Emily Henderson

stylebyemilyhenderson.com · May 8, 2015

Design Mistake #3: Painting a small, dark room white

I like a good, bright white room, sure, but it’s not for everyone. It’s like how some people can pull off really wild, crazy disheveled, sun-blown hair, and look cool while others look like they just finished the walk of shame, in 1987 – it really depends on all the other styling elements.

But there is this misconception flying out there, seemingly promoted by people exactly like me, that painting all rooms white will make them feel bigger, brighter and just generally more beautiful. For some it does, but if the room has very little natural light then it just looks DEAD. Flat. So boring. In photographs we can make any room look really bright, like the sun is just flooding them with light, (and we do) but it’s often VERY much not the case. White paint thrives in really bright rooms (like my living room and bedroom) but without that light bouncing around it, nothing happens.

Click through to what neutral colors you should paint your dark rooms …

It was hard to find white rooms online that weren’t clearly shot cheated to look brighter, but we found a few, relatively depressing/flat ones:

Those rooms would have looked WILDLY more alive and inviting if they were painted a medium tone – a neutral that has some pigment in it. Stick to white in rooms like these, below, that have a lot of sun light, otherwise, folk, you gotta consider a neutral color.

I’ve had to break the news to clients so many times – white is just not right for you and your room. It’s like breaking the news that the kitty they rescued from the pound belongs to another family. They show me their pin board with blown out white rooms, airy curtains flapping in the breeze, sunlight pouring in (and us California designer/bloggers are not helping the situation), with the look of eager hope on their faces. But their walls are heavy, their windows are small, and they face south … with an awning. Their room will never look like that and moreover will look just so sad if we don’t add some sort of tone to the walls to help give it some dimension, depth and texture. It’s disappointment followed by ‘so what do we do now??;

A neutral paint color is the answer.

But first, how do you know if you room has enough natural light to be painted white? Ask yourself – do you need to turn on lights during the day in that room? If so, then consider a neutral/medium toned color. I’m in my family room/kitchen right now (its 7am) and I have to turn on lights but around 10am the sun comes around and it gets bright in here and then in the afternoon its pretty bright, often where we have to close the shade. So don’t judge it by just one time of day (and obviously not at night, duh). But if your room never gets enough light to read without a lamp, then white isn’t for you or it. Move along. You’ll be happier you went with a gray or taupe or blue.

I’m not saying paint it a dark color. If it’s a smaller sized room then yes, be careful, a darker paint color will make it feel smaller (and cozier) so generally unless you want a small cozy room I’m suggesting a medium toned neutral. Not dark, just not white. If you are wondering if the rule applies to bright rooms – not being dark, it doesn’t. Bright rooms can pull off any color – light, medium or black, its dark rooms that are trickier and just can’t go WHITE.

So here are some neutral tones that I have found work really well in darker rooms – colors that have some movement in them to help move and bounce the light around – so it actually looks like it does something.

Before you go ordering gallons of those paint colors PLEASE sample them on your wall. I’ve used November Rain now 3 times and it’s always been beautiful, but your particular room and light might pull the brown out of it whereas my old living room pulled the blue out it. At this point I’ve painted hundreds of rooms, with a 75% success rate, and i’m a designer. So please swatch them on paper or directly on the walls and yes MULTIPLE walls because light reflects color around differently on different walls. Then watch it for 24 hours to make sure that you like how it is both in the morning and in the evening.

Unless you don’t have the patience to do that, like me 1/2 the time, and you are willing to waste time/money by just going balls out and painting the room, to then be like well, whoops… that looks kinda green …

Those neutrals above are just an off-the-top-of-my-head collection, so if you have a favorite neutral please leave in the comments so the world can be full of appropriately painted toned walls, and the myth that ‘every wall should be white’ can be finally dispelled.

White walls = good if lots of natural light and bad if not.

See design mistake #1 (the generic sofa) and #2 (the too small rug).

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