Choosing paint colors is one of the most important parts of designing your room. The colors you choose will likely make a huge impact on how a room looks a feels – it can create excitement or calmness, warmth or coolness, coziness or airiness. The only question is – do you know how to make your paint colors create the impact you want?

Understanding the impact of different colors

Colors can generally be divided into one of two categories: warm or cool. Most room color palettes will use colors from both sides of the color wheel in the furniture and decor, but your paint color (or colors) should usually stick with one side of the wheel.

Warm colors: Are comfortable, cozy, inviting. Can feel cramped or overwhelming if overused.

Cool colors: Are calm and clean. Can feel sterile or inhospitable if overused.

Generally speaking, warm colors are good for energizing places where people gather: kitchens, living rooms, dining rooms. Cool colors are good for bathrooms, formal areas, and bedrooms.

Choosing a color palette

A complementary blue/orange-brown color scheme using paint samples. © 2006 Abraxas

You don’t need to know much about color theory to understand that some color combinations look good together and some don’t. You also will have your own preferences about color, based on your personal experience with different colors and your unique tastes. Don’t ever select a color combination that makes you unhappy, even if someone insists it would be the perfect paint color palette for your room.

Here are some sources for finding the perfect color palette:

  • Create well-balanced color palettes quickly with the Color Scheme Designer tool.
  • Search through thousands of user palettes at Colour Lovers, with the option to specify the colors you want to include. They even list the Martha Stewart paint color that is the closest to each color in the palette.
  • Browse the color palettes based off beautiful photographs at Design Seeds.

One color out of your palettes should become your primary wall color, the single hue that covers the highest percentage of all visible surfaces.

Tricks with paint colors

Paint can be used not just as part of a balanced color palette, but to actually balance out some of the architectural imperfections of a room.

Ceiling heights

To visually “pull down” a ceiling that is uncomfortably high, paint the ceiling a shade darker than the walls. To make a low ceiling feel taller, paint the ceiling a shade lighter than the walls.

Paint finishes

Glossy paint finishes reflect more light and make a room appear bigger and brighter, which is good for small rooms or those not well-lit. Matte finishes can balance out a room that is otherwise too open or brightly lit.

Accent walls

Red and green are complementary colors. © 2007 Mike Voigt

Every room needs an element for the eye to naturally focus on first, and painting a single wall or part of a wall the complementary color (the opposite color on the color wheel) – or another color with a strong contrast to the rest of the room – can instantly create a strong focal point in a room that doesn’t have a natural one, like a fireplace or amazing view.

Basic paint color rules of thumb

Nothing in design is a 100% set in stone rule, but these guidelines have come about through the experience of countless interior designers. Don’t break the rules unless you fully understand why they exist in the first place.

Best colors, room by room

Kitchen paint colors
  • Definitely no blue, preferably no pale greens or pinks. These colors don’t appear often in nature on anything edible, so they can seem unnatural in a kitchen.
  • Black, red, white and yellow are good colors to use.
Bathroom paint colors

A small bathroom is brightened by a painted yellow and white wall design.

  • Preferably not blue as the major color, which can increase though cold, “wet” feeling of the bathroom.
  • Soft colors, like yellow, green or lavender can create a soothing atmosphere.
  • Yellow, orange or red can be used in small amounts for balance.
  • Lighter colors are usually better, especially for bathrooms without windows, which can feel too dark and cramped with darker colors.
Living room paint colors
  • This is generally the room you have the most color “freedom” in: bright and bold color palettes will fit in here.
  • Living rooms that will host guests frequently can be bright colored, living rooms in a home with quiet families can be darker, richer and more muted.
Bedroom paint colors
  • No bright, saturated colors, no yellow.
  • Darker, rich colors are good, as is blue.

Color palette ratios

Denim blue walls balanced by off-white furniture and accessories

If your wall paint colors represent the primary color in the room (which they probably will, unless there wasn’t a lot of open surface to paint), you will want the other parts of the room to echo the main color, but also the other colors in the palette. The basic ratios can vary, but there are a few popular ratios that almost always look good.

  • With a color scheme that consists of two main colors, a 2:1 ratio is good.
  • With one color and a neutral (such as black, white or gray), a 1:1 color ratio can be attractive.
  • For a triad color scheme (one main and two secondary colors), a 2:1:1 ratio or 3:2:1 ratio is common.