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. Jacee says

    Awww, I love moonshine! I actually painted a few rooms in my house that color, and I love it…how it changes with the light, and that it’s a gray that still manages to feel warm. It’s in my dining room, front room, and a bedroom, and it’s adapted to every space. I also did a lot of sampling before we settled on that one. I figured that was better than painting and then hating it…I’m glad I did, because initially I picked another color! I also repeated the process when selecting a ceiling color…unfortunately I must have gone through about ten samples before I found the right one (colors look totally different when you put them on the ceiling, haha). Good luck to you, it’s going to be beautiful.

  2. Blanca says

    Absolutely agree. It’s the only color that doesn’t compete with the bold color on the bookshelves but complements it. You just want some warmth on the walls but not enough that make them a feature.

  3. says

    Coincidentally, today my husband went to pick up the three paint colors that we narrowed down last night. Furthermore, two were a similar shades of grey. The other two were our accent colors, which are two similar shades of aqua.

  4. Elizabeth says

    Grey is the HARDEST color to pick out. I took me 3 weeks and 6 paint testers and over 20 swatches to find one that didn’t have too much of a blue undertone or too much of a brown undertone.
    Best of luck – I was finally able to find the perfect grey with plenty of white in it. I wish I remembered the color to share.

  5. Erin @ WriteTasty says

    Kudos on having the patience to paint tester squares before going for it! We gave little to no thought before purchasing and painting our kitchen a deep brick red without thought to how that might work with the rest of our house. It took so much effort to get it the right color that we now feel bad re-painting it! So, again, congrats on your forethought! The gray is beautiful!

  6. Claudie says

    I hate to say it, but we did test swatches in the bathroom right after we bought the house and a year and a half later, we still haven’t painted. Really, we’re waiting because eventually we’re going to give that bathroom a complete overhaul and I just really don’t want to paint it and then have to paint it again. Until then we get to live with the dark blue with some kind of sponge faux treatment (the people who owned this house before did “interesting” things with paint) and a few swatches of different colors. It’s definitely a conversation starter.

  7. says

    I wish that paint samples were cheaper. I would gladly take less paint for say $1 considering I never use the whole sample. And I’m sure that would increase the amount of samples purchased so it’s a win win for everyone. I have bought them a few times and really dodged a bullet for what would have been a flourescent yellow kitchen but try to avoid it as much as possible. It just adds to the paint expense which as far as I’m concerned isn’t all that cheap either.

  8. Jessica says

    I am feeling a Benjamin Moore trend going on… ;) I know you guys have tons and tons of paint decks, but how do you decide what line to go with usually? There is SO MUCH to choose from I usually leave Lowes or Home Depot with my head spinning!

    • says

      Hey Jessica,

      We look at all of our swatches and just pick the colors we love the best and have them color matched to Olympic No-VOC paint. It’s funny that Ben Moore seems to win out a lot lately!


  9. says

    Well, let’s see mine have been up for a few months now (I think going on 4). The color has been deciced, but probably won’t pait until November. We have decided to wait to paint until we can do afford to finish the kitchen remodel which will require some new drywall/texturing and I don’t want to have to paint twice. I think they are driving my hubby nuts, though! :)

  10. says

    Bought our house in Nov, 2009 – last month, we finally painted over paint swatches in our downstairs hallway and master bedroom.
    One thing that became apparent to us when we painted other areas of our house was how different paint color on a wall can change if you repaint the trim. Luckily, the paint we chose turned out even better after we spruced up the old yellowy trim to a nice soft white.

  11. AJ says

    Oooh yeah, gray is hard. We just bought a house and I ended up doing a lot of different grays in it and the only one that will have to be redone is the kitchen. So I feel pretty lucky! (The tile we chose ended up having way more of a warm creamy base to it, and it clashes with the cooler gray I had already used for the walls. Bummer!) Anyhoo – I painted large squares of color on huge white poster board paper using painter’s tape to get nice neat lines and then I hung them everywhere – even the ceiling! My husband thought I was nuts.

    I had one comment – take it or leave it. We have a lot of original mahogany wood trim in our house and I had to make some very hard decisions whether to paint it out or not. People go crazy over this one with different opinions, my husband included. :) I ended up just painting the top crown molding and leaving the rest, and while I *think* I made the right decision there’s a part of me that wishes I hadn’t even painted out the top, especially in the dining room. My advice is to do the walls, live with it for awhile, and then make a decision on the molding.

    I’d be happy to send you before/after pics of our house so you can see what I mean. You have a lot more different types of wood going on in your house, so I can see where unifying the molding might be nice, but I also think your living room looks really lovely as-is.

  12. sonya says

    I have used that method several times and it really helps for me to see the colors on more of a large scale. Sometimes it confirms what I already think, but the last time I did it, I ended up deciding against the color I thought I wanted and went in a whole other direction, so in that case, it really provided some clarity.

    I’d also suggest “Edgecomb Grey” by Benjamin Moore… it does have a touch of tan so it’s possible that it’s not “grey” enough for you, but I love it because it’s not a cold grey and I have been able to put virtually any pop of color in the room and it looks awesome. Grey is hard because sometimes it can look too blue or too cold.

  13. says

    I really like the one you decided on. I LOVE testers! We did it for two of our rooms (including our two-toned grey dining room). As of this weekend, we have SIX samples on two different walls of our soon to be nursery. I’m even doing a poll on my blog to try to sway my husband towards my choice (it isn’t working – I’m LOSING!) I had no idea turquoise would be so difficult!

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