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When choosing white paint, an underlying color by any other name is just as sweet

Is white truly the absence of color? White is associated with so many things, if you really think about it. It represents purity, light, cleanliness, and essentially serves as a backdrop and canvas to every other color in the spectrum. Choosing the right white for your home, however, isn’t the piece of wedding cake you’d imagine.

Remodelista’s Meredith Swinehart believes that the perfect white paint is really an illusion if you’re on a quest for it. “Given that spaces, lighting, moods, and personal preferences all vary, there are many factors to be considered—and also many right answers. She consulted with her architect and designer associates for answers to how to choose white, and all agree that it really pays to take the time to find the right white.

First, get to know white’s nuances. Anyone who works with color knows that white isn’t one hue but many—and that some are whiter than others — just as trying to match a black blazer to a black pair of trousers from another suit will never be a perfect match. That’s because every color comes with undertones from blues to reds to yellows to greens. If you don’t believe that, head to your local paint shop and ask for help spotting whites with a variety of undertones and compare them side by side. Then hold the samples against a sheet of white paper. The complexity of each color will reveal itself to you.

As for selecting an interior white paint color for your home, your first step would be to size up the palette of everything that will be in the space. Are these items/pieces of furniture cool or warm? “If they’re warm, you’ll want to lean toward whites with warm-colored undertones (pink, orange, red, yellow),” says Swinehart. “If they’re cool, consider cool-inflected whites (with undertones of blue, purple, or green).” If your furnishings lack color, Swinehart and her crew recommend a warmer white; if your pieces contain lots of color, a cooler white. Why? Because your furnishings will affect your perception of any paint.

Next, assess the light in the room. “Because color is a phenomenon of light, the amount of natural and artificial light in the room impacts the tone of the walls,” says Swinehart. “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.” Even where you live can affect the light as well. For instance, 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. But 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, making the warm gray paint look pink. It’s all definitely a “trompe l’oeil” (an eye trick) — and can bewitch and befuddle your ability to simply name a white and go with it.

To boil things down, simply choose a few whites, using these guidelines: (1) pure white reads more modern (2) the best whites have other colors affecting their appearance (3) if all else fails, err on the side of a neutral white. Deal? Now. Put your favorite whites to the test at home — not at the paint store. Why? Because 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. Large expanses of walls can also play tricks with the color undertones each white may contain.

Swinehart admits that she and her associates were divided on whether to paint a sample directly on the wall or use a movable swatch. If placing it on the wall, make the samples as large as possible and vary the places, using different walls, including ceilings. Colors shift from ceiling to wall, wall to wall, and room to room, depending on the direction of exposure, proximity to windows, and artificial light. If using a movable swatch or panel, make it a good size 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,” says Swinehart. And don’t forget to take note of the paint during the day and evening, in natural light and artificial light. For that purpose, leave them up on your walls for a while before you decide on one.

To simplify things, Swinehart and her team do have some recommendations to try if you’re stumped, using a handful of whites they hear about over and over again, all from Benjamin Moore:

  • Swiss Coffee OC-45

  • Simply White 2143-70

  • Super White PM-1

  • White Dove OC-17

Remodelista, TBWS

"Home Owner", Misc