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Publication Date: 2015-06-23

Design Insights

Choosing the Perfect White Paint

We’re on an eternal quest for that home design Holy Grail: the perfect white paint. And given that spaces, lighting, moods, and personal personal preferences all vary, there are many factors to be considered—and also many right answers. For guidance, we turned to members of the Remodelista Architect/Designer Directory. Their advice from the trenches confirmed our hunch: As architect Amy Alper says, “It really pays to take the time to find the right white.” Here's how.


1. Get to know the nuances in white. Artists and others who work with color know that white isn't one hue but many—and that some are whiter than others. “White paints can come with bluish, reddish, yellowish, and even greenish undertones,” says Amy Alper. To see the variety, head to your local paint shop and ask for help spotting whites with a variety of undertones and compare them side by side. Or take interior designer Ellen Hamilton's suggestion and hold the samples against a sheet of white paper. The complexity of each color will reveal itself to you. Above: A white wall and stone fireplace mantel.

2. Size up what's in the room. Before selecting a paint shade, size up the palette of everything that will be in the space. “Are the colors cool or warm?” asks Alper. If they’re warm, you’ll want to lean toward whites with warm-colored undertones (pink, orange, red, yellow). If they’re cool, consider cool-inflected whites (with undertones of blue, purple, or green). What if the furnishings are neutral? “If neutral, I go with a warmer white," says Alison Davin of Jute. "If there is a lot of color, a cooler white." Keep in mind that your furnishings will affect your perception of any paint. Says architect Ian Read of Medium Plenty in San Francisco: “Sometimes getting a 'warm' white doesn’t actually come from the paint, it comes from the entire assembly of the space.” Above: The San Francisco office of interior designer Alison Davin of Jute.

3. Assess the lighting. Because color is a phenomenon of light, the amount of natural and artificial light in the room impacts the tone of the walls. Says Alison Davin: “A pure white looks best with a lot of natural light. With less natural light, the white can have a base with more of a pigment. Note that geography affects light as well. According to interior designer Ellen Hamilton, “In New York, the light tends to be gray and warm. This means the best white is sympathetic to a warm gray. Ideally, it would have warm gray as the undertone.” However, “in Miami the same color may look like it has an orange cast. This is because the light in Miami has pure blue filtering through it. The blue in the light will make the warm gray paint look pink.” Above: A living room play space.

4. Choose several whites that you like. Take what you’ve learned about the furnishings and light in your room and choose a few whites. When selecting, consider these tips from the pros.

-A pure white reads more modern than one with some color in the mix. (Interior designer Alison Davin)

-The best whites aren’t really white at all. In most cases, bright white needs some tempering with color. (Architect Michael Howells)

-If struggling, err on the side of a neutral white, in between what you can clearly read as "warm" and "cool." (Interior designer Ellen Hamilton)

Above: Swatches of favorite paints.

5. Put your favorite shades to the test. All our designers insisted on testing the paint at home. Says Gretchen Krebs of Medium Plenty, “A white that seemed warm on a smaller paint chip may suddenly look too pink or sallow. Or a white that looked crisp and modern may feel way too cold in a larger application.”

However, our designers were divided on whether to paint a sample directly on the wall or use a moveable swatch:

Why paint on the wall? Ian Reed suggests painting swatches "as big as you can and in several places. Colors shift from ceiling to wall, wall to wall, room to room. It is all about direction of exposure, proximity to windows, and artificial light." If you're working with a designer or contractor, he says, make sure that these tests are required as part of your contract, and even specify how many.

Why use a moveable swatch? Says Amy Alper, "It makes more sense to paint a large panel so you can move it around. The same color will appear differently on different walls in the same room depending on the amount of light on that particular wall. Take note of the paint during the day and evening, in natural light and artificial light." Or, says Alison Davin, use the paint line's largest sample cards and tape them up.

Above: An office space in the home of a graphic designer.

6. What if I still can’t figure it out? There are a handful of whites we hear about over and over again, all from Benjamin Moore. Here's our cheat sheet.

-Swiss Coffee OC-45 (recommended by Ian Reed, Tim Barber, and Nicole Hollis)

-Simply White 2143-70 (recommended by Alison Davin, 2Michaels, and Kriste Michelini)

-Super White PM-1 (recommended by Delson or Sherman, Carole Magness, Erica Tanov, and Materia Designs)

-White Dove OC-17 (recommended by Cary Bernstein, John DeForest, and Robbins Architecture)

-Alison Davin suggests Farrow & Ball and C2 Paints for rooms without much natural light. “Their mixes have more depth to them, adding dimension without having to add windows,” she says.

Above: A study in white in Inner Sanctum: Maximum Calm in a London Townhouse.

Text by Meredith Swinehart


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