It’s been awhile since I wrote a post about Color, but did you know that helping clients choose Color is one of my specialties? Whether it is for kitchen cabinets or walls, White has become very “hot”. One of the most common emails I get is “I’m thinking of painting my (fill in the blank) White, what is your favorite White”? Many think White is White, that is until they go to the paint store and get overwhelmed with the hundreds of different Whites. If you plan on using White in your next project then check out these three tips for choosing the perfect white paint for the job.

1. First decide if you want a warm White or a cool White

One of the most important things to understand is that almost all Whites are either warm or cool. You may have painted a room “White” only to have it appear after the fact as light blue or pink or pale yellow. The reson for this is that white paints have colored pigments added to the base. Warm whites have warm colored pigments added such as yellow or magenta. Cool whites have cool pigments added such as blue, green or black. Sometimes you can easily see the undertones but other times it’s not so evident.

Let’s look at these two different whites from Benjamin Moore. Both colors are “White”. The first one is called True White

how to choose the right white paint

The one below is called Mayonnaise.

Choosing the best white for the job

Seeing these two color samples alone, it is nearly impossible for an untrained eye to see the undertones of these two whites.

Pro Tip:

When trying to decide if a White is warm or cool, compare it to another White. The two Whites below are the same two colors as above. Seeing them side by side though you can clearly see one appears more blue (cool) while the other looks more yellow (warm).It’s surprising because above they look so similar. When you compare them side by side, the cool White is making the warm White look warmer and the warm White is causing the cool White to look cooler.

comparing cool and warm white paint side by side

Another thing you can do when trying to decide if the White is cool or warm is to ask the person mixing the paint what color pigments are in the paint. If magenta or red is one of the pigments then that White will lean warm and will have a red or pink undertone. If blue, green or black is one of the pigments then that white will lean cool and have a blue or green undertone.

Now that you understand there are cool Whites and warm Whites how do you know which one to use? Well every home is different and there are many factors that need to be considered. Geographical location of the house, the architecture, the surrounding fixed elements and even what direction the room faces. For example a north facing room painted a cool White will end up having blue walls. This is because north facing rooms have a cool (blue) light coming in the windows which will make the blue undertone even more pronounced.

2. When to use a cool white

  • Your room has lot’s of bright natural light

One of the biggest mistakes homeowners make is thinking White walls will brighten up a dark room. Painting the walls White in a room that does not get enough light (like a basement) will simply appear dirty or dingy grey. In order for White walls to come alive, you need lots of light. In the photo below by designer Carla Aston, a cool bright White was the perfect choice for the room. Not only is there plenty of natural light but the fireplace tile is also a crisp, clean White. Had the fireplace wall been an earthy muted natural stone, then a bright clean White would have looked out of place.

choosing the right white

Design by Carla Aston, Photo by Colleen Scott

The one exception to this rule is cabinetry. Cabinetry is more like furniture so White cabinets will brighten up a dark space as will White upholstery and White carpet.

The room below designed by Boston designer Frank Hodge is a good example of this. It appears as if the room doesn’t get a lot of natural light yet look at how the White cabinetry and White trim brightens up this room.

Choosing the perfect White Paint

Design by Frank Hodge, Photography by Michael J. Lee


  • Your fixed elements are also “clean” colors

Colors can be divided into two groups. Clean colors or muted, more earthy colors. A cool White is considered a “clean” White and works best when the other elements in the room are also clean colors. In the photo below I chose a clean, cool White for the walls to showcase the “clean” colored furniture, carpet and art work.

how to choose the perfect white

Designed by Linda Holt Creative, Photography by Emily O’Brien

3. When to use a warm or more muted White

  • Your room is lacking bright natural light

In rooms without a lot of natural light, White is still an option but it’s best to choose a warmer, more muted White. Creams, and Ivories will work best in those rooms. In the room below by designer Ruthie Staalsen, look how beautiful the creamy White walls work with the cream colored sofa and more earthy toned chairs and carpet.

choosing the perfect White

Designed by Ruthie Staalsen


  • Your fixed elements are earthy

The beautiful family room below was designed by Virgina designer Jennifer Stoner. Notice that the room has a natural stone fireplace wall. The stones are an earthy fixed element in the room, so a warm creamy White was a much better choice than a bright clean White. Compare the tones of the fireplace to Carla’s White fireplace in the first image and you will clearly see the difference.

choosing the perfect white

Designer Jennifer Stoner, Photography by John Magor


Here is another example from designer Gina Lynch. Again an earthy fixed element, which is a large stone wall, relates beautifully to the creamy White wall color. Similar to Jennifer’s room above, the furnishings are also more muted and earthy in tone.

choosing the perfect white

Designed by Gina Lynch of Enfort Homes


To sum this all up, choosing the perfect White paint for the job does not need to be complicated. You do however, need to ask yourself a few questions and make note of what is already in the room or what will be going into the room. Does the room get a lot of natural light? Are the fixed elements Earthy or Clean?  Simply by answering those two questions you will know if you should choose a cool or warm White. Then pick up a few samples and try them out. Be sure to paint your test samples on board such as foam core and NOT directly on the wall. Move the samples around and hold them up to any fixed elements. This should help you make a much better informed decision, but also keep in mind that you can always reach out to me!

choosing the perfect white paint for the job



Linda Holt | Interior Designer & iPhone Coach

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