Finding the right shade of white for you isn’t always a breeze.

By Lauren Phillips
July 08, 2019
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Of all the paint colors out there, you might know white paint is the obvious choice for your updated space, but knowing that—whether it’s an aspirational choice you’ve pulled from Pinterest or your go-to design show or just a hunch you have—isn’t enough. Knowing you want white walls is easy; knowing which shade of white paint you want for your wall painting project is the key to making it happen, and it can be surprisingly challenging.

Most paint brands have more than one white paint color; the larger paint brands can have dozens, if not hundreds. All those different shades—Snowbound vs. Pure White vs. Oxford White, among hundreds of others—are, ostensibly, white, but they are also different enough that an indecisive soul could spend hours agonizing over the right pick. No more: To simplify the process of picking a white paint color for once and for all, we spoke with Leigh Spicher, the national director of design studios for homebuilder Ashton Woods.

“There are a lot of great reasons for why people are drawn to white,” Spicher says. “It’s also fair to say that it just goes with anything.”

White paint is plenty popular, but white paint colors aren’t a one-size-fits-all situation. To find the right white for your space, read on for an easy how-to guide that will have you painting in no time.

How to pick white paint colors

Understand undertones

When working with clients, Spicher says the biggest guidance she and her team can provide is to help them understand the difference between cool whites and warm whites.

“I think that’s that foundational place to start talking about white paint colors: ‘Do you want warm or do you want cool in your home?’” Spicher says.

Cool whites have a little bit of a blue undertone; warm whites will be yellowish. Mixing cool and warm whites is one of the biggest mistakes Spicher sees, she says. Think warm white kitchen cabinet paint colors with a glossy, cool, almost-blue white backsplash—if you’ve ever entered a room with lots of white and not been able to put your finger on what feels off about it, it’s likely because the room blends warm and cool whites.

“You start to mix those things, then your vibe, your room, starts to feel a little mismatched,” Spicher says. “It’s really important that you start with undertone.”

Pick a cool or warm white, then stick with that undertone on everything from flooring to backsplashes and window treatments. A consistent undertone will give your space a cohesive, coordinated feel, while a mismatched one might feel amateurish or sloppy.

Consider lighting

“The other piece that becomes really important when people are talking about choosing whites is the lighting you choose in your room,” Spicher says.

You may not consider how your lamps or light fixtures can affect the paint color on your walls when you’re picking colors, but later on, you may realize the white paint color looks totally different than it did at the store.

“White is the presence of light,” Spicher says. “If you have a light that conflicts with what you’re choosing, then you can choose the greatest paint ever, and if you have a warm white and a cool light mixed, then that’s when things start to conflict.”

This is where undertones come in again. Have lighting in a warm or cool undertone picked out before you pick a complementary white paint color, or adjust your fixtures and bulbs after the walls are painted to give the room that polished, well-planned feel.

The temperature of light—whether it’s warm or cold—is measured in Kelvins, Spicher says. Lower Kelvins mean warmer lights, and higher numbers mean cooler lights; pair the Kelvins listed on your lightbulb packaging with the undertones of your white paint color of choice to all-but guarantee a good match.

Give it a good finish

Finish is more about lifestyle than looks, Spicher says. “Think about how you’re going to live in the space, because that’s really what the finish of paint is all about,” she says.

Flatter sheens—mattes and the like—are more difficult to clean; glossy or semi-gloss finishes make for easier wipe-downs. (Spicher, who has two dogs, says she has a semi-gloss finish on the baseboards in her home so she can basically scrub them when needed.)

Your childless, pet-less neighbors might have a beautiful eggshell or matte white wall, but they don’t have to worry about wiping off muddy paw prints or stray crayon marks; if your household skews wilder, a semi-gloss finish might be best for your white paint.

“I really try to encourage our homeowners to personalize their spaces,” Spicher says. “When you’re designing your room, don’t worry about what your neighbor has.”

Don’t be afraid to call in reinforcements

“I think it’s really important to offer that, if homeowners are working to choose white in their home, to work with a professional,” Spicher says. “I live in a very old home, so I’m working to renovate cabinets and choosing whites. I’m a designer, I’ve worked in the field for 20 years, but I’m still the first person at the paint-store counter, working with them to understand the different undertones of the paint and the color wheel and how they’re going to work together.”

True professionals at your local paint store, studio, or hardware store are there to answer questions; working with them to choose the right white paint color can mean the difference between getting it right the first time and having to make several trips back to the store. If it’s in the budget, Spicher says working with a designer can get you even better results. Understand what you want from a room—if you want it to feel warm or bright, or if you want it to be a playroom—and talk it through with a pro to find the right color.

Ultimately, “it’s hard to go wrong with white,” Spicher says. “It really is. People really do get overwhelmed by the choices, but once they narrow it down to a few that they like, it would be hard to make a bad decision.”

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