How to Choose the Perfect Gray Paint for YOUR Home

One of the most common requests I get from friends, family, and clients alike, is for help choosing the right shade of gray paint. Each and every time, I know they aren't going to like my answer, but I have to give it them, and to you straight... there's no one gray paint that looks good in every home! 

Despite a million blog posts out there claiming to have found the "perfect gray paint," the truth is that the perfect shade of gray for my home may be totally wrong in yours. And more frustrating still - the color of gray paint you love in your living room, might be all wrong in your bedroom!

Can of gray paint with paint brush

I wish it were as easy as giving you a fool-proof list of gray paints to choose from, but I know from experience that it just doesn't work that way. 

Just when I think I've got it down to a short-list of reliable recommendations, I walk into a friend's house with my favorite gray paint sample boards, and sure enough - none of them are right, and we have to go back to square one.

But don't worry, I can still help!

Instead of making a list of the "best gray paint colors," I've got some tried and true tips to help you pick the right gray paint for YOUR room!

No such thing as the perfect grey paint color

First, it's important to understand why it's so hard to pick gray paint.

A trip to the paint store will lead you to a wide array of swatches with "gray" in the name - but when you start to compare them side by side, it may seem like you're eyes are playing tricks on you because soon none of them look gray at all!

I could go on for days about all the reasons why this is true, but let's just review a few quick factors that affect paint colors. If you'd rather skip straight to my step by step tips for picking the right gray paint for your home, click here!

Understanding Paint Undertones, and Why It Matters

Paint colors are created by combining more than one color together, and as a result, all paint colors will have both a mass tone and an undertone. Mass tone is the first color your eye perceives - it's what allows you to scan the giant wall of paint swatches and start picking out colors right off the bat. 

Wall of Paint Color Swatches

The undertone is basically the hint of another color that's mixed with the mass tone - and the undertone can completely make or break your color choice. The better you are at seeing the undertones, the easier it is to start narrowing down your color choices. Undertones can be harder to perceive at first, but there are some tricks to help.

Look Down the Color Card to Find the Undertones

Paint swatches with multiple shades on one card make undertones much easier to pick out. When you first start to look at the wall of color swatches, you're eye may be drawn to a row of light gray options...

light gray paint samples

But when you take a wider view, looking down the color cards, and even to the next set of cards in the same columns, other colors will start to jump out at you. These colors are the undertones of those light grays near the top of the cards. 

Gray Paint Undertones

While those undertones might not seem readily apparent when looking at the light gray colors in isolation, when painted on a whole wall, these undertones will make themselves know as the light changes throughout the day, and when paired with other colors in the room's decor.

Don't Look at Paint Swatches in Isolation

Sometimes you don't have the benefit of seeing multiple shades on one color swatch. Some paint collections and paint brands instead offer swatches with single colors, making it harder to see the undertones at a glance.

In this case, choose a selection of different grays, and lay them down together. When you see all these seemingly-gray grays side by side, you'll notice that they don't just look gray any more.

Understanding gray paint undertones

Undertones are typically cool (blues, greens, purples) or warm (yellows, oranges, reds). If you're still struggling to figure out the undertones of your grayish paint swatches, try comparing them to something you know to be a true beige or a true gray.

Whether a warm or cool gray is right for you depends on a number of factors, including the lighting in your room. So let's talk about that next.

Understanding How Light Affects Paint Colors

Just like the undertones of paint colors are described as warm or cool, light is also described as warm (yellow) or cool (blue). In your home, you have both natural light and artificial lighting sources. Both are equally important to take into consideration when choosing a paint color.

Natural Light Is Impacted By the Direction of Your Windows

The following is true for those living in the Northern Hemisphere. For my Australian-friends, the opposite will be true of northern and southern windows.
  • North-Facing Windows: Rooms with primarily north-facing windows will get lots of cool, blueish light consistently throughout the day. North-facing rooms typically call for paint with warmer hues to help balance out the cool, shadowy light. Avoid gray paints with cool undertones in spaces with northern exposures. The cool northern light will make gray paint with blue undertones look very blue.
  • South Facing Windows: Rooms with south facing windows will get the most direct, high-in-the-sky light throughout the day. If you are lucky enough to have lots of south facing windows, it makes picking paint colors a bit easier because this light works well with both warm and cool tones.
  • East Facing Windows: Rooms with east facing windows will get lots of warm, yellow light in the mornings as the sun rises in the sky, and then in the afternoon, as the sun moves west, the light through these windows will be much cooler (bluer).
  • West Facing Windows: Rooms with west facing windows will get minimal, shadowy light throughout the morning, and will then be bathed in warm, yellow light in the afternoons as the sun moves lower in the sky.
  • How to Strike a Balance in East and West Facing Rooms: As a general rule, gray paints with warm undertones typically look best in east-facing rooms during the afternoon and evening hours, and in west facing rooms, cool toned paints can help balance out the very warm late-day light. But in either of these scenarios, you'll have the opposite light in the morning. If the room is used all through the day, a gray paint with less dramatic undertones will be the most versatile choice for a neutral appearance from morning to night. 

Light Bulb Color Temperature Also Affects Paint Colors

Like natural light, the artificial light produced by light bulbs varies from warm yellow to cool blue.

Shopping for light bulbs, and understanding how they'll look in your home, has become much easier since manufacturers of LED light bulbs have started listing the color temperature (indicated in Kelvin) right on the packaging. The higher the the degrees Kelvin, the cooler the color temperature.

Light bulb color temperature chart - warm white - cool white - daylight

LED Light bulbs are primarily broken into three color groups:
  • Soft White / Warm White Light Bulbs (2000K-3000K) - The light produced by these bulbs ranges from orange to yellow-white in appearance. These bulbs will accentuate warm undertones, while muting cool undertones. A "greige" paint that straddles the line between gray and beige will lean much more beige in this warm-toned lighting.
  • Bright White / Cool White (3100K-4500K) - These light bulbs produce a more neutral light, with light bulbs around 3500K being the most neutral. As the color temperature starts to approach 4000K or higher, light bulbs will have a slightly blue tint that will begin accentuating the cool undertones in gray paints.
  • Daylight (5000K-6500K) - The light produced by these bulbs are intended to mimic daylight, but they have a very cool, blue-white appearance. This color temperature is most often used in retails stores, hospitals, and offices. These bulbs are great for task lighting in garages and work spaces, but can produce a bit of an institutional feel that isn't well suited for most living areas of the home.

Paint Sheen Affects the Appearance of Color

There are many factors that go into choosing the right paint sheen for your room, including durability and easy of cleaning, but since we're talking about lighting and color, I'll limit this discussion to how paint sheen affects color. 

  • Gloss and Semigloss - Gloss and semigloss finishes reflect the most light, which can make a color appear darker.
  • Flat - Flat finishes absorb light, which can make a color appear slightly lighter. Additionally, flat paint finishes often have a chalky-appearance when dry.
  • Matte and Eggshell - Matte and eggshell finishes provide a balance between glossy and matte that usually result in the the truest match to their swatch colors.

Don't Rely On Paint Recommendations or Photos

The dramatic impact of lighting is exactly why I cringe every time I read a blog post where someone says, "this color is the perfect gray paint because it has no blue undertone," but then they proceed to recommend a paint color with a strong yellow undertone. That paint color might be "perfect" for their house, but those same yellow undertones might not work at all in your home.

Likewise, I have a favorite gray paint that doesn't look at all blue in my house with mostly south facing windows, but when I tested it in a client's home with north facing windows, it looked downright baby blue.

Also, keep in mind that colors often don't look accurate in photos - because of the lighting in the picture, the way the photo was edited, or the color settings on your phone or computer screen. So even if you find a photo of a gorgeous room with gray walls that you love, remember that the photo may not be an accurate representation of the paint color, let alone how it will look in your home. 

This is why it's so important to pick your own paint colors, and below are some tips to help you do just that.

step by step how to pick gray paint

How to Pick the Right Gray Paint for YOUR Home

1. Always Look at the Paint Swatches In Your Own Home

Now that you know how lighting affects colors, you can see why it's impossible to choose a paint color when you're at the store.

Choose a Variety of Paint Swatches. Here's where those recommendations from friends, bloggers, and magazines can come in handy. Grab paint swatches in each of these colors... just don't stop there. Choose a wide variety of paint swatches and take them home before you start to narrow them down.

Pick Both Warm & Cool Swatches. Even if you think you already know that want a warm or a cool undertone, bring home samples on both sides of the spectrum. I've had lots of clients confident that they want a warm gray-beige or a cool greenish-gray, who end up picking something entirely different once they see them in their home.

Look at the Swatches In the Room You Plan to Paint. Once you get the swatches home, take them the room that you plan to paint. Look at them during the day with just natural light, and put a little star on the colors you think you like best.

Then look at all the swatches again at night and make another mark to indicate the those you like best under the artificial lighting in the room. Try to get it down to 4 or 5 swatches that you think have the most potential.

Look at paint swatches in room you plan to paint

Don't Look at the Colors in Isolation. In addition to comparing the color swatches to one another {which helps you to identify undertones}, make sure to also compare the color swatches to other items in the room to avoid undertone mismatches.

If you're painting a bathroom for example, be sure to see how the various colors swatches look next to the tile, the countertop, or the cabinets. If you're painting a living room, hold the color swatches up next to the couch, pillows, and/or rug. If you already have some gray elements in the room, you don't have to choose a paint that's an exact match, but you should avoid shades of gray that clash with one another.

Consider the Existing Finishes in the Room. Also take into consideration the color of wood floors, baseboards and door trim, or carpet. You need to consider whether you want to accentuate the existing color-tones or whether you want to use paint to balance out the these elements in the room.

For example, if you want to modernize a house that has lots of yellow or red-ish wood tones, consider choosing a cooler gray paint. Or if your house has modern elements that are a bit too stark for your taste, consider more of a warm greige (gray-beige) to give the space a cozier feel.

warm gray versus cool gray paint

2. Buy Small Paint Samples of the Colors You are Interested In

After looking at lots of paint swatches in the room you plan to paint, and after narrowing it down to 4 or 5 colors you think have potential, you're ready to buy some color samples. 

Each paint brand and store will be different, but purchase the smallest quantity you can of each paint color you have narrowed it down to.

My favorite local paint shop has an entire wall of 2 oz. sample bottles in almost every color in the Benjamin Moore paint deck.  The Sherwin-Williams paint shop in my area, however, does not offer samples like this, but they will mix a sample quart upon request. With many paint brands, you can also order color samples online for convenience, as long as you don't mind waiting a few days.

how to pick paint colors like a pro

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that these color samples {whether it's the mini bottles or the sample quarts} will typically be mixed in a base that is different from the actual paint you will ultimately purchase. As a result, this sample will give you a very close representation to the final paint color, but the sheen of paint you ultimately choose will have an impact on how the color looks once it's on your walls. {See the discussion above about how paint sheen impacts color.}

3. Create Paint Sample Boards

Once you have all of your color samples, you're ready to create some sample boards. My local paint store sells thick, white sample boards, but white poster board (with a flat finish) or white foam core work just as well. 

Pain Multiple Coats, and Leave a White Border Around the Edges. To make it fast and easy, I use foam brushes to paint each of my sample boards. I paint at least two to three coats, and I leave about a one inch boarder of white around the edge of each sample board (very roughly - no measuring or straight lines. I then use a Sharpie to label the bottom corner of each sample board so I can keep track of the colors.

You might be asking, why spend time creating sample boards? Why not just paint the samples directly on the wall? There are two reasons why this is so important: (1) If you paint samples directly on the wall, the existing paint color under it and around it will affect how you perceive the new paint colors; (2) The lighting in the room will be different on each wall (which is addressed by step 4, below).  
  • The affect of the paint color under your sample. If you've ever repainted a room, then you know that it can take several coats of paint to cover the old color. If you paint only a thin sample swatch on your walls to test the new colors, there's a good chance that the existing color will show through a bit, affecting how the color looks. On the other hand if you paint several thick coats of your sample color in swatches on the wall, you run the risk of leaving ridges on the wall that will show up later when you go to repaint the whole room.
  • The affect of the paint color around your sample. There's an important color theory called metamerism, which basically {in very unscientific terms} means that your eyes will play tricks on you and see color differently based on what's around it. In this case, if you paint a color sample directly on your wall, the way your eyes see that color sample will be psychologically impacted by the color immediately around it. To get the truest representation of the color, you need to see it against a white background, which is why I leave a white border around each of my sample boards.

4. Look at the Sample Boards at Different Times of the Day and on Different Walls 

Once your paint sample boards are ready, use painter's tape to tape them up on the walls of the room you want to paint. Start by taping them all on the same wall {so that you'll see them all in similar lighting}, and then look at them at different times of the day - in the morning light, midday, late afternoon, dusk, and at night under artificial lighting.

Light grey paint sample boards

As I talked about above, the light in any given room will change dramatically throughout the day, and that natural and artificial light will affect the colors differently. This is why it's so important not to just look at the samples once and make a decision.

Also remember that natural and artificial light will work together during certain times of the day, especially in the summer when dusk lasts a long time. Turn light bulbs on even during daylight hours to see what the paint colors look like.

Don't forget that the shadows and light will be very different on different walls of your room. If you look at a sample board hanging on a wall opposite a window, for example, it will have a lot of direct light shining on it. If you hang the same sample board on a wall that doesn't have any natural light shining on it (next to a window, for example, instead of across from it), you'll notice that the color will look quite different.

5. Be Patient and Don't Settle

I know this may seem overwhelming! There's a reason that gray paint is so hard to pick, and a reason that so many people end up unhappy with their color choice. 

As much as I'd love to tell you that there's one great shade of gray paint out there that looks good in every home, it's just not the case, and it takes some leg work to pick the one you'll like best in your home. 

No matter what color you choose, it's appearance will change throughout the day. The goal is to choose a color that you love during the times of day you will us the room most frequently, while making sure you won't hate the color for half of the day.

And don't forget that you have some control over the light in the room. The window coverings you chose can help to soften overly-bright daytime light.

If you love the color of the paint during the day, but not under artificial lighting, you can always change the light bulbs to a different color temperature. Once you decide which light bulb color temperature you like best in the room, be sure to make a note of it so you can buy the same light bulbs next time!

While it can be really tempting to want to pick one color for the whole house, don't assume that the same color will be perfect in every room. Your living room and bedroom windows might face opposite directions, for example. If you are painting more than one room, be sure to look at the sample boards in each different space. Even if you want the whole house to be painted in a neutral light gray, there's no rule that says you have to pick the exact same shade of gray in every room (although I wouldn't paint different shades for adjoining spaces, like a living room and kitchen).

If you go through the effort to create sample boards of four of five different paint colors, and still none of them are right, be patient and try again with different colors.

While paint is relatively inexpensive, and you can always repaint if you hate it, the time involved or the cost to hire a painter is significant. It's much better to take the time to choose a color you have confidence in.

how to pick a true gray paint with no undertones

How to Pick a Paint Color with Confidence

While this article talks specifically about how to choose a gray paint, you can follow this  methodology to pick any paint color. The same principals about undertones and light will apply to any color you choose, and following each of the five steps above will help you to choose a paint you love for your home - no matter the color!

choose paint colors like a pro

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