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All About White Paint

Probably the hardest "color" to manage is white. Find more about what really goes on inside white paint and how to select the best for your home.


Amy Krane: Welcome to Let's Talk color.


Amy Woolf: I'm Amy Woolf, principal designer at Amy Woolf Color and Design.


Amy Krane: And I'm Amy Krane, founding designer at Amy Krane Color. We're both professional color experts who specialize in Architectural Color. We met while training and years later the conversation is still going strong.


Amy Woolf: We both live our lives immersed in color and design. We often agree, but sometimes we don't, because color is personal. Color truths, however, are universal.


Amy Krane: In each episode we'll unravel the mystery of choosing color for your home or business, both inside and out.


Amy Woolf: Today we're going to talk about choosing white paint.


Amy Krane: I think it's safe to say that choosing a pleasing and appropriate white really confounds a lot of people, home owners and designers alike. It's just so damn tricky. So Amy, what are some good reasons to choose white for your walls?


Amy Woolf: I really think that choosing white should be purposeful. It shouldn't be a default. It shouldn't come out of fear. I think a lot of people kind of retreat to white because they feel like it's safe and it's easy. I think there needs to be an architectural justification. An all white interior really suits a modern interior, a modern style of architecture. And in some cases, there's a super traditional application of white - white wainscoting, that's highly appropriate. So I always want to see white as purposeful and driven by the architecture and not just kind of a default.


Amy Krane: Another good reason why it might be chosen is because the space is located in a region that's hot and sunny, like in the south of the US. Not only does it go well with that beachy, coastal vibe, but it actually reflects heat. So it makes you feel cool when you're living in it. And that's the reason why a white house exterior will be cheaper to cool in the summertime. I agree that white walls are associated with modernist architecture, and frankly, I think that it's because architects often choose white. I think they're programmed in architecture school to pick white because they want your focus to be on the structure and not to be distracted by some wall color. So it's just part of their signature look thing, like their chunky black eyeglasses!


Amy Woolf: Yeah, it's about form with architects. I think, you know, they're interested in lines and the massing in the space. What are the big shapes? Like their chunky glasses, what are the chunks of the building? That's what I mean when I use the word massing. So yeah, color is either anathema or an afterthought with some of those architects... That's for sure.


Amy Krane: Absolutely. White allows the walls to step back and be a backdrop to color that you bring into the space other ways like through your decor with textiles and rugs and artwork.


Amy Woolf: I agree, and I often talk to my clients about whether a space is going to be color-driven or contents-driven. When I'm working with clients who have traveled a lot, they have collections. They have a lot of art work in spaces like that. What I will say is that the interior design will be content-driven, and so we don't need to use color so much, and sometimes white or a soft white, toned white, or a complex neutral that kind of leans into white would work. Color is a great backdrop with clients who may be starting out and don't have that travel history nor amassed a collection of artwork or textiles or rugs. Those things you mentioned, Amy. Then we can drive the interior look with color and put color on the walls. So making that distinction between content-driven versus color-driven, really depends on who the client is and what they've got.


Amy Krane: Another important thing to take into account is the amount of natural light that the space gets. It's really important when you're choosing a white for a room or any color for that matter. People mistakenly think that white will always make a space lighter, and because of that, make it appear bigger. But you really need a fair amount of natural light to make white work, especially in a space that's small. Warm whites help a space look bright and expansive. Your cool whites feel really modern, but they can tip the room towards feeling kind of sterile. So you need to be careful with a cool modern white. Make sure you've got enough natural light in the room to use it.


Amy Woolf: I think that directional light makes a big difference too. If your light is coming from the south, it's advantageous. If you got a north-facing room, then those white colors are just going to look like dirty dish water. One of the ways to think about that is to look up into the corners of your room that are naturally more shadowy and start to understand what happens... A wall color looks different across the entire expanse of the wall, so look to the corners for that shadowing and to understand the darkening and the grading. I think small dark rooms should just be embraced for what they are. You can't fix it with white necessarily, so sometimes I like to just embrace the room for the way it is. It's small, it's dark. Let's make it cozy. One person's small and dark is another person's cozy. There's other ways around it than white.


Amy Krane: Yeah, I think people choose white often because they can't make up their mind's or they're afraid to make a mistake. You know white is the most popular color paint sold. And I think indecision really drives those paint sales.


Amy Woolf: One of my pet peeves, I know we're supposed to talk about pet peeves later. I'm just launching now... Here comes a pet peeve of mine. I kind of don't like it when people out of that fear, paint one wall, and I know accent walls are kind of coming back in, but they paint one wall one really strong bold color, and then the rest of the walls are white. It's just too high contrast for me. I don't think it's easy on the eye physiologically and I would much rather have a client find one single color to wrap the whole room in. Sometimes there's a reason for an accent wall, but it should never be because people want color, but they're afraid choosing, so... I agree with you completely.


Amy Krane: I like accent walls. I do them somewhat often. I don't think they're for every room or every style house. I actually like them when there's a color for the accent wall and then white around it, or maybe a really colorless neutral. It doesn't have to be a cold stark white. But I think the key to accent walls really working is that you choose a wall that's already the focal point, either architecturally- perhaps it has a fireplace on it, or maybe it’s peaked. Or by virtue of the function of that wall, like it's the headboard wall in the bedroom. I think an accent wall creates drama just by the nature of its uniqueness in the room. So its job IS to create contrast, and that's why I like it sometimes.


But it's important to keep in mind that whites are almost a-chromatic, and that means they have almost no color. And I think this leads people to think, it's just white, I'll pick any one. But that’s what makes white so difficult to choose, because whites come from every hue family, every color family. Which means you can take any color: blue or red, green and add white to it. It gets lighter and lighter and lighter until you have an almost white, and then you have white. But there are hints of that color family still showing through, and that's what people mistakenly, in my opinion, call an undertone. It's really not an undertone. It's the hue family showing through. So to be able to look at a white or an off white and be able to parse what hue family it came from is really helpful when you're figuring out what white to choose. Especially when you're putting a white with a white. A little less important when you're mixing it with other colors, but still important.


I like to think that if you're mixing whites with whites, they should be from the same hue family. A yellow white with a yellow white. Maybe they're different intensities, different saturation, they're different lightness. But I think that's a sure-fire way to not have those whites clashing when you're mixing whites. When you're combining white with another color in the room, maybe as a trim color, I think then you have a little bit more leeway to mix a white from one color family with a color on the wall from another, but it does depend.


Amy Woolf: Hue family is really important. One of the ways I think is a great first step to understanding this conversation about hue families, it's not necessarily a way to pick a color, is to take a variety of whites that come from different hue families and line them up next to each other. I think often when people are considering white paint, they'll just pull something popular like White Dove or whatever, and then look at it in isolation. I think it's harder to understand what's going on when you're just looking at a single white color without anything to compare it to... So what I like to walk people through as an exercise is to lay out colors with these hue families and compare.


Take a cool white from Sherwin-Williams, Extra White, which has a slight bluish cast to it, and Roman Column which comes out of the yellow hue family, and lay those two next to each other. You'll really see it in a way that you might not otherwise. The blue and the yellow kind of push on each other, but it's a way to start to understand what's going on inside these whites. And I do believe that once you see these things, it gets harder to un-see them. I hear that from my clients a lot that after a consultation. I will sort of open their eyes to certain things, certain aspects of colors - things to be aware of, things to look out for, and all of a sudden they're seeing it everywhere in their lives. So these little exercises are helpful for improving your ability to understand what you're looking at in all kinds of colors. You tune your eye up. It's building a muscle. Really understanding color is like building any muscle or any skill set. I think comparing whites is a really good idea to help you understand where they come from.


Amy Krane: I think maybe an even better way to do it is to set it up like an experiment, and experiments have controls. So I feel that if you pick something that is as neutral as you can get with a white, let's say white copy paper, which tends to be a little bit blue, but it's pretty much a neutral white, and compare your warm yellow white and your blue-ish, cool white to the paper. Then you're less affected by the other white. Meaning, if you look at a blue white next to a yellow white it’s a better way to really see what you're dealing with. Everything is context in terms of choosing colors, and I think comparison is a really good way to go.


Amy Woolf: I hear what you're saying, to use the neutral backdrop. I think what I'm after is people really understanding that we've got this color circle. We have a color wheel with 360 degrees on it and there are color families that live at every point on that circle, and that's what I'm looking for. I'm looking for people to understand that color, and especially whites and neutrals, inhabit every point on that circle. There are not four categories of neutrals. We cannot lump things together into some easy-peasy shortcut kind of understanding. Color is complex. And I think we need to own it and speak to that complexity and not over-simplify things. So that's kind of me on my color soapbox!


Amy Krane: Brava! I know there are tons of articles out there and all of this content online. Everyone is talking about the best-of this and the best-of that. Maybe it's helpful for folks to hear what our best-of’s are. For a warm yellow-based white from Benjamin Moore I like Capitol White. I also like Simply White, which I have in my home. I like Cloud Cover, which is a nice toned white from Benjamin Moore. I like White Heron, Winter White and Distant Gray as cool whites. I know Distant Gray has gray in its name, but it really doesn't look gray. And I always tell my clients, please ignore the names!


When you get a color chart from me, it will say a few things in the notes. One, don't look these colors up online. That's not accurate. Wait till you get your color samples from me. And another is, ignore the names because they're not accurately descriptive. It's some marketing person coming up with an idea of what sounds good and sells that color. I'm also confessing right here and now that I went through years not using the color White Dove. I know it's on every blog post, and it's on every -Ask The Expert. It's everyone's favorite white. And I have to say, I'll be honest, the reason I never used it or even considered using it is because my clients can see these best-of lists also, and I really want them to understand that I'm putting in the work, doing my due diligence on every single project. They're getting a completely bespoke, custom color palette from me.


So I'm not going to go to these go-to lists of colors that everyone has. And that's why I never went to Revere Pewter for a warm gray either. But eventually I found my way to White Dove. There was a reason to pick it for someone's home and it really worked out great. I do use it now. I've used it for exteriors and I've used it for interiors. So I learned my lesson there! But from Sherwin-Williams, I like Greek Villa, which is a great neutral white. I like West Highland White, which is a warm yellow-based white, and I like White Flour, which is a toned white with a little bit of red in it. But don't think pink because it's not.


And Amy you mentioned Extra White before. That's a cool white that I use a lot from Sherwin when I need a cool white. But when we're talking white, I think the company that's most famous for their whites is Farrow and Ball. They have this enormous white collection, which honestly is way more off white than it is white. I can count on one hand how many true whites are in that collection, but does it really matter? I don't know. Does it matter how you categorize a white? The main thing is how it appears on your wall.


Amy Woolf: I think we have to remember also that how it looks on your wall as trim depends on what the wall color is because you know color is what it is because of what's around it. One of my color mantras is, “color is only what it is because of the relationship with other colors,” so that's an important thing to remember. To that end, I pick all my wall colors first, and then I go back in and pick my trim color afterwards.


Some of my favorites are Mascarpone from Ben Moore. I love China White. It's a nice toned white. It makes a great exterior white for a classic New England farmhouse or an exterior trim color. I tend to tone my exterior trim colors a lot. I don't like super bright whites outside. I think it looks a little too much like the vinyl windows. People tend to match the vinyl windows, then the whole house is like this bright stark white, which is never my favorite.


And I'm gonna jump on the confession train and tell you I've also got my own White Dove story. Which is that I've never used a lot of White Dove. I don't look at the color names, I'm really looking at colors when I'm flipping through my whites looking for the right trim, the names register second. It just isn't something I've used a lot of. So I did have a really big renovation a couple of years ago. A 6000 square foot farmhouse. We picked all the colors. I went through all the trim possibilities and it was definitely leaning into White Dove, and I was actually a little embarrassed. I had to confess to my client. I said, "I'm concerned because I know this is everybody's go-to and it's sort of a default and it's not picked with a great deal of intention. But I want to tell you, I've done my due diligence and it's White Dove.” So that house has a ton of millwork. It's an historic 1835 home and yeah, there's a lot of White Dove. But it's beautiful, it's perfect. It was absolutely the right thing to do. So it's okay. Some of the other colors I like are Cotton Balls or Mountain Peak White. I tend to like colors that feel like they have a little warmth to them, but aren't dirty. They maintain some crispness even when they're warm. And I often will take those colors and wrap them right on to the ceiling.


Amy Krane: I think neutral whites are really useful. Of course, no white is truly neutral. Every white is going to have some other colors in them. But you know, again, it's about context and how they appear in the space - in the light of that space with the surrounding colors, as you mentioned, Amy. And some of the neutral whites that I love are Chantilly Lace from Benjamin Moore. I liked it before it was on everyone's best-of list! I have to say, I also used to use super white a lot. I use it less now. It's very neutral. And my all-time favorite neutral white is All White from Farrow & Ball. You know what, I hate to use this word, I fear using this word, but it's PERFECT! All White has incredible substance and presence, but it's clean and clear without being cold and it goes with everything.


Amy Woolf: Are you talking about as a trim color or for walls or both?


Amy Krane: Both! I tend to use it more as a wall color when I need a great white. To be honest, Farrow & Ball is more expensive in the US than a lot of other paint brands out there. So I feel even when there's a client who is okay with the cost, you get more bang for the buck and it makes more of an impact to use it on the whole wall than to use it just for trim. I live in the Northeast like you do Amy, and there's a lot of historic houses where I am. Just like there are near you. But I think people have a little bit more of an edgy sensibility here. And so we tend to go more with matching the trim color to the wall color, as opposed to using white or off-white as trim color. I'm not saying we never do that, that's certainly not so. But more often than not, I don't use white trim unless its requested or really goes with the style of the house. But like you, when I do use it as a trim color, I bring it up onto the ceiling. I don't really think that there's a reason to have three colors in a room just because. Meaning, if you have a color on the wall, you have a white or an off white for trim, to me, there's no reason to pick a different white for your ceiling. If it's pale enough, just bring it up and onto the ceiling.


Alright, so it's time for our pet peeves. And you started that already, Amy. I would say my biggest pet peeve is when a client asks, “so should be just use ceiling white?” No! If you care so much about the colors in your home that you would hire me to come up with a completely custom color palette, let's not just default to ceiling white. It is not a nice white and it won't coordinate with the colors in your room. And talking about painting your ceiling, I'm really a fan of putting a flat finish on the ceiling. I really don't want any reflections to come off of the ceiling.


Amy Woolf: So I think people get stuck with ceiling white because painters just say to go with ceiling white. I don't think people often are given a choice. So when you are dealing with a consultant, like Amy says, why wouldn't you be more conscious about that decision? We often call the ceiling the fifth wall, and I think it definitely deserves some attention and some customization. I will also often go with a slightly darker ceiling color with really dark walls to eliminate that contrast, because as you recall from my earlier pet peeve, the super high contrast between white and a darker color makes my eyes hurt a little bit. So I like to bring the brightness down on a ceiling when we're using a really, really dark rich color on the walls.


Amy Krane: I think that's a great point. I don't think that kind of contrast in a room serves anyone.


Amy Woolf: I have an issue with that outside too. With the exteriors, with that super bright white trim. As I mentioned before, it feels very coastal to me which I think when you're out on the coast context matters. Location matters and it feels better out there. But once we come in, I'm interested really in toning that white and reducing that contrast as well.


Amy Krane: Yeah, absolutely, I mean, we're back to what we talked about before about choosing exterior colors. So much of it has to do with the light near you and the region of the country that you live in.


Well, thanks for listening. We hope you've learned something about choosing white paint color, and tune next time when we talk more about using color for the built world.


Amy Woolf: And if you'd like to learn more about us, send us an email, send us some questions, tell us what you'd like us to talk about... You can find us at Let's Talk Paint Color dot com. See you next time.

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