PAINT: Choose the Right Shade of Gray Every Time!

Gray paint swatches

If you spend any time looking at home design trends (or have eyes and watch TV or spend any time on the internet) then you know by now that in the interior painting world- GRAY IS THE NEW BEIGE. Yes, gray is the neutral now used in most new construction, designer remodels, etc., and it's glorious. If you're renovating, ESPECIALLY if you're renovating to sell, then you'd better be using gray paint on those walls if you want to attract more buyers come listing time!

The trouble with gray paint is that choosing the right shade can be really difficult because gray can go a million different color directions in different settings. It can take on a blue, green, purple, tan or pink tint in a lot of cases, and nothing is more frustrating than painting an entire room to step back and feel like you're in a big blue box that was supposed to be gray. (Yeah, it's happened to me more than once)

In this post, I want to share how I choose gray paint for my walls (so far, we have 4 shades and counting in our current house) without having to buy tons of samples and make multiple trips to my home improvement store.

I've had a lot of friends ask me to help them choose paint colors in their homes and most of the time, those conversations start with a compliment about colors I've used in my house and friends want to know the color name/brand so they can use it in their space too. That brings me to the first, most important rule of choosing paint colors:

ALWAYS TEST IT ON THE WALLS IN YOUR SPACE! The same gray paint can take on a different hue in every single space it is used in. The same shade of gray that looks fabulous in your kitchen might look purple in your guest bathroom. The type of lighting you use in one space compared to another can drastically change the coloring of the same gray swatch. Always, always, always test the color in your own space! Now the next rule goes hand in hand with testing in your own space, and that is...

PAINT SAMPLE AREAS ON YOUR WALLS, DON'T JUST HOLD UP SWATCHES. Unless you are a designer or an artist and you are a color expert with an eye for color behavior and tendencies in different light and settings, simply holding up a swatch to the wall will never truly represent the finished product on the wall. I always paint at least a 3"W x 6"H swatch in several places-- Next to white trim, in a corner and in the middle of a wall to see how it looks with more or less light. If there is a window in the space, I will also paint a swatch on the wall where the light floods in from the window because daylight can completely change the "blue factor" in gray paint.


First, I start by checking out swatches in the space I'll be painting. Once I have identified a swatch color I think will work, I'll go to my local home improvement store and grab a sample of that color. (These color samples are usually a little under $5) These days, I actually just grab one of the medium gray paints I already have on hand from other spaces and start with that instead of going to buy a paint sample. Either way, start with a color that seems close to what you think you want in the space.

I have seldom brought home a paint sample from a swatch, slapped it on the wall and completely loved the way it looks, which leads me to the next part of this process- TWEAKING THE COLOR AT HOME.

For this step, I go to my craft supplies and get out the following acrylic paint colors (pictured above): Red, black, white, ivory, tan, dark blue, yellow, green and light green. This process is super sophisticated (as indicated by the use of paper plates and red solo cups), so pay close attention. : )

I pour (or transfer with a small paint brush) some of the original gray color into a solo cup about a quarter to a half inch deep. This amount is important because you want to make sure you'll have enough mixed paint to test on the walls and create a swatch to bring to your home improvement or paint store for a color match. On the flip side, you don't want to try to tweak and mix a full cup of paint because you'll be mixing and adding a ton of color in order to make the color tweaks and probably run out of acrylic paint pretty quickly.

So let's say the color I started with was not as dark as I wanted it to be. I would start by adding in a couple of drops of black paint, mixing well with my artist brush and comparing the original color with the adjusted color on a paper plate. (I always have a hair dryer handy for the process because I don't like watching paint dry and I have other things to do) If I like what I see, I'll go and paint swatches of this color on the walls, dry them with the hair dryer and evaluate. For the purposes of this blog post, we'll say the adjusted color was too blue, I would then add several drops of yellow to see if I could tone down the blue color. (If I was a super diligent and helpful person I would do some research and provide you with some paint mixing 101 info about the color wheel and what colors add and take away certain tones, but I really want to finish this blog post today, so you're on your own there, but just have fun experimenting!) I continue this process until I find the shade I want and love the way it looks on the wall.

Below is an example of how I add colors and compare:

Once you've tweaked the color to your ideal shade (again, when it's on the walls in the space you're painting you want to look for tendencies for it to look too blue, green, purple, tan or pink and adjust accordingly) you need to create a large swatch - I use another paper plate - for the folks at your local paint or home improvement store to color match for you.

Color-Matching at the Store:

The folks at your local paint or home improvement store are pros at matching colors, so let them do their magic and be prepared to wait while they tweak the color to get a perfect match. It can take some time to perfect, so for real, be prepared to wait a hot minute. In many cases, the sample you bring them might be a different sheen (eggshell, matte, flat, satin, etc.) than the the paint product you need and the sheen can definitely make a big difference in the color shade you're aiming for, so compare the colors in the light and at different angles. The good news is, the paint folks know this too and will compensate for the sheen difference, so again, let them do their magic and get it just right.

Happy Painting, my friends! (Also, don't forget that painting is much more tolerable when you have a glass of wine or 3 while you do it! Makes the job go by so much faster! CHEERS!) : )

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