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  • Desiree Mastracchio, DMDesign

Painting to Sell? How to Choose the Right Neutral.


When preparing for sale, a new coat of paint can work wonders for making your home look fresh and clean. But deciding what color can set many people in a tailspin. Most sellers know they should go neutral, but what exactly does that mean.... white? Beige? Tan?

The design term "neutral" doesn't mean what it used to. Interior decorators define neutral as light shades that blend well with other colors. Greens, blues, even reds can serve as neutrals IF the value (shade) is light enough. When the value of paint colors are so diluted that we don't even realize what we're seeing, they're called undertones... and they can wreak havoc in your house if you don't recognize them!

Undertones make a huge impact on paint color. Paints with red or yellow undertones are warm, active colors. They are stimulating, and work well in social areas of your house like the kitchen, dining room and living room. Warm tones tend to advance - they make a space feel smaller, but also cozy and inviting. Blue and green undertones tend to be cool and work best with other cool colors. They make spaces look peaceful and serene - great choices for bedrooms and bathrooms.

Even though you may not be able to immediatley recognize the undertones in a paint color, there are ways to identify them. If you don't, you may fall victim to a paint fail.

The simplest way to determine a color's undertone is to look at the darkest shade on the paint strip; there, you will see the most saturated and truest version of the color. A medium tan may look like a great choice for your brown and red family room, until you realize that it turns green as it gets darker. The cool undertones probably wouldn't work as well in a space filled with warm colors. Likewise, you might think that gray is a cool color, only to see a lot of brown in the darkest shade of the strip. Imagine your bedroom walls with a brown hue next to your blue and gray duvet... not a pretty picture.

At first glance, the large paint chips above look very similar. But on closer inspection of the darkest color on the far right end of the strip, you can see that their base colors are quite different. Passive Gray is the truest gray - the base color is black (a cool color). Aloof gray has a lot of green in it - another cool tone. Repose Gray comes from a brown base, making it a warm gray and a nice mix of gray and tan.

In addition to being aware of undertones, it's important to realize that light and sheen can affect the way paint colors look as well. When choosing your paint, consider the room's lighting because that can have an impact on the paint's appearance. Natutal light always presents the color in its truest form. LED and florescent lights tend to make colors turn blue, while incandescent lighting brings out warm tones. And the more gloss in the paint, the more vivid the color because it reflects light. Matte and eggshells will be softer, while semi- or high-gloss will be brighter. That's why trim looks so good in high gloss - it creates a dramatic contrast against eggshell walls.

So now that you understand color behaves differently depending on undertones, sheen and light, it's time to select the right neutral for your house. First determine if you need a warm or cool color by looking at the flooring, rugs, furnishings and lighting in a particular area. Wood floors generally have warm undertones, so if the other elements in the room are warm as well, plan on taking your paint choice in this direction. You might consider one of these colors (my peronal favorite and most highly recommended color is Ben Moore Revere Pewter):

The Benjamin Moore paints below are beautiful cool neutrals, creating a tranquil feel:

Despite a tutorial, you may still feel unsure of making paint decisions - but don't fret. DMDesign offers color selection services as part of our staging consultations. Color makes a major impact on your home and it's always best to get the advice and help of a professional.


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