5 Color Dilemmas Solved!

Color experts share how to solve palette problems for a bedroom, living room and more.

Dear HGTV.com,

I have a small bedroom, 10x12, with white trim, doors and light beige carpet. Furniture pieces are large and dark walnut color. What colors would be best for walls, and should all walls be the same color? Should the ceiling remain white? The back wall has a window facing east with no other windows in the room. I have a piece of art that has purples (lavenders/violets) lemon yellow and splashes of limey green so I want a color scheme centered around that.

—In Search of a Bedroom Palette

Dear In Search of a Bedroom Palette,

To maximize the visual space in your bedroom, I recommend you keep your color contrasts to a minimum. That doesn’t mean everything in the room has to be the same color, but rather when you introduce multiple colors keep them level on the contrast scale. For example, a medium blue on one wall, and medium green on all others, could be beautiful. The colors you use don’t have to be all in the same color family—you could use a blue with a violet, or even a violet with a sand color, for example. Just avoid the high contrast of, for example, off-white next to deep blue.

Here’s a question for you: Can you paint your furniture to be lighter? You didn’t say how attached you are to the actual dark walnut color, nor did you specify the quality of the pieces. If they are not valued antiques you might consider lightening them. If not, you will have the large dark furniture dominating the room regardless of the color you paint the walls. Another choice: move the furniture to another room and get smaller, lighter color pieces for this room.

Now, specifically to your questions here are my recommendations:

Wall colors: Try something like a warm, mid-range grayed blue-green. Your ceiling can be a warm off-white. (Benjamin Moore 967 is a beautiful ceiling color that is very compatible with both warm and cool colors in the same room.) Be sure to do the ceiling in a flat paint, and the walls in a washable flat or eggshell sheen. Wall color doesn’t have to exactly "match" the artwork, but do some testing and look for something that will be a good background.

Trim color: Instead of the high-contrast white, which makes the room look smaller, do your trim the same color as the wall it is on but use semi-gloss finish paint. If one wall is blue, do the trim the same color. If three walls are green, do the trim on those walls in that color.

—color consultant Barbara Jacobs, Integral Color and Design

Paint your own furniture>

Hi HGTV.com,

I need desperate help with the colors in my living room. My house was built in the '70s and our living room has dark brown paneling with high vaulted ceilings. I also have gold-colored leather furniture. Help!! What do I do? I am on a tight budget so I mainly would like to work around the colors of my furniture. I also have a huge antique white bookshelf on one wall. I would like to have the walls a dark brown if you think that would look good. Please let me know what to do.

—Desperate in the Living Room

Dear Desperate in the Living Room,

Are you willing to paint the paneling lighter? This will create a more open and pleasant feeling in your room. It is possible, using the right primer/sealer and a stain blocker. Otherwise the height of all dark brown walls will feel rather like walls looming overhead, which would be a very uncomfortable space!

To make this room will feel both spacious and comfortable, try the following:

On the wall with the huge bookshelf try a mid-range color that relates closely to the bookshelf, perhaps a caramel-type color, as a background for the items displayed. Look for the undertone color of the "antique white" bookshelf, for color cues to the wall. "Antique white" is usually an off-white based on yellow or orange.

One basic principle you can apply: The eye is drawn to contrast. If walls are dark brown and ceiling is white, you will have an upward-emphasis in the room. This is why less contrast is better in your space. You did not mention the ceilings, but if possible make them a creamy off-white. If you must have brown on the walls, look for a rich medium brown, something like saddle leather. Gold-colored furniture will be compatible with a variety of colors especially a bronze, rust, even a dusty plum type. For accessories and pillows you can include a variety of colors that you like.

The whole effect will also depend a bit on the floor, which is a large part of the room. On the floor, you might use a rug with a large scale design, made in colors that include the gold of the furniture and perhaps, in small amounts, the accent colors you choose for pillows and other accessories.

You can lighten up the space with lighting. If your walls and ceiling are light, you can aim some lighting upwards, perhaps with fixtures that use halogen lamps that have a cooler light color. Also include table lamps with incandescent bulbs, which are more yellow light, for warmth.

—color consultant Barbara Jacobs, Integral Color and Design

Dear HGTV.com,

I have plastered walls with a sand (bumpy) finish. What color techniques could I use to give a more updated look?

—Bored With Bumpy

Dear Bored With Bumpy,

I assume you want to minimize the bumpy look. A few recommendations:

Sand it back to diminish the bumps, then paint with a flat paint, in a deeper shade to minimize shadows caused by the texture.If you want to do a "paint technique," you can just use three closely related (low-contrast), colors of your choice, over the base. Apply them as alternate layers with a four-inch "chip brush."

Use short, overlapping strokes in a light and blending fashion, interweaving the colors. This will give you a modulated-color surface and usually has the function of bringing the visual emphasis off the texture.

You didn’t indicate the color family you want to use, but if, for example, you are using warm, sunny colors try something like Benjamin Moore 202 ("Yellowstone") for the base, with the dry-brushed colors in Benjamin Moore 200 ("Westminster Gold"), 206 ("Summer Harvest") and 197 ("America's Heartland", a yellow) or 205 (Simply Irresistible", a warm creamy color).You can use this approach to be as "multi-colored" as suits your personal style and decor. 

—color consultant Barbara Jacobs, Integral Color and Design

More on color finishes>

Dear HGTV.com,

My living room is 21x16 and the dining room is 14x16. My condo is in a high-rise in Chicago overlooking Lake Michigan. I have a cream-colored Victorian sofa and matching chair, two blue barrel chairs, secretary, butler coffee table and a 30ish side table and another end table. My favorite color is blue. I have a blue and white Spode collection (not the real deal, of course). Carpet is gray and the walls are gray in both the living room and dining room. What is the best approach to decorating these two spaces, including an entry hall between the two rooms?

—Blue in Chicago

Dear Blue in Chicago,

You might want to brighten up the space with blue and its complement yellow, as opposed to gray walls and carpeting. This will lighten the appearance of the space and enhance your special blue china. It also will coordinate well with your cream-colored Victorian sofa and pull some of that brighter cream onto the walls.

I know you love blue, but in order to appreciate it more, you should use other colors with it, instead of turning everything bluish. Your favorite blues will stand out more with a cream, as mentioned above, colored carpeting or subtle yellow toned walls (be they paint or wallpaper).

Your blue will pop more in a complementary (blue and yellow) colored space, than the one you describe. The issue, and believe me this happens to all of us, is that we have a particular color that we fall for and then splash it everywhere. Remember, when working with your favorite colors, less can be more.

In your description, the spaces seem rather cool, lacking highlights and accent color. Choose a third color for your palette such as soft pink for florals or sofa scarf and toss pillows. This, again, will add to the blue's impact through the use of a third contrasting color.

Your connecting hallway should be, uh, blue? Maybe a highly polished blue and yellow marble checkerboard Renaissance-style floor with hazy blue walls would be the answer.

—color expert/designer Mark McCauley, ASID

Dear HGTV.com,

Help me! I am moving into a new house in Audubon, Penn., and am bad at picking colors. In the family room there is a fireplace. I would love this room to feel cozy. I was thinking dark brown leather furniture and maybe painting one wall a deep orange/ brown color, but what wall? I also have a small dining room that I want to feel rich would a dark green be too much?

—Trouble With Colors

Dear Trouble With Colors,

You are on the right track for someone who says they have trouble picking colors! The colors you have mentioned, along with the pictures I have seen, would blend quite well and, create the cozy atmosphere you desire.

You are speaking of an analogous color scheme. Analogous color schemes, colors right next to each other on the color wheel, are informal and restful. Also, the darker color values you mention go a long way towards creating a sense of warmth.

But wait, brown is not on the color wheel! What an oversight! Brown is actually a combination of all the colors on the color wheel, but works very well with orange and other earth tones.

Brown with orange (say bark brown with saddle orange) creates a Fall tone in terms of seasonality. This reflects feelings of warmth and closeness.

As to which wall to paint with the saddle orange, I would suggest the wall above the stone fireplace using the color as accent. You may also want to trade out the grayish carpeting in this scheme as it won’t help much.

I would also suggest that you use a deep yellow (such as mustard, or other, deeper fall yellow) for the white wood panel walls. This will remove some of the antiseptic nature in white, stripped of paint as you mention, from what I see in the photos.

Your concept of the darker green tones in the dining room is excellent, also. The green relates to the natural colorations of many edible foods and is often found in dining areas. However, put a chair rail in the dining room with either wood molding or wallpaper border and don't use the dark green all over.

Marry the dark green to perhaps a lighter beige/white below. By moving the darker color up the walls, it encompasses the diners when they are seated at eye height for greater impact during mealtime and has the advantage of not overwhelming the space with heavy coloration.

Be sure the beige/white is deep enough to carry the visual weight of the dark green. For greater formality the contrast in tone should be greater, for more casual colorations the tones should be closer together, more mid-range beige/white with the deep forest.

—color expert/designer Mark McCauley, ASID

Get expert advice for more color dilemmas>

Barbara Jacobs, Integral Color and Design, is a color expert and rug designer, (www.integralcolor.com). Designer Mark McCauley, ASID, can be reached at ColorTherapy@aol.com.



It's a great idea to use a piece of art as color inspiration for a room. This is an abstract giclee print by Chin Yuen from guild.com.



The combination of dark woods, golden hues and the right lighting can create a very cozy and inviting space, like in this room designed by Jean Alan.

beautifully designed adobe home bath

beautifully designed adobe home bath

Rounded, carved edges and built-in display cases give this bathroom a homey, custom feel. This Southwestern style is from designer Steve Appolloni.



Blue walls and curtains get plenty of contrast from dark accessories and nubby chairs in this Stephanie Henley living room.

beautiful amenities for traditional dining

beautiful amenities for traditional dining

Richly hued walls and a flickering fireplace bring warmth and personality to a dining room, living room or bedroom. Here designer Darla Blake uses a deep faux finish in a dramatic dining room. (Photo by Dan Steinberg.)

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