Sunny side up: How to choose the perfect yellow paint color

I've just recently discovered the joy of google analytics, and after the thrill of realizing that I had the occasional reader other than immediate family (not that you don't rule p. lee and barbara), I learned how to figure out what key word searches led the occasional reader to come drink deeply at this fount of knowledge (since you can't always determine tone from prose, much like a heavily boxtoxed person can't always display emotion--not that I know personally, mind you--I assure you I'm joking when I refer to myself as a fount of knowledge--kind of.) One reader came trying to determine the right color yellow to paint her kitchen. In my experience, yellow is a very difficult color to get right. As you might imagine, light sources play even more importance in how it looks than other paint colors--natural sunlight and incandescent lighting can both turn what seems the palest, most innocent butter into a screaming citrus acid trip. Of course, used well, yellow can be a wonderfully versatile color: a saturated tone used with black and white or bold color can be very modern; a combined with crisp white and blue, it becomes classic cottage, and muted and dull or laquared, it becomes a classic to use with important art and antiques. So here goes: what I've learned about picking yellow paint.

1. It's very hard to live with pure yellow, even in a pale version. Unless you really, really love yellow, it becomes overpowering, so most yellow paints are a mixture of yellows and other pigments. Since yellow is between orange and green on the color will, most yellows will lean toward one of those hues. In the pic below, the yellow has orange undertones. Two quick tips for determining undertones: If you compare the sample next to pure white, it's easier to detect them. Tip 2: if you are looking at a paint strip, look at the most intense, darkest color at the bottom. It's often easier to detect undertones in darker colors.
A green toned yellow. (sorry the pic is so small...technology and I are not quite on a first name basis yet:
2. Test, TEST, TEST. I mentioned in an earlier post the important of testing color. With yellow it is crucial that you test it, both in sunlight and in your night lighting. I once painted a bedroom in Benjamin Moore's Beacon Hill (without testing, just so others could learn from my pain without enduring it themselves). By daylight, it was the most beautiful pale, yellow/green citrus. At night, under incandescent lighting it was a chartruese horror so awful that it drove me into a neutral phase that lasted for years.

3. As a general rule, yellow is so intense that you should go lighter than you think. If you love a color in the middle of the paint strip, I'd start by testing at least one shade lighter, and probably two. Below is designer Jamie Drake's famous chrome yellow bedroom. I guarantee you, that if you saw a similar color on a swatch, it would look like a sweet, cheerful butter.

4. Don't discount muted yellows, golds, and golden kakhis. Since light picks up yellow undertones so easily, I actually use more complex and muted golds when clients tell me they want "yellow." When I initially show them the swatches, they often think the colors look too muted, kakhi, and drab, but are always surprised when large test swatches turn into gold and yellow before their eyes. If you open a paint fan deck, it's usually broken into two basic areas---the purer, brighter colors are grouped together, and the more neutral, complex colors are together. Without getting too technical, complex colors are colors that are made of many pigments...they tend to be the ones that are hard to define: i.e., in the case of yellow, it may change when the room's lighting changes to cream, to butter, or to pale banana over the course of the day. These are typically the easiest colors to live with because they offer more change and versatility. Thus, when looking for yellow, I urge you to try out some colors that may seem too dull or kakhi--you will be very surprised. Of these, my picks are Benjamin Moore's Powell Buff, Dunmoore Cream, Chesterton Buff, Montgomery White, and Sherwin William's Blonde, Convivial Yellow.

Below, Julia Reed's New York Living room done in a muted golden yellow.
Two of the 20th century's most famous yellow rooms: Babe Paley's living room:
Nancy Lancaster's "buttah" yellow drawing room. Neither rooms' yellows are simple: Both are the result of mutliple tones and layers (that means they were expensive to achieve). Read the article at StyleCourt.

Sherwin William's Blonde in my own living room 5. Never, never, never pick your yellow from a magazine photo without testing. Even if they give the exact color, photos distort wall color. What seems pale in a photo taken with a flash and then photoshopped, may actually be very vibrant in person.
6. A few facts about yellow from psychology.about.com:
The Color Psychology of Yellow
Yellow is a bright that is often described as cheery and warm.
Yellow is also the most fatiguing to the eye due to the high amount of light that is reflected. Using yellow as a background on paper or computer monitors can lead to eyestrain or vision loss in extreme cases.
Yellow can also create feelings of frustration and anger. While it is considered a cheerful color, people are more likely to lose their tempers in yellow rooms and babies tend to cry more in yellow rooms.
Yellow can also increase the metabolism.
Since yellow is the most visible color, it is also the most attention-getting color. Yellow can be used in small amount to draw notice, such as on traffic sign or advertisements.

Top 2 photos from Domino Magazine website. Jamie Drake's bedroom. Photos of Julia Reed, Babe Paley, and Nancy Lancaster's room from Stylecourt blog.


Colour Me Happy said...

Beautiful job tackling a colour that can be quite difficult to choose for most people! I have just discovered Sherwin Williams 'Blonde' Benjamin Moore does not have a colour even remotely like it so I am adding it to my collection of large samples to show my clients.

Excellent post. The only thing I would add is that if the colour you have selected is not 'dirty' or 'muted' enough, going lighter will not help. But that's why people need you and I because then we can pick the right shade of 'designer yellow'.

Design Junkie said...

Thank you so much, colour me happy. I love blonde and the shade one step lighter, ivoire (my trim color in that room). It is one of those colors that changes a huge amount in different locations: in my home, it's a muted gold, at a friend's house it goes almost peachy at times, and when I tested it for a client, the green undertones really came out. And another greater SW color that I haven't found a match at Benjamin Moore is Windsor Greige--great, great neutral that's warm with very little apparent yellow in it.

Maria Killam said...

I'm tweeting this post because I love that Blonde colour!!

Kelly@Color Sizzle said...

I agree. Sherwin-Wiliam's Blonde is one of my faves, as well! It's a wonderful neutral with added warmth. My clients are always very happy with this color.

Evelyn said...

Thank you so much for this entry! My husband's absolute favorite color is yellow, and we will be using it for the interior of our new home. We've been a bit worried about making the right choice because it *is* yellow, and before finding this blog entry, I hadn't found anything other than vague warnings to "be careful with yellow," which wasn't helpful at all.

KendraDaveen said...

Thank you so much for this post! I just signed the lease for a house I am renting with two other girls & I wanted a big bedroom.. so I got the extra room in the basement! I want to make it cheery and airy and I know the right yellow will help do that- but I've been scouring the internet for some really helpful advice & here it is!! I'm going to check out the Blonde color & thanks again!