How To Use Paint & Accent Colors In A Room

I recently found myself flipping through old copies of BHG and I came across one of my favorite little quote roundups ever in the February issue. It was actually an article all about “choosing, using, and loving color” and you know that paint is pretty much my BFF so it’s no surprise that I had earmarked the page and even circled a few of my favorite quotes. So when I recently rediscovered my earmarked and circled page o’ quotes, I thought I’d share the wealth and pass along all the great little tidbits that BHG amassed for that little article of yore (because frankly, we couldn’t agree more). They communicated so many things that we strive to explain in 1000+ character posts… all in just a sentence or two! And who doesn’t like a shortcut?

So without further ado, here are a bunch of BHG’s color-related musings that we just think are the bee’s knees (with little YHL sidenotes sprinkled throughout- you know, just to make things longer since that seems to be our M.O.):

1. “When you’ve found the right color on a paint card, go a step lighter. Colors look darker on the wall. The lightest two colors on a card deliver more punch than you expect. Unless you’re after drama, stick with them.”

*YHL Sidenote: If you’re going for a warm wheaty tone or even a rich chocolate hue, the first two swatches on the card won’t cut it. So we’d say that when it comes to colors like blue, green, red, pink, yellow, this rule rings true more than with neutrals like gray and brown (which can look surprisingly calming and not-too-dramatic, even when they’re applied in a rich saturated hue).

2. “Using different shades of color- such as various blues- is an easy way to pull a room together. To prevent monotony, vary the textures (play suede against silk) and add a pop of a different color in a pillow, throw, or vase.”

*YHL Sidenote: A colorful rug or even a not-white lampshade is another easy way to wake up a room.

3. “Follow the rule of three. When you pick a color, use it at least three times in a room.”

*YHL Sidenote: This is a great “beginner’s tip” and it can really add balance and easy cohesion to a room- but we’ve seen many stunning Domino magazine rooms with one amazing shot of orange in the duvet while the rest of the room is all neutral and creamy tan to prove that this is one rule that’s meant to be broken.

4. “Think of hallways as palate cleansers- the sorbet that’s served before diving into the next course. Keeping them neutral allows you to branch into any color in rooms that flow off them.”

*YHL Sidenote: For the most part this is an amazingly simple concept that can really do you no wrong. In our own house we have the lightest cream tone in our entire palette relegated to our hallways and we love how it neutralizes and harmonizes all of the differently toned rooms that branch off of them. But again, we’ve seen our fair share of gorgeous and bold hallways and entryways, so if drama is the name of the game then throw this rule out the window and go for a deep eggplant, a royal blue, or even a lime green color.

5. “Look in your closet. You are your own best inspiration for color.”

*YHL Sidenote: I love this idea in theory, but since about 90% of my clothes are black it’s not a very workable approach for me. But the colors in my jewelry and even my shoes are pretty indicative of the tones that I lean towards when it comes to home decor: neutrals, animal prints, a few metallics, and some breezy greens and blues (see more of our closets right here).

6. “Don’t sweat slight color variations between fabrics and walls. The best rooms are slightly off- stronger, lighter, softer, just not a spot-on match to a swatch.”

*YHL Sidenote: Amen! Matchy-matchy decor is the bane of our existence (read more about avoiding it here). Lots of colors “go” without being perfect matches, and you’ll end up with a room that’s textural, dimensional, and layered… which is so much more sophisticated than a flat and perfectly coordinated space.

7. “When you’re spreading color around a room, think about proportion. If you’re using three colors, try a 70/20/10 distribution. For two colors, go 70/30.”

*YHL Sidenote: I’m no mathlete, but this sounds about right. So if your walls, sofa, and rug are varying shades of tan (in the mocha, cream, beige, sand, or wheat territory) that would make up about 70% of the space and then you could add 20% of another color (like a few white painted furnishings and breezy floor to ceiling curtains) and then bring in 10% of an accent color in the smaller accessories like pillows and art to liven things up (try a pop of yellow, aqua, amber, lime, lavender- the possibilities are endless). We like a lot of layering so three or more colors in a room appeals to us (some more concentrated than others so they don’t all fight for dominance) more than the two color 70/30 option mentioned above. For example, our newly renovated bathroom is roughly about 70% soft khaki green (on the walls, in the towels, in the bath mat, etc) and 20% brown (in the mirror, shade, flooring, vanity, art) and 10% crisp white (in the trim, shower curtain, sink, and small accessories).

8. “The back of a fabric, curtain, comforter, or area rug is sometimes more interesting- and toned down- than the front. If no telltale signs like hems will show, go ahead and flip it. Designers do it and so can you.”

*YHL Sidenote: Love it. I once picked up a leopard bedsheet on clearance, turned it inside out and made throw pillows since I loved the softer and more subdued pattern much better than the look-at-me-leopard version on the “right side.”

9. “Get out the digital camera. It’s amazing how a photo can point out problem spots. Add some colorful accessories, take a photo, and compare.”

*YHL Sidenote: So true. We often find it easier to evaluate rooms using photos than when we’re actually standing in them (things like balance, proportion and scale are so much more obvious- and it’s easy to see if a corner is feeling flat so you can amp it up with a quick tweak or two).

10. “In a small room, keep the walls the same color as the primary upholstered furniture. The room will seem twice the size.”

*YHL Sidenote: Again, so true. Of course you don’t have to take “same color” to the extreme since anything that’s a shade or two lighter or darker will work just as well. For example, you’ll notice that we have a cream sofa in our soft tan living room and a tan sofa in our creamy-hued den. Thanks to the slight-but-not-overly-jarring difference between the walls and the largest items of furniture, the room is a lot less “busy” or “full” looking.

11. “The era of the bright white ceiling is over. Paint the ceiling a shade lighter than the walls to visually raise it and avoid a jarring start-stop. Go a shade darker to bring it down and add coziness.”

*YHL Sidenote: We wholeheartedly agree! In fact we’ve been slowly painting our white ceilings (we went a shade lighter in our master bedroom, carried the wall color onto the ceiling in the bathroom, and went with a fun coordinating shade in the nursery) and we love the effect. Don’t ignore your room’s fifth wall!

12. “Paint is the least expensive mistake you can make. Be brave. The worst-case scenario is that you’ll have to repaint.”

*YHL Sidenote: You’re preaching to the choir here BHG. We like to say that we have a Nike-esque philosophy when it comes to paint: just do it.

13. “To tell if a color has a pinkish, grayish, or greenish cast, look at similar swatches side by side. It’s all about comparison.”

*YHL Sidenote: This is how we have picked every single color in our house (and avoided a slew of “too-yellow” tans and “too pastel” greens and blues). Comparison is key- and be sure to check them at all times of the day so you can evaluate how changing sunlight effects the swatches.

14. “Think of neutrals as peacemakers. They can help colors get along.”

*YHL Sidenote: Everyone can use a little peace in their house. And neutrals can be defined as so many things- not only are they tans and beiges and creams and grays and mochas- they’re also whites and even gray-blues, khaki-greens and all sorts of “muddy” colors that read as eye-pleasing neutral backdrops in a room.

15. “Wallpaper or paint the inside of a bookcase to set off what’s displayed. Use yellow wallpaper in a white-built-in and wrap the same paper around lamp shades.”

*YHL Sidenote: You can take this a step further by painting the inside of your closet a fun contrasting color (like we did in our nursery) and can even paint the inside of your kitchen cabinets to really spotlight your white china (which we also did a while back).

So there you have a whole slew of paint color picking advice and general hue suggestions to help you upgrade your home. What do you guys think? Are there any that ring especially true or inspire you to try something new? Do you have any color advice of your own you’d like to share? Spill the beans.

Psst- Looking for more paint color advice? Check out these posts for more ideas when it comes to pinning down a whole house color scheme and picking the perfect paint color.


  1. says

    Right, so this isn’t post related (although I liked the tips; that was a great issue of BHG–I read that issue fully!).
    However since John is so into graphic design and since you both worked in the advertising field, I thought I’d share the title of an advertising documentary I watched last night, “Art & Copy.” It was extremely well done with several big names in the field; and some interesting stories from a few of them.

  2. LauraC says

    Ohhhh, Ohhhh, so true, so true about the “pick one shade lighter than the paint chip you like” rule. When we bought our house a year ago, the first room to be stripped of wallpaper and painted was the kitchen. Because there was very little wall space and the cupboards were a creamy white (read: neutral), I thought I’d spice things up with a bright lime-y green on the wall. So I picked the third color in a paint chip (with my husband’s and sister’s and friend’s blessing, I might add) and it was AWFUL!!!! I added a whole quart of white paint to lighten it up, and it’s much better. Loved the shade, but even with a small wall it was too much. However, it’s really nice now, still bright, but tolerable.

  3. says

    hahah ‘just to make things longer since that seems to be our M.O’ I could read YHL all day. Work, eating and sleeping would get in the way though. I have to agree wholeheartedly with numbers 7, 9 and 11. Our ceiling looks like a patch work quilt with all the test colors we have up.

    I’m printing this post out right now!

  4. Sarah says

    great post! i have a unrelated question about your couch in the photo. i have a very similar one at home that i got 3 months ago. do your cushion covers zip off, and if so, do you wash them in the machine? my couch needs it’s first cleaning, and i’m nervous to put the covers (which zip off) in the washing machine, but i’m thinking that if i do it in a cold cycle and hang them dry it should be okay. Any thoughts?

    • says

      Yup, we follow the washing instructions on the inside of the cushions (machine wash cold and low-heat dry). We also remove the covers from the dryer before they’re totally done and put them on the sofa because we have found that this method keeps the wrinkles away for a polished and crisp look. Hope it helps!


  5. Leeann says

    Such great advice! I love your sidenotes. I recently moved into a rental house in which all of the walls are painted beige (except our son’s room, which our landlord was nice enough to paint a “deep underwater” shade of dark blue-green for us before we moved in.) I thought I would love the beige walls more than the white walls of my previous apartment, but I’m starting to loathe it! Our sofa and recliner are neutral-colored, so it feels like we are living in a brown blob. Every post about paint that you make makes me want to say to heck with my landlord, whip out my paint roller, and go to town! :-)

  6. Jennifer says

    Great tips, Youngsters — thanks! So glad you added the point about not following the “lighter is better” rule with neutrals. I love the contrast of a deep, saturated, menswear-inspired charcoal gray with white trim!

  7. Miranda says

    #10 Intrigues me. “In a small room, keep the walls the same color as the primary upholstered furniture. The room will seem twice the size.”

    My husband doesn’t want to repaint even though he’s always hated the color I chose. I have dark maroon carpet and our sofas are light brown suede/dark brown leather. I originally chose a yellow/green color trying to echo the look of an orchid between the carpet, walls and our white shelving. I planned accents in various blues. I wanted to brighten it up, but I realize now that it just looks hodgepodgie and I don’t know how to pull it all together.

    Now I’m thinking a wall color a bit lighter than the light brown of my sofas might work? Any ideas? But then should the undertones of the wall color match the flooring (which I can’t change) or the blue accents I have (and want)?

    • says

      Oh yeah, a lighter mocha color on those walls will definitely make the space feel less hodgepodge. Try Glidden’s Water Chestnut. And the undertones of the wall color don’t have to match the flooring at all, they just should “go” (and a soft mocha tone goes with nearly everything). Hope it helps!


  8. js says

    We have a big floor to 18′ ceiling bump out around our fireplace, and we wanted to paint it a bold color. We did look at our closet to chose a color – my husband is super picky about colors, so I grabbed one of his bold colored oxfords for inspriation – he couldn’t hate that! We got 3 samples in that color, from bold to pale, and painted 3 spots on the fireplace. After a week, he realized that the boldest color really was the best color (of course I knew that all along! :-). After 2 years, we are still super in love with the results.

  9. says

    Loved all these tips! We’re in an apartment now so we aren’t painting much more here, but these are good things to think about for when we have our own house.

  10. says

    Love this post! I needed this a few months ago when I picked paint for my stairwell and upstairs hall (painting walls and ceiling all the same color). I chose the neutral color I liked, but it turned out, in my husband’s words, “like someone vomited peach sherbet all over the wall.” I have a couple of questions for you:

    I am using Benjamin Moore Natura because it is no VOC. However, I am having the hardest time finding a very light neutral that is not too yellow. Our stairwell and hallway have no windows and not much light gets in there. After the disastrous peach sherbet (which was SW tea light and looked fine in the living room), I went with BM lambskin, but it still looks too dark to me. Do you have a favorite wheatish BM color that is lighter than lambskin? I don’t want something that is really white because the wall connects to the living room and you can see the kitchen from the living room. This color will potentially be in the living room, kitchen, stairwell, and upstairs hallway. I want something that isn’t boring to look at (too white), that won’t be too light in the rooms with windows, but also won’t be too dark in the stairwell/hallway. Oh, and I’m using eggshell if that will affect your answer.

    I painted my kitchen ceiling the same color as the walls and love it! However, I am repainting and decided to go with eggshell for the paint (it is currently flat). Should I keep the ceiling flat or would look ok to paint it in eggshell also?

    • says

      Marcia- Our advice to you is to bring home a slew of paint swatches and hold them up in your space. Since lighting varies greatly from house to house (and can really effect how a color “reads” we don’t like to toss out light neutral tone suggestions since they can look so dramatically different from room to room). Just tape up those swatches and compare them to one another to find the best one! And as for the ceiling in the kitchen, you can go flat or eggshell- either one looks great!

      Kristine- Thanks for the link. Off to check it out!


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