How to Choose a Paint Color from a Photograph

      Choosing a paint color can be both one of the most fun and one of the most challenging parts of decorating.  The right paint color can make a room, bringing cohesion and excitement to a design scheme.  On the other hand, the wrong paint can bring misery and wasted expense.  The conventional thought on paint is that "it's a quick and easy way to change the look of your room."  And that can be true, especially if you live in an older, traditional home with ceilings of moderate height, small rooms, and few heavy possessions.  In fact, when I was in my twenties, living in a smallish apartment with 8 foot ceilings, few responsibilities and  with nothing more than a motley collection of light-weight hand-me-downs, I changed the color of the walls so often that my cousin Barbara joked that I must have reduced the square footage.  These days, however, I just don't have the time and inclination to take down masses of art, remove books from shelves, and dismantle curtains;  and for people with open floor plans and soaring ceilings, it can be very time consuming and dangerous to do it themselves and be very expensive to hire painters.  Therefore, for a lot of people, a paint color is a big commitment.

     In addition to the task of painting, just choosing the right color can be a large undertaking.  Even if you have a specific color range in mind, it can be hard enough to pin point the exactly right color.  This task becomes even more difficult when you don't even know what color you want.  Bold or subtle?  Neutral or dramatic?  Trendy or timeless?    This is when man (including myself) turn to magazines and blogs for color inspiration.  Taking your color choice from a photograph, either print or digital, does have certain inherent dangers, however.   Here are some Do's and Don'ts to help guide you to the perfect color.

DO make sure that there a least some similarities between the photographed room and your own space.  Color is relative;  that is, many factors determine how a color will look the room.  These factors include the type and color of flooring; the amount, color, and placement of trim; the type and amount of lighting, including natural light; the color of furnishings, window treatments, and adjoining rooms; the size of the room; and the height of the walls.  The more features that match between the inspiration room and your own room, the more likely the paint color will look the same in both spaces.

For example, look at the entirely different effect created by black paint in these two rooms:  In the first room, even with the black walls, the overall feeling is still very bright because of  light floors, sunlight streaming in from large windows on two sides, lots of white on furnishings, ceiling, and upper 1/4 of the walls.

The second room, however, feels much moodier because it is smaller with dark floors, less natural light and dark furnishings.  It's a beautiful room; but if you were aiming for the high-contrast, bright, crisp and airy feeling of the first photo, you would be sadly disappointed.

DO carefully read the text and resource lists (in the back of most shelter magazines).  They often list the paint names of some of the more heavily featured and  interesting rooms.  Some designers will even respond to e-mail and phone requests for paint colors.  When my former boss designed a Southern Living show house, she instructed her assistants and office staff to politely and  cheerfully respond to most source requests.  Be aware, however, that many designers feel that their sources are important business assets  and don't like to "give it away for free."   In such a case, respect the designer's decision to keep his source secret.

DON'T assume the color in the photo is true to the actual swatch.  The way a color photographs, depending on the lighting, etc. can give a very different impression than the color found in the fandeck.  Furthermore, the printing process for magazines and the effect of monitors can make colors appear very different than they do in real life.  Just think about items that you have purchased on-line that arrived looking very different than they did on the website.  And that's even before thinking about the wide-spread use of photoshop to enhance or tone down colors for the sake of creating just the right image.

Altered version.

Accurate version.

Two shots of the same room by two different photographers.  The difference is subtle, but noticeable. In the first picture, the walls and blue/green accents are much greener, and the bed appears almost white.  In the second photo, everything is warmer, and the bed looks cream.  I don't know which is more accurate to the real room.

DO have the paint store computer match the actual photo.  This works better is you have a print photo from a magazine, but if the photo is from a blog, print the highest quality version that you can, making sure the printed version matches the color you like on your monitor.  For this to be an option, however, there needs to be a largish section of the photo that shows the paint color uninterrupted, around 3 square inches (or approx. the size of a paint swatch).  I have found that specialty paint stores like Sherwin Williams and Benjamin Moore are more likely to be able to do this successfully, and can tweak the color if it still doesn't match.   If you don't want to go the route of a custom match, you can just try to match the photo to existing colors in a company's fandeck or swatch collection.
This photo would NOT be a good candidate for computer matching--not enough wall area clear.

This photo is a much better candidate for computer matching with the large empty area of wall in right hand corner of photo.
DON'T leave out sample testing.  I think it's important to test paint colors, period.  Especially paint colors used in large or difficult to re-paint rooms.  Because of the difficulties described above, it's especially important to test in the use of a paint color from a photo.

It may take a while to find your perfect paint from a photograph.  Don't be discouraged, it can happen.  I found my perfect office and stair hall color from a HB article (post here).  In my case, the printed swatch and photo was true to the actual color.  I still tested though.  Good luck!


Marlo said...

This is a great post because a lot of us have tried to copy wall colours from magazines and it didn't work. I'd look for the name of the colour under the Resources section of the magazine and when I obtained the paint chip it didn't look anything like the colour in the magazine. I stopped right there and didn't go ahead with painting but I'm sure a lot of people went ahead and painted with the belief that once it's on the wall it will look like the magazine. Not.

Your advice is perfect - match the photo instead.

Karla Medina said...

I'm skimming through your blog and really loving your decorating choices and inspiration. You've got yourself a new follower :)

Karla Medina said...

I skimmed through your blog and I am loving your decorating choices and inspiration. You've got yourself a new follower :)