The new trend is to paint both your walls and trim white (or cream). Before you run out and buy just any white paint colour for your room, you need to consider contrast and be ready to repeat white in your decor. Here’s how to choose the right white or cream for your walls and trim.
Tricia and I have been noticing a trend with trim colours lately in our e-Design consultations.
And that is, if you have an earthier colour palette in your house – either because you prefer cream over white OR you have a Tuscan brown colour palette from that trend – AND you are craving a fresher look and feel, it’s hard to do without painting all your trim white.
Because the traditional way of creating contrast between the trim and walls means if you keep your creamy trim, your walls still need to be darker so that your trim doesn’t end up looking dirty.
But it can be a lot easier and definitely less expensive to just paint the walls the same white or cream colour as the trim.
So, I asked Tricia to write a post explaining how it all works! Here it is:
How to Choose the Right White or Cream for Your Walls and Trim
Painting the trim white has become so conventional that if you ask your painter to do anything else, he might look at you funny and launch into a diatribe about why it is a bad idea.
He wants to slap gloss white right outta-the-can on all that woodwork like he always does, because that is his process.
And painting is his area of expertise, so he feels like he should advise you on the right way of doing things. Bless his steady hand and heart.
And there is ample reason for this norm. It works. It makes rooms look crisp and finished and shows off the depth and tone of the pretty wall colour. Painting your trim white is a no brainer to paint. And probably, if you want to keep life simple, you might not even want to keep reading this post 😉
Oh good, you’re still with me… With paint colour trends getting ever paler and with the range of white paint colours pretty much reigning supreme these days, we tend to run into some exceptions to the rule.
Sometimes we don’t want to see the “depth and tone” of our paint colours so much as the fresh bright whiteness of them. And there is nothing “fresher” than white walls, right?
How to put together the perfect all-white kitchen.
One situation that comes up quite often is how to put together the perfect all-white kitchen. If you have a crisp off-white on your cabinets like Benjamin Moore Simply White, is it necessary to get contrast from your walls? Do you need to paint them Creamier? Greyer? Whiter?
Possibly. White cabinets and a soft greige on the walls is a gorgeous and classic look. And there are lots of good reasons to choose a greige over a white for your walls (below).
NOTE: In my system, greige refers to the very palest colours in the taupe, violet grey and green grey categories.
Much also depends on the layout and details of the kitchen. But in many cases, a simple shift in paint sheen between the cabinets and walls is all that is needed. Very pale colours and whites excel at showing off sculptural and architectural detail, so it is often enough to create the all-white kitchen look.
This strategy can also eliminate the common issue in kitchens of drawing attention to oddly shaped little bits of wall surrounding windows and cabinetry. You can keep it simple and create contrast and interest in other design materials such as hardware, flooring and finishes instead.
This kitchen below has enough (and possibly a bit much?) going on with the black windows and hardware. With all those competing details, a contrasting paint colour on the walls would just be more, but not better.
Read more: How to Decorate with Black (don’t overdo it)
Simplifying exerts a powerful tug on many of us these days. Modernism and our whole idea of progress had a general thrust toward simplification of form, which many of us still associate with anything modern or contemporary. Painting out fussy details in woodwork and trim creates a more relaxed, serene, and less distracting backdrop for well-edited decorating.
And it’s not merely a contemporary or minimalist design thing. Many decorating styles benefit from reducing distracting and unnecessary details.
Gorgeous old woodwork looks elegant when it is all painted out in the same white or pale colour. (Actually, this works well with dark colours too, but that is a different post).
Classicists like design royalty Albert Hadley used this strategy often. Trim and woodwork is dealt with deliberately in his rooms to create symmetry and balance. If he wanted doors and windows to fall away, he would have them painted out the same colour as the walls, like in his own dining room below.
It lets the artwork and furniture be the focal point. A contrasting trim colour on those flanking doors would distract from the drama here.
And who wants to draw attention to awkward architectural detail and too many bizarre and unbalanced angles, out of proportion windows and oddly placed doors? If you can’t change it, design around it.
How to create contrast with white walls and trim.
The main thing to know is that handling contrast well is one of the hallmarks of successful design. Where you create contrast is where the eye goes.
Outside of paint colour, contrast can be created in many ways with texture, and even mood. But what I’m considering mainly here is contrast in value. Light and dark.
Using contrast well and deliberately creates interest, balance and well-designated focal points. Using it badly, haphazardly or automatically (like when reaching for the gloss white for the trim, haha) often amounts to clutter and visual “noise.”
And too much noise, visual or otherwise, is something many of us would generally like to avoid.
Here’s a great example of too much noise. This room above is pretty enough, but I think it could be better if the bottom half of the wall was painted all white like proper wainscoting, or if the walls and trim were one seamless colour for a more current look. Would you agree?
One of the most common instances of superfluous trim contrast that bugs me – indulge me here 😉 – is when a skinny little chair rail halfway up a wall is painted gloss white presumptuously drawing attention to itself, when really, it has little to offer except vacuous distraction.
Beautiful board and batten or wainscoting is a different story of course.
Balance is at the heart of the issue.
Don’t forget to repeat white in your decorating.
If you are creating a room with a pale neutral on the wall and lots of crisp white trim, you need to repeat that crisp white in your décor as well.
If it is the only white in your room, it is going to stick out as too stark and wrong. Possibly only acceptable because we are so “used to” seeing white trim.
Because this room (below) is not decorated decorated with layered creams and whites, it would look better if the trim and walls were both painted the same cream instead.
How could we fix this? Layering some white and cream in the throw pillows or sofa and the area rug.
So here’s the trick: your trim colour, which is also often your cabinet colour, sets your “foundation palette.” In other words your trim or cabinet white should be the whitest white you work with in your décor.
Read more: 4 Reasons Your White Walls Look Bad
Let me explain further. I had fairly deep cream floor tile installed in my house ten years ago and I have some aging (let’s call it patina?) creamy pale beige vintage furniture.
My foundation palette is cream because I don’t want any crisp clean ivories or whites outshining my vintage pieces and tile in brightness. White would be way too stark. Once I got tired of decorating with green greys and beiges to contrast with it, I simply painted the walls the very same cream colour. I LOVE it. It is soft, bright and serene. And my sofa looks as fresh as it possibly can without painting the walls some dramatic deep colour.
The same idea applies for updating homes from the earthier Tuscan trend. Often, the trim everywhere is cream to work with the warmer wall colours we were choosing back then. And the best way to update a Tuscan wood-stained kitchen is to paint the cabinets cream or even a creamy beige. Thinking of painting your cabinets, you must read my Third Rule of Design: Expensive Does Not Equal Timeless.
Sometimes (as long as it works with your decor) the freshest, brightest look you can create is to take this same creamy colour up on to the walls and throughout the house for a clean and bright backdrop to refresh your rooms. You can liberate yourself from the necessity of creating contrast with your creamy trim, which dictates deeper neutral wall colours than you want to use. Yay!
Work with the whitest white in your palette.
In other words, your whitest white, even if it is a cream bordering on beige will look whiter and brighter – even without a bright white wall colour to show it up. If you are in the range of cream, even a deep cream, you can keep that as your brightest white to work with. Or you can create a soft contrast by pairing it with a creamy off-white. You just don’t want to go too white on your trim, which often makes your creamy colour look more yellow and possibly dirtier than it is.
Not sure what clean and dirty means? Here’s a post I wrote with clean and dirty dilemmas.
So let’s review. The traditional way of thinking is to have contrasting trim. But, there are lots of exceptions and ways to create contrast without using the wall colour.
And because paler walls are what we are all craving these days, painting your trim and walls the same colour can work. Just remember to identify the whitest white already in your room (and it could be an off-white, greige or cream). Most importantly, getting the contrast right is more nuanced than grabbing the whitest white paint colour you can buy.
White doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is it neutral. It needs to be treated like a colour, chosen deliberately and repeated often.
Thanks Tricia, this is a fabulous post!