Choosing paint colours: Three steps for making better choices

Choosing paint colours is probably the No. 1 challenge faced by people looking to paint their homes. There are so many choices and so many opinions about what looks good that it often leads to indecision and second guessing.

Colour issues are important because they affect how an entire room feels. That’s why the better you are at choosing house paint colours, the better your house will be.

It’s about feelings and logic

Paint colours are all about emotion. Feeling good is, in fact, the main reason people paint in the first place. Shade, saturation, value and colour temperature all work together to set the tone for any space.


The thing is, almost no one has anything more than the most primitive understanding of colour. The last time most of us had any formal colour education was probably back in Kindergarten when we were learning what names different colours have.

A child’s understanding of colour isn’t enough to support the decisions that an adult needs to make before painting, and this is one reason there’s so much frustration, indecision and bad colour choices in the world.

Another issue is that homeowners want to add colour to their lives, but they usually can’t visualize the results. With thousands of paint colours to choose from, and no guidance for choosing except “pick what you like,” it’s no wonder so many people have trouble.


The good news is that there are useful guidelines for choosing colours and they can help when it comes to selecting paint.

Your goal in all this isn’t to become a full-fledged colour designer, but rather to equip yourself to choose colours intelligently. A little knowledge goes a long way.

With that in mind, here are three steps for choosing better household paint colours.


No. 1: Identify objects that will be in the room

“It’s the stuff that’ll be in a room that should determine paint colours,” explains Len Churchill, a commercial artist and friend of mine.

“When I’m choosing residential colours, I look for options that change throughout the day, depending on natural lighting. Greys and taupes are great for this. People these days expect to live with a paint job for a long time, so it’s worth the trouble of choosing well.”

choosing paint colours Nix Mini Color Sensor Steve MaxwellEffective digital tools now exist to allow colours of fabrics, window coverings, trim, furniture and anything else to be sampled, recorded and used later to find paints that match.


Something called the Nix Mini Color Sensor is a small wireless device that works with your smartphone to let it “see” existing colours and offer colour suggestions. Besides helping you make better colour choices, the Nix Mini is exceptionally easy to use. Charge it with a USB cord, download the app, then pair the Nix and your phone wirelessly.

Anytime you want to record an existing colour as a basis for choosing paint colours, just place the Nix eye-side down, then hit the scan button on your phone. In a second or two the colour will be scanned and recorded, with colour suggestions automatically generated. You can share these colours with any other phone, you can choose from many different paint manufacturers, and see their corresponding paint chip numbers and paint availability online.

Look further into the app and you’ll find colour suggestions including monochromatic, complementary, analogous, split complementary and triadic. More on these ideas in a bit.


No. 2: Use a colour wheel to guide you

choosing paint colours colour wheel Steve MaxwellThe colour wheel is a small, hand-held tool that identifies which colours go well together. Most people are surprised to learn there’s math and logic behind which colours look good together and which don’t. It’s not random and it’s not just a matter of personal taste.

The colour wheel makes it easy to identify colour harmonies and communicate them to other people in the house with a sense of authority. I bought the one you see here from Amazon. Here are the basics:

Complementary colours

These are completely different colours that go well together. Colours 180 degrees opposite each other on the colour wheel are complementary and they harmonize visually. Three main, primary complementary colours that go together in this way are yellow and violet, blue and orange, and red and green, for example.


Split complementary colours

Choose a colour, look at its opposite on the other side of the wheel, then look again for the colours flanking those opposites. These are split complementary colours and they offer more variety than just straight complementary colours.

Analogous colours

Three colours next to each other on the colour wheel are closer in shade than complementary ones, but they still look good together, too.

Monochromatic colour

This is an approach that uses one colour, but a single colour doesn’t necessarily mean just one thing. Choosing variations of saturation and value can add interest to a space while also making the effect quite visually cohesive. A monochromatic colour scheme would use different colours from the same paint strip.


Triadic colours

These appear 120 degrees apart on the colour wheel.

A surprising number of people don’t pay attention to the annual colour choices published by paint companies, but that’s a mistake, especially if you’re fixing up a house to sell it. One nice thing about trending colours is that they usually come as a collection of colours that go well together.

No. 3: Always test colours first

“I always put paint samples on walls in one way or another,” explains Churchill. “I work with colour every day, but I never choose only from a paint chip. Colour choice is a mood thing, too. The way you feel about a colour one day isn’t necessarily the way you’ll feel tomorrow.

Paul Tyzek

“That’s why I always suggest people live with test patches on walls for a few days. Cool colours make small rooms look larger, and warm colours make large rooms look cosier and more inviting.”

Wisdom from an old-school painter

Paul Tyzek has been adding more than the usual amount of colour to buildings all over Winnipeg, Man., for 20-plus years, and he’s had a lot of practise leading clients through the colour-picking process.

“It’s not so much that people fear choosing colours,” he says, “but there’s a widespread inability to visualize colour ahead of time. Most people can’t eyeball anything useful from a small paint sample, either. Many folks are friendly to the idea of testing paint on an actual surface.”


“Challenges with colour usually arise from lack of co-ordination, lack of research and uninspiring conventionality,” says Tyzek. “Google image searches offer a helpful and convenient way to get colour ideas.”

choosing paint colours exterior painting Steve Maxwell
This colourful building is one of Paul Tyzek’s Winnipeg projects

He notes that keeping up with the Joneses is also an issue. As houses in a given neighbourhood trend away from the traditional exterior, colours exert a certain pressure for one-up-man-ship when it comes to painting.

A square of painted drywall that is moved around the room makes it easier to get the big picture, especially under different light conditions. It’s all about angle of light, intensity of light and colour of light.


Painting and repainting the same pieces of drywall lets you try different options as you hone in on the ideal choice. Most people live with paint colours for a long time, so a little investment of time up front makes sense.

Are you interested in white?

White is unique among paint colours for a couple of reasons. White is a fabulous and classic option because it goes with so many other colours and is especially attractive in a room with dark trim and wood floors.

Realtors often recommend white paint for selling homes since it appeals to the widest cross section of the public. The thing is, not all whites are created equal.


In fact, choosing the right white can be tricky. The issue comes down to hue and tone, but this isn’t necessarily easy to see. Different whites only look different when compared with other whites. There are many whites out there, some warm, some cool and some in between.

How to use the 60/30/10 rule

This simple, time-tested colour choice strategy helps create a balanced colour theme in any room. Here’s how it works:

Primary colour: About 60 per cent of the surfaces in a given space should be the same colour. This primary colour is what you’ll find on most walls, area rugs, large pieces of furniture, etc.


Secondary colour: About 30 per cent of the room should be a secondary colour. This should have some relation with the primary colour (complementary, split complementary, analogous, etc.)

Accent colour: About 10 per cent of the room should be a kind of visual spice — different from the primary and secondary colours. This could come from paint, but you might be able to get it with decorator pillows or painted furniture, too.

Originally published April 2019.


About the Author

Steve Maxwell

Steve Maxwell

Steve Maxwell has been helping Canadians with home improvement, gardening and hands-on living since 1988. Visit for videos, stories and inspiration.



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