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Which White is the Right White?

White paint on walls and ceilings is a popular choice for a clean, neutral look. The paint aisle will often have a dizzying array of brands, surface textures, and colors. This variety extends into variations of white. Slight amounts of colored and or black pigment, added in mere drops per gallon of pure white base, will result in marked variations of tone and quality. Choosing the right white for you will illuminate your home without being generic. What is "right" will depend on what other colors you plan to have in the room, what lighting conditions will be present, and as always, your personal preference.


These four tints of white may appear obviously different when viewed side by side (depending upon your monitor). But when selecting a white, these different choices can have a large influence on the feel of the room.

One of the challenging parts of choosing a white paint is that, even more so than more vivid paint colors, they are difficult to judge accurately in the standard paint chip display size (around 4 in square). They are also more subtle to variations in lighting, and the color may appear to have a significant shift between the lighting in the store and the lighting at your home. So it is vital that once you have chosen two or three likely candidates, that you test them in the room being painted, at the time of day and under the lighting conditions that will be present (ex: tungsten lamps, day light, florescent tubes, etc). A slight amount of tint in a white will also have a more dramatic effect when used on a whole wall as opposed to a small chip, so keep this in mind when you are choosing paint shades.

The basic choices for whites will be cool, neutral, or warm. Cool whites will have trace amounts of blue, green (blue and yellow), or violet (blue and red). Cool whites can be a good choice if you are using mostly conventional light bulbs (tungsten), and are striving for a more neutral look. The yellow light of the tungsten bulbs will warm up colors, neutralizing cooler tones. Cool, bright whites are also a great choice to maintain contrast between walls and furnishings of delicately colored hues like pastels. Cool whites are a less common choice for the home, and may help provide a contemporary feel. The danger with cool whites is that when used in a large area, they can create a sterile or industrial feel.

Warm whites are homey, wear well, and match easily with a variety of finishes of wood floors or natural fiber finishings. A warm white will have trace amounts of yellow, red or both. They will neutralize slightly under fluorescent lights or on the shady side of the house, and appear significantly warmer under conventional tungsten lights. This warming effect can be minimized by purchasing color neutralized light bulbs, widely available at a slight price increase. When paired with saturated color, they create a rich environment. However, warm whites may result in a muddy appearance when used with lightly tinted paints or home accessories.

A truly neutral white is difficult to achieve, because as described earlier, the appearance of a shade of white is more readily affected by lighting and nearby colors. Look for paint with minimal additions of color, or red, yellow and blue added in equal amounts. Consider the possibility that from a decorative point of view, it's more pleasing to have a tone that is immediately identifiable, rather than a technical neutral that is without personality.

Some paints will also have small amounts of black added. This will not affect the hue (how red or yellow or blue), but will affect how bright the paint is. It's preferable to have a tiny amount of black to prevent the paint from being jarringly bright, but not so much that it becomes muddy and gray.

Prepare pieces of chipboard, at least 1 foot square, with the primer you intend to use for the full project. Allow to dry for at least 24 hours. Purchase small amounts of likely paint colors and create "giant" paint chips using the primed chipboard. These "giant" chips will give you a much more accurate idea of how the larger project will appear than use of the store chips alone. This step is particularly crucial to help you see the full effect of the subtle variations in white that are available.

Regardless of which type of white you choose, it is very important that you prepare the walls and other surfaces properly. Old colors and discolorations will really show, even through several layers of white paint, if the proper preparation is skipped. Remove nails, and spackle holes. Allow the spackle to dry, preferably for 24 hours. Painting over improperly dried spackle may result in discoloration and undesirable results. Sand the spackle smooth if needed. Lay down painter's tape and protective tarps as needed, and don't forget to protect the outlets and switch plates. Next, use a good, thick primer to cover the surfaces. "Gorilla" primer is an excellent choice, and is particularly well suited to use underneath whites and or cover dark or bleed through colors like reds. Primer should ideally be allowed to dry for 24 to 48 hours (longer if there are humid conditions). Stir the white paint cans well, as even the small amounts of pigment can separate and create inconsistency. Use fresh, clean brushes to avoid contaminating the color.

Allow the project to dry for 72 hours before making a final decision as to whether you are satisfied with the color. If you aren't satisfied with the result, you don't have to prime again with whites as the bleed through will be very slight - if it's even present at all. If you want a warmer result, choose a shade with a drop or two more yellow or red than your initial choice. Likewise, to cool down a white that was too warm, layer a bright (less black), cool (more blue) white on top.

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