you DO like in magazines, Pinterest, Instagram, or wherever your aha moment strikes.

Bonus Tips for Perfectionists

Budget Money for Paint Sampling

People say painting is the cheapest way to transform a space. And that is SO TRUE. But we just think about the cost of paint as the gallon price, minimally $35 for decent paint. But you should plan on spending more than that. 

Minimally, plan on buying:

  • 3 foam brushes (3 x $1.50 = $4.50)
  • 3 foam poster boards (3 x $7 = $21)
  • 3 sample paint pots (3 x $6 = $18)

With taxes, that’s about $50. And it’s SO worth it (plus that posterboard is reusable for future paint sampling!). But don’t the cost be a sneaky way for your budget to get out of control.

Budget Time 

Plan on making at least three trips to the paint store:

  • 1 trip to get color swatches
  • 1 trip to get sample paint pots
  • 1 trip to buy the final gallon of paint + additional paint supplies

When we know that we’re perfectionists, sometimes we feel so pressured to hurry up and make a decision to compensate for the time we spent overthinking. Instead, plan on limiting your time spent overthinking (see the “make a decision” section of this post) rather than time going to pick up paint. Picking paint is a process!

Learn about undertones

Hello, undertones!

There’s so much to say here; I wrote an entire blog post about it. If you’re picking a white or light paint color, read paint about undertones first.

Take Your Favorite Designer’s “Go-To” Colors with a Grain of Salt

source

Once you start fangirling a designer (lookin at you, Shea McGee), it’s hard not to take their word as gospel. It seems like most have a blog post of their “go-do” colors (probably because people ask 382 times a day, “what paint color is that?” on Instagram). 

Take that designer’s fav colors as a place to start. Meaning, it’s OK to get those paint colors as samples. If you love them, great! If not, that’s okay too.

Know that the lighting, phones, screens, geography, filters, paint sheens, and light bulb temperatures can make a huge difference in how a paint color appears. 

Make notes about what you do/don’t like about them, and then go try another sample.

Know That There’s Not One “Single” Right Answer

This one is for you, perfectionist. Picking a paint color is not an endless search for the one true *perfect* color. Yes, there are a gazillion paint options to choose from. But there are also dozens, if not hundreds, of options that will look amazing in your space. 

Let’s Recap

Getting actual paint and painting BIG sample areas is the BEST way to test how it’ll look in your space. Take the time to do sampling at home, and you’ll make a great decision. 

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