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How to Choose White

Can I paint my Walls White even if the Room is Dark?

By 03/24/2011March 28th, 201934 Comments

I can count on one hand (okay maybe two) how many times someone has hired me to actually choose a white for their walls.

White cabinets? Every day. White cabinets are fabulous anytime.

But walls?  I mean most people can pretty much pick white on their own. However, since gray became the new beige and white replaced cream, suddenly more and more of my readers and clients are asking for white walls.

Pretty room and with the light source coming from one side you can see the grayish ceilings. source

I received this question from a reader and thought I’d turn it into a post so everyone could benefit. “After reading your post about light colors will not come to life in a dark room, I keep revisiting in my mind how then would someone who loves a beachy or California Casual look (often with that white on white look) pull it off in a room that doesn’t get a lot of light? If you can’t go light/white…what do you do instead?”


This room appears to have so much natural light the walls are barely there. source

This is a great question and the answer is, if you don’t have enough light streaming in your house for most parts of the day, then white is not the best idea. What will happen instead is your walls will look gray and dingy because the shadows all on their own will simply cause your white walls to appear gray.

This room only has one set of windows and the effect is grayer walls. source

So what do you do instead? Well, if you still want ‘neutral’ you intentionally choose a gray that is dark enough so that it looks. . . gray not dingy.  If you want white should you choose a plain white?  Yes.  Because if you go too creamy your walls will simply start to look like apartment beige.

Notice once again, that white walls look the best with clean colours in general as well as either high contrast floors like in the first image, or painted white floors or pale maple.  If you have beige wall to wall carpeting or even worse pink beige, and your walls are white as well?  They will start to look like some kind of apartment beige because a crisp white on your walls just makes your carpet look more dirty.

Where you can get away with bad or a less than ideal colour in carpeting is in smaller bedrooms where the bed/s visually takes up all the space (above).

This room above, is an example of walls that need colour.  The sectional and artwork is too earthy to work with the clean white walls. This room needs a greeny/brown beige like BM HC-80 Bleeker Beige to truly pull it together. White walls are like any other colour. They should be visually pulling together all the other ‘white’ in the room. Three toss cushions in white to try and pull in it will not cut it!

Another space with tons of light and fresh colour to go with white (Jonathan Adler)

So before you commit to white, check out my White is a Snob post and my Bright Colours Need a Healthy Dose of White and proceed with caution.  It will not look fabulous in every space.

How do you feel about white?

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, contact me.

Related posts:

6 Rules for Painting Trim; Light or Dark
What is Beauty? 3 Ways to Know
How to Choose Colour for a North Facing Room
How to Make your Brown Sofa Sing a Happy Tune

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  • Holly says:

    I just recently found your blog (like yesterday and the day before) and I just wanted to tell you how much I adore your blog. I'm a college sophomore and interior design has always been something I've looked at kind of with some sort of awe. Your blog makes me so happy.

  • White can be as tough as yellow to pick the right one, don't you think? I completely agree that white in less than optimal lighting is simply the wrong decision. When we bought our current house in the woods, every single wall was white. The shadows, as you mentioned, made each room cold and cloudy. I could not paint it fast enough. But, what BM color would you define as "apartment beige"? I love that term!

  • Brillante Interiors says:

    The natural light is the first thing to consider, well said Maria and the example of the pinky beige carpet and white walls is perfect to understand how complicated white can be (but it could be exceptionally beautiful with the right conditions and if it goes with the general style of the house/loft?)

  • Cindy says:

    Some of my favorite whites – White Dove (BM) Dover White (SW) Mayonnaise (BM) and Linen White (BM)
    Oh and Acadia White(BM)!

  • Jeannine 520 says:

    I had to learn this the hard way. I painted a north facing room in a white in order to brighten it up. I called the resulting look "cobweb". It didn't do anything to lighten the look, it only made it more depressing and didn't relate to anything. As tough as it is for me to commit to a color, I won't be making that mistake again.

  • traci zeller designs says:

    I mainly use it for trim, but I LOVE Benjamin Moore's Simply White.

  • Kathysue says:

    Great advice,whites are very hard to get right because of what you just said, light!!! You always give such good solid advice, great post Maria. Kathysue

  • Marlo says:

    Very good advice; the analogies are very helpful.

    This post made me think about colour values. What if the room has enough light to handle light/white colour but the room next to it has walls in a darker value. Should all rooms have the same colour value?

  • says:

    Wow what a great blog I just found you. I have been in the Construction/Interior Design business for five years and just started my own blog and have been tracking down some great ones like yours!
    I am in the middle of a commercial project and yes white can be very tricky! When you get it wight thought it is awesome!

  • Anonymous says:

    Not sure what "apartment beige" is. Apparently not Bleecher Beige. 😉

  • Elizabeth Brown says:

    Ooh, good call on the Bleeker Beige in that earthy space.

  • pve design says:

    I love that top image. Good call on the earthy room.
    Bleeker beige or some sort of putty color…would work well. love white…and grey-

  • Laura Trevey says:

    Great post ~ and gorgeous photos to show off the whites!!


  • Catherine says:

    This reminds me of a home in House Beautiful last year. Almost the whole house had white on white, and it looked stunning, but there was this one guest bedroom that was a dark peacock green/blue. It looked completely out of place, but when I read the interview, the homeowner (designer?) said that it was the only room in the house that didn't get awesome light, and she hated the way dark rooms looked with white paint.

  • Linda says:

    The lighting in the room makes all the difference. I used Benj Moore Santo Domingo Cream as the wall color throughout my rather poorly lit home in AZ and it perfectly brightens yet compliments and warms the builders' glossy white door frames and white ceiling. It's still light enough to look sophisticated with my ebony furniture. I've added lots of greenery and a few pops of orange. Linda

  • Maria Killam says:

    Hi Marlo,
    You ask a good question, if your house is generally not bright enough for white and you paint some rooms white and some with colour, the white rooms would start to look like you hadn't painted them yet. So I think you either have to have the house that white works in or go with colour.

    To eveyone wondering what apartment beige is,
    I think it's somewhere in the realm of OC-95 Navajo white.

  • rb says:

    The only place I have white walls is in my kitchen. I have the creamier white shade of subway tile and cream colored cabinets. The wall paint is Behr Moonlight White, which has a touch of yellow. It is a happy, flattering, not-too-stark shade, and really good for the age of my house (100 years) where I think a stark white would look too inauthentically new.

  • Jill says:

    I had Navajo White in a house I lived in once, and …well, I hated every minute of it. 😉 Looked like dirty white.

    My favorite white lately is Spring in Aspen, BM #954…it's got a light reflective value of about 65 instead of the 90+ that most whites have…so it's not glaring.

    Thanks for your wonderful blog, Maria!


  • wunderkammer says:

    As always, you are absolutely right. White is precisely the total reflection of light. If the light does not exist simply not white.
    Happy weekend.

  • Carla@DesignintheWoods says:

    Whites and creams are a challenge. I love a white or creamy color as the envelope of the space. I have several projects going now that are white spaces. I'm with you about pairing it with clear, punchy colors. No earth tones in a white space….please!

  • Lisa says:

    oh Maria I am so glad you posted this. I love white because it feels crisp & clean but boy it can be dirty and dull sometimes you are so right. But mainly I want to say THANK YOU for mentioning floors!!!!
    I am convinced and am trying to convince the MR. that our builder beige carpet that came with the house has got to go. It messes with every color I try.
    Our master continues to be a work "not" in progress because of the flooring.
    Copying & pasting this link to send to him. It's ok, he loves you!
    Sorry it's been too long since I visited.
    xo Lisa

  • Loretta Fontaine (APPLESandRUBIES) says:

    Maria– My favorite white is Benjamin Moore's Atrium White. But as a trim color, I've never done white walls…

    Beautiful images and great post!


  • Anonymous says:

    Hi. Love your website. So, in touch with the new gray trend I changed my flooring to gray. Love it. The problem is that although I know that jewel tones look fabulous with gray, heaven knows I don't want burgundy walls. Other than white, I have no idea what, in general, is a neutral tone that goes with gray. Beige? It was easy to come up a variety of neutrals that matched browns, but I am stumped with gray.

  • laurcas says:

    We just painted both of our sons' renovated rooms white- frankly, not even sure exactly what the shade was, it was Benjamin Moore. One room is the attic, and the other is on the 2nd floor, and was expanded by taking down the wall between 2 small bedrooms. It has 2 north facing windows and a small east facing window.

    The attic is perfect. I'm not so sure yet about the big room.

    I think I'll send you some photos, Maria.

    Timely post!


  • Donna says:

    This is a great post Maria. My whole house looks dingy..why? White walls and hardly a speck of natural light. It's great to have the shade to keep the heating bills down..but depressing when you love the sun. You know that better than anyone. I wish I didn't have to texture, tape and bed before I could paint..or my house would be painted already. As it is, I've been so overloaded with a long to do list that I can't pull it off yet. I did by tape though..just last week. I told Tim I'm just going to have to start taking Saturdays and working at it bit by bit.

    Thanks for the warning Maria! Everyone can learn from my pain I'm sure. (I've lived for years in apartment white..and pinky beige carpet– it's awful too!)


  • linda says:

    but what can i do if my bedroom has no windows at all ? what colors can i paint it ? and i have a small nursery room for a baby boy too that i want to decorate but it has no windows either and my living room only has 2 small windows =/ and if youre wondering why my place has no windows at all its because i live in a basement and im trying to make the best of it please help !!

  • Jacalin Fulton says:

    I had hoped to have a pristine white bedroom by now and a white living room in the next week but my painter is doing too much. What is strange to me is the blue bedroom I had (B Moore, grey/blue) and the BM Capilano Bridge (taupe) in the living room with a pale blue ceiling are also BM and not being covered properly either by the BM Regency Paint in Cloud White! I can still see blue and a possibly a bit of green after two coats. I wish there was something in your book Marie re North facing rooms or West facing bedrooms etc. or who does one go to ask what is the matter? The owner of the BM store? Both rooms are North facing and I’m ready to start chewing my nails and ask what has happened to my go-to white? I am going to recommend Maries choice of OC-65 Chantilly Lace to the painter but this is becoming a little nightmare all by itself. I’ve never had this problem with good BMoore paint before. Has anyone else? Thankyou, “Missing Denmark”

    • Maria Killam says:

      HI Jacalin, If your room is dark, white will simply pick up other undertones in the room and definitley look green or blue and even dingy. I would recommend adding some colour to the walls. North light adds blue to a room. Maria

  • Two Scotties and Me says:

    I’m new to blogging and hope this note is more acceptable? My painter is quick, hardworking and has good ideas but I’m puzzled that my grey/blue Benjamin Moore bedroom walls are not a wonderful clean white after two coats. My painter uses Benjamin Moore’s Regal Paint and we both like and know Cloud White. I’m still seeing blue and the next room is my living room and it is due to be painted April 5th and it has a pale blue ceiling (Patriot White) and taupe (Capilano White) walls, all the trim in my wee house is Ivory White and the rooms are North Facing (dark rooms). What could be the matter?

    • Two Scotties and Me says:

      I’m going to try Marie’s choice which I read about this evening, OC-65 Chantilly Lace. It was great luck to find her blog but I’m in the midst of redecorating just these two rooms and wish I had ‘found’ her earlier.

  • Ayrianne says:

    Marie, I just discovered you this week and am loving reading your blogs! You are so right about white turning gray in dark rooms. We opened walls in our tiny 1880s cottage to create flow and openness. I love the look of white walls in all the cottage mags I see, but the north-facing kitchen with white cabinets and the dining room are too dark. I’ve read that with very low ceilings is it best to continue the same light-toned color throughout Yellows seem as tricky from room to room and perhaps too warm for the south-facing living room. I’m stuck. (BTW I can’t open your email address to contact you personally.)

  • Torie Hadel says:

    Hi Maria! I want to paint my new room with three white walls and one turquoise accent wall. I only have two windows near one end of the room which makes me think white not be the best choice for a color for the three other walls. Do you have a recommendation for white with one accent color wall? Thanks!

  • Whywolf says:

    Despite reading this and other articles, I have yet to find one that explains WHY you shouldn’t paint a dark room white. Why not? Wouldn’t it reflect the most photons? I mean its white because it doesn’t absorb any colors in the visible spectrum, right? They bounce off it. Ergo, maximum photon deflection. So why does puke orange or tasteless-fool-lime-green work better? Can anyone actually *quantify* why???

    Or is there no actual reason besides “artistic preference”? The walls in my finished basement level are a recommended cream -beige color… and it sucks. It’s so dim. The walls seem to drink the light of the incandescent bulbs.

    • Maria Killam says:

      This post clearly explains WHY. That’s WHY it’s in the headline. Your paint colour probably doesn’t bother you as much as the room that may be lacking a look and a feel. My best advice is stop stressing about your paint colour and start decorating or hire someone to help you, if you weren’t born with that gift. . that’s my best advice, If I had to choose between painting my walls and styling the room, I would choose decorating hands down, every time. Paint cannot do all the heavy lifting. Hope that helps. Maria

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