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What colour should you paint your rooms? A how-to guide on painting and exploration of colour theory

How do you go about making your colour decisions? And what tools do you need to do the job correctly? In this guide, we’ll take you through the theory behind colour design, and share our top tips for helping you get the perfect finish.

How do you go about making your colour decisions? And what tools do you need to do the job correctly? In this guide, we’ll take you through the theory behind colour design, and share our top tips for helping you get the perfect finish.

Written by
Anna McEntee
Insurance comparison expert
Posted
16 FEBRUARY 2023
17 min read
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Part of the joy of having your own space is the ability to decorate it however you like. Whether you’re into calming neutrals, or love to add a pop of colour to your walls, painting your room allows you to express your personal style in your home.

But deciding on a colour scheme can be a huge task. Even opting for a plain white comes with several decisions – brilliant white, off-white, white with another undertone – meaning there are literally thousands of colour combinations available to every home decorator.

Colour theory

Whilst you can simply pick a colour scheme based on your own preferences, if you want to make sure that everything is harmonious, it can be advantageous to know about colour theory and the colour wheel. First invented by Isaac Newton when he was studying light, a simple colour wheel is made up of 12 colours:

  • The three primary colours: red, yellow and blue
  • The three secondary colours: orange, green and violet
  • The six tertiary colours, which are created by mixing a primary colour with a secondary colour. They are: red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet and red-violet.

The colour wheel shows the different hues, or pure colours, that are available, but it can also be used to determine the different mixer colours that are possible as an extension of the base colour. As well as the pure colour, every section of the colour wheel has:

  • The tint, which consists of the hue colour, plus white
  • The tone, which consists of the hue colour, plus grey
  • The shade, which consists of the hue colour, plus black

Understanding and using the colour wheel will help you inform your choice of paints for your space, depending on the effect that you’re aiming for. Later in this guide, we’ll go into detail about how the colour you choose can change how your room feels. But first, let’s look at the different options you have for choosing a range of colours within a room.

Monochromatic colours

A monochromatic colour palette is one where you base all your paint choices off one focus colour. For example, you may choose to focus on green, but use paints in the pure colour, a green tint, a green tone and a green shade, so you have variation in light and dark across your space. This allows everything to come together and is a harmonious interior design choice. On the colour wheel, this means you’ll only be using colours in one slice or section, rather than moving around the wheel.

Analogous colours

Creating an analogous colour scheme allows you to have several different colours in a room, but without going for the dramatic contrast of complementary colours. Instead, you use a natural-looking range of colours that sit next to each other on the colour wheel. For example, you may choose to use tones of orange, terracotta and yellow to create an earthy scheme, or purple, blue and blue-green for a more moody atmosphere.

Complementary colours

If you want to use several colours in your design, it is worth looking at the colour wheel to determine complementary hues. These are colours that are different, but go together well, rather than clashing. When choosing a complementary colour scheme, if you want the colours to pop, then choose pure shades. This will add bold areas of colour to the room and draw the eye to that area. If you want something less bright, opt for a tonal colour or tint instead to get the same effect, but in a softer variation.

In a home, this can be done with paint on walls, ceilings and skirting boards, but it can also be achieved with furniture and soft furnishings. Choosing a complementary colour sofa or headboard, for example, can be a good way to get more colour into a space without it becoming too dominant. Or, on a smaller scale, choose a complementary colour for your curtains, cushions, rugs or throws.

Achromatic colours

A favourite in Scandinavian and minimalist interior design, achromatic means ‘without colour’. This means you use blacks, whites and greys to style your home. This is a bold look, but some people prefer to opt for these plain colours when it comes to paint, and then add the more vibrant colours in with furnishings.

Choosing the right paint for your room

By understanding how to create a colour palette for your room, you’re well on your way to creating a beautiful space. But how do you choose those all-important base hues? In this section, we take a look at how your colour choice can affect how your room feels, as well as how colour can affect your emotions.

Warm vs cool colours

If you’ve ever walked into a room and noticed that the paint colour makes it feel warm or cool, that’s because of the colour wheel. The wheel can be split in half, with red, yellow and orange making up the warm sector, and green, purple and blue creating the cool half. Warm colours make a room feel bold, bright and energetic, whilst cool colours are calming and cosy.

As well as warm and cool colours, there are also neutrals – those colours that don’t typically appear on a colour wheel. Neutral colours include beige, black, brown, grey, ivory, taupe and white. Far from being boring, they can add a clean, contemporary feel to any space.

If you’re someone who wants to be able to change up the feel of a room without having to completely redecorate every time, opting for a neutral colour may be a wise choice. Rather than committing to a bold statement, neutrals allow you to provide a calm background to your room – any impact then comes from your furniture or other interior design choices.

Undertones

Undertones are really important in determining how your paint will look on your walls – especially when you’re using several colours in one space. Whilst you can start by looking at the colour wheel, when it comes to picking out paint, there is not just one type of each colour – in fact, sometimes it feels like there is an endless range of blues, reds, greens etc that all look very similar. It can be almost impossible to see the difference between one colour card and the next shade, which can leave many home decorators feeling confused when they’re standing in the DIY store.

In order to choose shades that work well in your home, you need to consider the undertone of the paint. This is the colour that the hue has been mixed with to create the shade on the tin. Whilst pure versions of the colour wheel hues do exist, more often than not, decorating paint has an undertone.

Some paint companies do state the undertone on their paint tins, but some don’t, which can make it hard to know which one to pick. The best way to find the undertone is to compare a paint sample card for the colour you want with an item that you know is a pure colour – so red, yellow, blue or pure white. This should show you which of these pure colours your potential paint leans towards. Paint samples with grey, green, blue and purple undertones will make the mixed colour feel cool and calm, whereas orange, yellow, pink and red will make the colour feel warmer and bolder.

You should also take the sample home and consider the furniture, flooring and any other large swathes of colour you’re going to be using in your space. It’s important to get complementary undertones across your whole room if you want the space to feel cohesive. Move the sample around the room to see it in different lighting – what might feel gently warm in late afternoon light may suddenly seem too bold in the bright morning sun. You should also pick up sample cards that show a few shades darker and lighter than the colour. This will allow you to adjust your choice to a darker or warmer shade if needed.

Emotion and colour

If you don’t have a strong visual image or preference for which colour you want to paint a room, or any furniture to coordinate it with, it can be hard to know where to begin. A good starting point is to think about how you want the room to feel, and what it’s going to be used for. For example, bedrooms are often decorated with neutral or cool colours, as a calm, soothing atmosphere is more supportive for sleep. In contrast, an office might be slightly more bold, in order to spark creativity.

Colour psychology is the idea that certain colours make us feel certain emotions. On a deeper level, some people who study colour psychology believe that colours can actually impact mental health and behaviour, and in turn can be used to increase wellbeing when used in the right way. Some examples of emotions based on common colours are:

  • Blue – productivity, sadness, calm, serenity, stability, lowers blood pressure, reduces anxiety
  • Green – nature, safety, luck, envy, abundance, peace, rest, refreshment, uplifting
  • Pink – love, kindness, calmness, romance, nurturing, playfulness, nostalgic
  • White – innocence, purity, peace, cleanliness, creates the illusion of space and emptiness
  • Yellow – warmth, brightness, energy, attention, friendly, cheerful
  • Red – boldness, excitement, youthfulness, danger, passion.

By thinking about how you want the person using the room to feel, you may be able to narrow down your paint choices.

Room orientation

The orientation of your room will affect what natural light it gets, and therefore how it feels. Natural light is dynamic, so it will change throughout the year, both with the weather and the seasons – the sun is higher in the sky in the summer in the northern hemisphere, and moves lower in the winter. However, there are some general assumptions you can make when it comes to room orientation:

  • North-facing. North-facing rooms get the least amount of light in a home, and as a result, tend to feel cooler. When painting a north-facing room, the light will bring out any cooler undertones, and the paint colour will likely feel darker. This can be great for creating cosy spaces. Remember that you’ll also need to rely on artificial light in these rooms, so test your paint sample under this light as well as daylight before making a final decision.
  • East-facing. East-facing rooms benefit from sunrise light, so they’ll feel warm at the start of the day. As a result, they can take pale, cool colours without feeling too cold. You’ll need to think about the purpose of the room when painting – do you spend more time here in the morning, or in the afternoon? If it’s the latter, then you may want to consider warmer colours, since you won’t have as much natural light.
  • South-facing. Like south-facing gardens, south-facing rooms are often a favourite with homeowners, since they benefit from all-day sun, and are generally the warmest rooms in a home. As a result, you have a lot of freedom when it comes to colour, as they can take darker paint tones without feeling too cold, and warm colours will feel extra vibrant.
  • West-facing. West-facing spaces will offer gorgeous views of the sunset, and as a result, will have soft evening light. You’ll need to adopt the opposite strategy to east-facing rooms here – use warm colours to brighten up the walls if you use it in the morning, since there won’t be much natural light, and cooler tones if it’s a room you primarily use in the afternoon.

Paint finish

Once you’ve chosen your colours, the final choice you need to make is what finish you want for your paint. The main choices are:

  • Matt. A matt finish is the most common choice for walls in living rooms, bedrooms and offices. It goes on easily, and is non-reflective, so hides any imperfections in the walls, meaning that you don’t have to worry about having a perfect surface before you start painting. However, they are hard to clean, unless you buy wipeable paint.
  • Eggshell. Offering slightly more sheen than matt, but nowhere near a gloss or silk paint, eggshell offers a tougher finish that is great for high-traffic areas, such as hallways, kitchens or bathrooms. It’s also good for skirting boards when you are aiming for a more contemporary look.
  • Gloss. Glossy paint is, as the name suggests, glossy - even when it dries, it has a reflective finish. Some companies offer a semi-gloss finish and a high-gloss finish, with the former being less reflective than the latter. Both are well-known for being durable and easy to clean, and they’re most commonly used on woodwork. You may also see satin and silk paints – they’re a low-sheen type of semi-gloss.

Practical painting tips

Once you’ve settled on your paint, it’s not just a case of opening the can and getting to work. Whilst the preparation stage can be time consuming, it’s well worth the effort to make sure you get a finish that you’re happy with. Unless you have a new build home, that almost certainly means that you’ll need to take off any wallpaper, sand and wash the walls, and fill any holes or imperfections in the plaster before you begin painting. In this section, we’ll take you through some tips for success when it comes to achieving a great finish with your paint.

What tools do you need?

The right tools will make the job a lot easier when it comes to painting and decorating, especially if this is your first time. If you have a whole house or flat to do, it may be worth investing in some of the pieces of equipment – but if you’re just doing one room, ask around family and friends to see if they have anything you can borrow.

If you can afford it, buying quality paint brushes, rollers and masking tape will all be worth it, especially if you’re doing multiple rooms. Cheaper versions will get the job done, but you’ll find that the accuracy of the brushes in particular will be superior, and you’re less likely to get any stray bristles stuck to your beautifully painted wall. Some essential tools include:

  • Overalls. These are essential for keeping your clothes protected from dust and paint.
  • Dust masks. If you’re sanding back any rough patches on your walls, or smoothing off any patch plastering, you’ll need a dust mask.
  • Goggles. Goggles should also be worn when sanding back, and some people prefer to wear them when painting as well, to protect their eyes from any paint splashes.
  • Sandpaper. Smooth walls are essential to the perfect paint finish, so you’ll need sandpaper to reduce any imperfections or flakes of old paint. You’ll also need to sand the walls if they previously had a gloss paint on them, as new paint won’t adhere correctly.
  • Pre-mixed filler. Particularly in older properties, walls can often have small holes where the wall has deteriorated, or previous owners had fixtures on the wall that required nails. Putting a small amount of filler in these gaps will help you achieve the perfect finish.
  • Filling or putty knife. A flat knife used to precisely apply the filler.
  • Dust sheet. Cover your floors and any furniture that you can’t move, to stop them getting dusty or having paint marks on them.
  • Wall cleaner and sponge. Before you paint, you’ll need to wash the walls to remove any grime, wallpaper glue or dirt. You can either buy a commercial wall cleaning solution, or use a DIY solution of washing up liquid and warm water. Make sure your walls are completely dry before painting.
  • Tape. Getting a clean finish and only painting the area you want can be difficult. Use masking or painting tape to create a cover for any light switches, skirting boards, windowsills or coving. It can also be used to divide the room into sections or patterns if you’re using more than one colour.
  • Brushes. You’ll need an angled paint brush to ‘cut in’ where the walls meet, and a 3-inch brush for doing windowsills and woodwork.
  • Rollers. Rollers are often the easiest way to paint a room, and come in different sizes and thicknesses for varying surfaces. Depending on whether you’re using a ladder, you may also need a roller pole to reach the top of the walls or the ceiling.
  • Roller tray. To get proper coverage with a roller, you need to make sure that all of your roller is covered in paint.
  • Paint brush cleaner. Keeping your brushes clean is important, in order to stop them drying solid. If you’re only pausing, then wrap your brushes and rollers in a plastic bag to keep them moist.

How should you prepare a room for decorating?

Decorating a room is a time-consuming process – you shouldn’t expect to have a high-quality finish done in just one afternoon. By following these steps, you can create a smooth finish for your paint that will leave you satisfied with the result, and with paint that will last for years to come.

Step 1: Cover your floor and furnishings

Before you begin, you’ll want to remove as much furniture as you can from the room you’re going to paint. The more space you have to move, the easier it will be – especially if you’re planning to paint your ceiling. Anything you can’t get out of the door, move to the centre of the room, or a convenient space, depending on where you’re going to start. Then, cover your furniture and floors with a dust cloth to protect them from mess.

It can also be helpful to understand if any paint spillages that seep through the cloth are covered by your accidental damage home insurance cover before you begin. If not, you may want to wait until someone else can help you move your furniture, or consider a waterproof floor cover.

Step 2: Remove wallpaper or old paint

Painting over wallpaper or old oil-based or flaky paint will never give you the perfect finish you’re looking for. You’ll need to sand any old paint off the walls so that there is no gloss left, before removing dust with a wet cloth. Depending on what paint you’ve decided to use, you may need to use a primer to cover any old colour.

When it comes to wallpaper, gently scrape it off the walls using a stripping knife, trying to work in sections where you can. If the paper is firmly stuck to the walls, soak a sponge with hot water and press it into the wallpaper to make it damp. This should dissolve the glue and make it easier to remove.

This can be a lengthy step, but making sure to take your walls back to basics will give you the best results.

Step 3: Repair any damage

Once you have bare walls, you should be able to see if there is any damage to the plaster. Use filler to repair any holes, taking care not to overfill the gap – the flatter the repair, the less you have to sand back later.

If there is any serious damage to the plaster that the filler can’t fix, you may need to contact a professional to repair it, unless you’re a confident plasterer yourself.

Step 4: Sand back

When you’re done with the filler, you’ll need to sand it back so that wall is flat. Any bumps might look minor at this stage, but once they’ll become more noticeable when they’re covered with paint, so don’t skip this step.

Step 5: Wash the walls

Before you get the paint out, wash your walls gently with soap, water and a sponge to remove any dust or dirt. Make sure that you leave your walls to dry properly before painting, otherwise the paint will not adhere properly and may streak.

Step 6: Masking tape any fixtures

Some people remove all their plug faces, light switches and skirting boards before painting, but doing so is time consuming, meaning that not everyone goes to this extreme. Instead, these features can be protected with masking tape, giving you a clean line when the paint is dry.

Step 7: Mist paint if needed

If you’re painting on fresh plaster or plain brick, you’ll need to use a mist coat. This is because plaster and brick will naturally soak up your paint as the surface is porous. This means that you’ll need to use more undiluted paint to get the same finish, and some areas may discolour depending on the plaster. A mist coat seals the plaster or brick, and stops this from happening on your top coat.

To avoid this, dilute some paint from your tin with water (three parts paint, one part water). Apply to the wall with a brush or roller, and leave to dry for at least a few hours before applying your top coat.

Step 8: Undiluted top coat

The final step is the most satisfying – your undiluted top coats. Your paint tin should advise how many coats are recommended to get the correct colour – it’s usually two, so make sure that you account for this when purchasing your chosen colour.

Getting the best results

Painting a room can seem daunting at first. Paint isn’t cheap, and the process is time consuming, so you’ll want to make sure that you’re doing the right thing. Following some simple tips can really make a difference when you’re painting, and elevate the level of finish you get in a room.

Firstly, your choice of tools will impact your paint finish. Make sure to have a range of brushes and a high-quality roller to hand in order to avoid any stuck bristles, streaky paint or roller marks. There are several different types of roller, so make sure to choose the one that best suits your paint and surface – if you’re not sure, take photos of your room and a note of your chosen paint to a DIY store, who should be able to advise.

Make sure to fully saturate your roller with paint and reload it after each section. It may seem like you’re putting more paint into your roller nap than on the wall, but doing so will ensure that you get the most accurate, consistent colour on your surfaces. It also means that you get a solid layer of paint on the wall, therefore increasing the durability and longevity of your paint work.

When it comes to using your roller, some experts recommend painting in a small ‘W’ shape on the wall, and then going back and filling in the gaps without removing the roller from the surface. The idea behind this is that you’re more likely to properly blend the sections, and not end up with straight lines down the wall like you might otherwise. Either way, there’s no need to push the roller into the wall – if you’ve correctly saturated it before starting, there should be enough paint.

After you’ve painted the main sections of your room, you’ll need to ‘cut in’ at the edges using an angled paint brush. There’s no need to dip your brush all the way into the tin – instead, load up the brush half way, and don’t be tempted to wipe off any excess paint. Having enough on your brush will allow you to get a smooth, even finish rather than a dry, streaky one.

Finally, for the perfect edge, peel off your masking or painter’s tape when the second coat is still slightly wet. This will help you avoid pulling any semi-dry paint by accident and damaging your wall finish. If you do accidentally let the paint dry, then make sure to score along the edge of the tape before pulling it away – this gives you the best chance of success.

Following this advice will help you make your home your own, and add a colourful backdrop to your everyday life.