How to Choose the Perfect Shade of White


If I had a nickel every time I got asked to recommend a good shade of white at a moments notice, I’d be on the beach in Fiji instead of writing this.

Although it seems like a simple ask (there is only one white crayon in the box we all grew up with after all), it is actually very complicated. There are a gazillion shades of white and each one will react differently given it’s specific color formula as well as it’s surroundings.

There are paint fan decks I reference often that showcase only white tones. It comes in really handy because white always looks white until you put another white next to it. Through this juxtaposition, you can really tell what undertones are in the particular shade you are looking at. This article will help you navigate the wonderful world of white like a pro.

First Things First

When deciding on a white, you have to take into account a few factors –  

  • Where is this going? Walls? Trim? Ceiling? Countertops? 
  • What is the underlying tone of the main color it is being paired with?
  • What is the finish of the surface it is going on? Smooth? Rough?   
  • What is the sheen? Mat? Glossy? Satin? 
  • Is this a main feature in the room or just an accent? 
  • What kind of lighting is present? Sunlight? LED? Incandescent? 

Knowing the answers to these questions will help steer you in the right direction to the perfect white for your space.  

Little White Lies

The common misconception that white makes spaces appear larger while dark colors make a space feel smaller.

This is complete baloney.  

In fact, white can actually make a space feel smaller because it reflects light so you notice the beginning, middle, and end of something. Plus, any breaks in the line of sight like corners or surfaces.  

Whereas if something is dark, you cannot completely make out where something starts and stops so the line of sight seems to continue. Think of the vastness of outer space. Does that seem small to you? 

It is actually the contrast between colors of elements in a room that will make something feel larger or smaller. If you had an empty room and painted it white, it would feel just as big as a space painted black. Your perception of the size is based on the size of the room in relation to the objects in the room and subsequently, how those objects relate to each other.  

Fun fact: Bees are unable to distinguish the color red, so a flower that would look white to us as humans would look blue-green through the eyes of a bee.

The Secret Influence of Color (my college textbook)

Tips and Tricks for Using White

It is always best to have large swatches (either painted directly on the walls or on a substrate you can take from room to room) of the color you are leaning towards. I never select anything from a tiny swatch and always need a larger sample to see the true range of tone. 

Some manufacturers offer large paint swatches on 8×11 inch sheets for free. You can also just get a sample can of paint, slab it on some poster board, and then tape it up on your walls. If going this route, be sure to do two coats of a paint on the poster board so you get the truest color.

If you paint directly on your walls, you might need to do three coats depending on the current shade of the wall. Some tones, like darker ones, will bleed through and give an under tone to the white. This will prevent you from getting an accurate shade when you paint the white swatch over it. In this case, the adage “less is more” does not apply. More is more better.

That being said, keep in mind that color is going to react differently in different spaces. Even on different walls in the same space.

Also, important to note, the chances of finding two whites that match each other is nearly impossible. Especially if they are on two different materials. If having two shades of white touching that are slightly different bothers you, then I suggest adding a buffer between the two. This could be done through a color or texture change. This way, you can trick your brain to see them as the same and save yourself lots of time (and money) in therapy.  

Where Not to Use White

Your eye will naturally be drawn to a white surface before a black surface since white reflects colors while black absorbs color. This is why I hardly ever paint a ceiling white, especially if the walls are not going to be white. If you do, the ceiling just becomes a big white neon sign. It will be the first thing people will see when they enter, instead of taking the room in and all it’s beautiful furnishings as a whole.  

Instead, I typically wrap the same color the walls are onto the ceiling. Remember what I said about light reacting differently even in the same space? The same color will look lighter on the walls and darker on the ceiling due to the way light hits it in a room. It is a slight shade variation, but just enough to make a meaningful difference and works great 99.9% of the time.  

My Go-To Shades

While every space is different, I have a few whites that consistently work well in a variety of rooms throughout the years. Start here is you’re looking to lighten things up.

Hope this helps to shed some “light” on using white! If you have any questions you can drop them in the comment box below. Or if you want personalized help determining which shade of white is right for your space, hop over to the contact page and schedule a consultation.

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