Choosing The Right Gray Paint Color…

We usually feel pretty confident in our ability to pick a paint color. But something about choosing the perfect gray color for two major living areas in our house made me extra nervous (we’re going to use the same color in the future dining room, main hallway, and living room for some nice continuity). Sherry had a field day ribbing me about my paint paralysis. I was literally second-guessing every swatch we looked at. “Sure, I like it… no I don’t, I hate it.” Yeah, that was me.

I blame my neurosis on having selected a hideous gray tone to paint my middle school bedroom (I picked it because I liked the name – Cannonball or Cannon Smoke or something else that sounded like blowing stuff up). In retrospect it was too dark, cold, and prison-like. Fortunately I warmed it up with a bright red Looney Tunes rug and Tasmanian Devil throw pillows (don’t be jealous). But somehow I don’t think that’s an acceptable solution this time around.

So I convinced Sherry (who was a lot less gun-shy than I was, she kept saying “let’s just pick one and DO IT!”) that we should buy paint testers and try out a few colors before committing. She recommends this option all the time to nervous-about-painting readers, so it wasn’t too hard to convince her that we should give it a whirl at least once. So we narrowed it down to our top three similar-but-different-enough-to-help-us-make-a-decision contenders:

They are, from left to right: Collingwood, Grey Owl, and Moonshine (all Benjamin Moore colors mixed in Olympic Premium No-VOC samplers from Lowe’s – which are about $2.50 a pop). Of course, in an effort to prove her paint-psychic abilities, Sherry called her favorite before even breaking out the paintbrush. Can you guess which one it is? Hint: it rhymes with “spoon mine.”

Here they are in the future dining room, painted in that same order (with Collingwood on top and Moonshine on the bottom):

We just did one coat with a paintbrush (it had great coverage) doing our best to keep the edges feathered so when we eventually paint over everything we aren’t left with slightly raised squares where we tested (which is why we didn’t use painters tape to make perfect squares that also might be visible after we paint over them).

And ever the overachiever (or just someone who loves to paint), Sherry finally embraced the test square method and went ahead and painted big swatches in the family room too. One set near the TV…

…and another set next to the big window (since it gets a different amount of daylight).

After all, one of the great things about these testers is that you get to see what certain colors look like throughout the day and in varying amounts of daylight and artificial light. We do this with the small paint swatches too, but it certainly was nice to judge a color from across the room for once.

Speaking of different lights, here are all of the colors again at night when things are much yellower from the artificial light (they’re all painted in the same order as listed above, by the way):

So after a couple of days I finally admitted that (say it with me) Sherry was right all along. Moonshine, the one on the bottom, is by far our favorite of the bunch. Collingwood (the top one) almost won us over, but it’s so warm/tan that it reminded us a lot of Glidden’s Sand White, which was in our first house’s living room and office. We love that color, but it’s not gray enough for what we want this time, so in the spirit of doing something fresh and new we crossed it off the list. And Grey Owl (the middle one) read as too green/blue in our house’s light, so we worried it too might not immediately read “gray” and instead might be “muddy blue-gray” which is what we had in our last house’s bedroom and kitchen.

Moonshine is probably the “purist” of the grays we tested, and it almost has a soft shimmery quality to it – like there’s some silver mixed in. We’re excited about it because it’s definitely dark enough to make the moldings pop (especially once we paint the ones in the living room white) but it’s not too bright or saturated to compete with bolder curtains, art, and accessories that we plan to introduce. Now we just have to cross our fingers that we can find the energy to paint the two largest rooms in our house… and the hallway that connects them. We actually started the job today- but with baby & blog duty going on at the same time, it might take us a few days to get ‘er done. We’ll share pics as soon as we’ve got ’em though!

Have any of you used the paint tester method to choose a color? Did it confirm your feelings or send you in a totally new direction? And dare we ask how long the test squares stayed up before the room finally got painted completely? Ours were up nearly a week, but we could totally see how that could turn into a month (or a year) if you still weren’t 100% sure which way to go…


  1. Krystal says

    Can’t wait to see the finished product!

    When I was getting ready to graduate high school, my parents went crazy with renovating for my open house. Think a new living room, dining room, kitchen, privacy fence, driveway, and professional curbing around the garden beds/landscaping…completed in one month’s time. It was madness, madness I tell you. I had to take prom pictures in the bathroom because it was the only section of house not invaded by home reno.

    Anyways, my mom had planned all along that she wanted to paint the three rooms (they’re all connected by big, open doorways) a color called Pumpkin Butter by Behr. She loved how it looked in my aunt’s home and couldn’t wait to put it on the walls. But what looked like tan with hints of yellows and oranges in my aunt’s open concept/white trimmed house, actually read as bright gold in our closed in/oak trim home. In came the paint testers…Puppy Paws was too “poop” looking, Terra Cotta was too “brick red”, and on and on it went. By the time my mom finally settled on a nice dark & saturated green that screamed “THIS IS THE ONE!” the test wall had been painted precisely 37 times (because who needs a test patch when you have enough in that little can to paint a WHOLE WALL?!) And my mother wonders why I worry for her sanity…

  2. says

    Thank you thank you for this post!! I’m thinking cool grays, blues and greens for our house palette and gray is the most neutral yet most difficult shade for me to pick! This really helps!

    P.S. Our floorplan is very open – do I have to use the same color in all the rooms that open up to one another? Is there a rule-of-thumb on painting different but complimentary colors with rooms so close?

    • says

      Hey Shannon,

      You can definitely keep all rooms that open up to each other the same color for tons of continuity and flow, or you can define each room and visually break them up a bit by choosing colors that complement each other well and layer nicely. We’ve seen it done beautifully both ways, so there are no rules. Good luck!


  3. Emily says

    I’m thinking about painting my studio grey in an attempt to make it feel more sophisticated, can’t wait to see how your walls turn out!

  4. Megan says

    Thank goodness for this post! Greys can be so tricky! We have been trying to find THE perfect shade of grey for our bedroom for the past two months… and twelve (yes, twelve!) sample colors on the wall later I think we settled on Metro Gray by BM (colors we tried included BM Silver Fox, BM Gray Owl, BM Light Pewter, BM Gray Cashmere and BM White Dove – not too mention Restoration Hardware’s Slate and Glidden’s Granite Grey). I really, really like Moonshine on your walls – might have to pick up a sample!

  5. melanie says

    Perfect! I love it! Just painted my living room and dining room the same gray color. It is so clean and lovely and really makes the white trim, the colorful artwork and decor pop! Great choice.

  6. bridget b. says

    i’m SOOO jealous of your bright red Looney Tunes rug and Tasmanian Devil throw pillows. all i had growing up was a bright red bunk bud, teal carpets and mauve walls.

    yeah, gray is a pretty hard color. a few years ago i painted my bedroom gray to match some of the undertones in a bedspread that i had and it turned out totally different than i expected from the swatch once i got the whole room painted.

    there’s so many different undertones that can really make a difference in the final look, not to mention in different lighting changes. i’m having flashbacks just thinking about it.

  7. Miranda says

    You guys are too patient for me. I would never be able to do tests and wait to decide which color REALLY is the right one. Infact, just an hour ago or so, I went to buy new bathroom paint. I had already gotten a shower curtain and just need to find a paint color that would suit it. However, I couldn’t decide which of a few greens or tans would look best with it. So, after contemplating for about 15 minutes, I chose one and hopefully it will look great. I am by far WAY too impatient to buy three, paint them, wait to decide, and go back and buy more and THEN finally paint. So far, I have painted almost all of our new house and have only had to repaint one wall. Yay!

    -Miss Impatient

  8. says

    LOL!!! I saw this and HAD to laugh. When we were living in our tiny rental house in Texas, I wanted to paint the livingroom green. Wasn’t sure of the color so I did just like you two did all over the livingroom and down the hallway even. Let’s just say, those “test” colors stayed up for almost a YEAR before I finally was able to get my then husband to commit to a color. I don’t even think he liked the color he picked,…it was one I was going to pick anyways, but he was tired of the “swatches” all over the house. He said we looked like “hillbillies” with all the different colored green splotches all over the house.

    LOVE the color you guys picked. I was hoping you would pick something with some green undertones to match up with all the teal and turquoise and the dark bluish-green you chose for the back of the shelves. And you did! LOVE it! Can’t wait to see the house painted…:)

  9. says

    I just did this. I wanted to paint our spare bedroom/craft room green. So I bought three samples. I’m glad I did because one ended up being way darker than I though. And the other two were way more yellow. So I went back to Lowe’s and bought two more. I finally picked one and am pretty happy with it. My mom has had three pieces of paper taped up to the wall that were painted with paint samples in her guest bedroom (my old bedroom). They’ve been up there for about a year. I guess she hasn’t decided yet.

  10. says

    I am totally with Bex! Our home is very open concept, so we wanted to go with a gray that worked in the main living areas. We were torn between BM’s Abalone and Silver Fox which we had matched to Behr’s Premium Plus Ultra. So glad we did the paint testers because Silver Fox actually looked green on the walls!

    Ultimately the gray reads a little more blue at night (it’s the perfect colour during daylight!) than we thought it would be, but after 2 12-hour days we wont’ be painting the hallway, kithen, dining, living room, stairwell and vaulted ceiling family room again! Maybe in a couple years!

  11. says

    GIVE IT UP FOR GRAY!!! WOOT, WOOT! I was obsessed with gray when we bought our house last year. It was SO bright that gray was the only “color” that would work for me (it’s a color in my book). We went with iced cube silver, which is a slightly bluish gray and looks kind of nautical-ish. Does that make sense? No, probably not. I just wanted to avoid any yellow undertones. Anyhoo, I like the center and bottom ones, but I think moonshine looks the best in the darker corner. Your living room will soonshine with moonshine!