How to Choose an Elegant Paint Color & a Trick for Avoiding Elegant Prices

The sound of circular saws slicing through dry wall and nail guns bulleting through two-by-fours at our house now vies for aural space with Ode to Joy on the Casio.

A fine layer of dust covers our internal landscape like a February flurry, the living room is a mountain range of toys, books, and somewhere, Sofia’s missing tennis shoe, and there is a toilet on our front porch. Our very first home renovation has officially begun.

As you know, one of my goals for this year was to make our house into a home. When a recommended (and affordable) contractor called and said he could come in four days, I took a deep breath, and said, “Okay!” So last Wednesday, our most straight-forward project got underway: we are converting the front room from a library-playroom to a foyer with two closets.

The floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves were cool, but where do we put coats, backpacks, and boots?

Since the project involves moving the door to the powder room (which we lovingly call “the tiniest bathroom in the world”) from the entry hall to the inside of the room, and removing the recessed can lights, basically every surface is being torn up. A few days into the project, I realized I could choose a new paint color. This is what people who have never owned their own place dream of.

Why Choosing Paint Has Been Compared with Death

In the humorous A Whiter Shade of Pale, Dina Hall aptly points out, however, that picking a paint color can be up there with death, divorce, and marriage as one of life’s stressful moments. With each paint company offering thousands of paint colors and several different lines, choice becomes more of a curse than a blessing.

As you know, I decided to lean on an interior designer to help me make decisions on the house. She helped steer me away from choosing my favorite color for the foyer — coral — which would have looked too choppy (among other things) given we will soon have three big white doors and lots of thick white trim in a small room.

So I ventured into the tiny powder room with cherry red, which made me realize that I had made my first renovating mistake. Ugh, the light switch position could have been a little more discreet!

When you have the chance to create something perfect new, it’s both exhilarating and agonizing. I was traumatized for a few days by the switch in the middle of the wall, until I decided to go with my designer’s suggestion of gray paint in that room.

Now for which gray? Smoke Embers by Benjamin Moore, was a great suggestion — a slight purple-brown cast warmed it up and made it right for the vintage industrial look we are going for in there — but it was still too cold-feeling.

And for the foyer? My designer suggested a pretty understated aqua called Palladian Blue by Benjamin Moore. I love turquoise and robin’s egg blue and sea-foam, so it seemed like a good fit. But another problem with paint is that it looks completely different when applied to a wall.

You can be absolutely completely sure that you love a color on a swatch. You look at it in all sorts of lights, you compare it to other colors, you sleep on it and dream about how much you love it. But when you actually paint on a piece, it is suddenly too green, too wild, or too dark. Alas, the Palladian Blue felt too bright.  (You can see more color, furniture, and fixture ideas for the foyer on my virtual dream board at Pinterest.)

“Just Buy This One”

My friend, Ghi, recently brought to my attention a website called Just Buy This One, whose tagline is: Millions of products. Thousands of shops. Too much choice. Why not stop shopping and start enjoying life?

Amen. But how to accomplish this with paint colors?

I have dragged the kids to the hardware store three times to get paint samples mixed (during with Luke knocked cans of shellac off the shelves and rolled herds of duct tape down the aisles), almost ruined my new room with splattered paint, and agonized for days over a cornucopia of green-blues and blue-grays. I am ready to be done.

My answer is the unique historical 132-color paint palette of Farrow & Ball.

Designers say that Farrow & Ball colors look great in old houses like ours, as well as in contemporary spaces. Their paints are often based on real samples found in old cottages, castles, and country estates in Europe. Many were used by John Fowler, a designer who championed the English Country House style and whose look is described as ‘humble elegance’ or ‘shabby chic.’

I love Farrow & Ball’s old-world names like ‘Lamp Light Gray’ and ‘Eating Room Red.’  The fact that they have narrowed down their palette so much that they can get away with names like ‘Light Blue’ and ‘Olive’ is so refreshingly simple.

Each color has a description, which can help even further in making choices.

After looking at a bunch of interiors done in Farrow & Ball paint, pouring over the F&B color book that my mom lent me, and testing a few colors on the wall, I decided that limiting my choices to the small palette of a respected company like Farrow & Ball is the answer to paint-choice hell.

“You can’t go wrong with Farrow & Ball paints,” says my in-house designer mom, “because they are time-tested.”  And with only a handful of their 132 paint colors being in the light blue-green family, I’m faced with a much more manageable decision.

I am so adamant about my choice to limit my choices, that I have chosen a color for the foyer that I have not even tested on the walls: Farrow & Ball’s Skylight.

Boring? Maybe. Safe? Yes. But the paint search is over. And I can move on with life.

Tip: When testing paint, don’t do like me and drip messy paint all over yourself and your new room. Do like my wiser mother and paint a sheet of cardboard (or a paint-sample board, like this one from Small Wall), and then hang it up on your nice walls. And make sure you take a peek at it at all times of the day, in cloud and in sun.

Here’s how Skylight ended up looking in the room, post-construction:

SkylightFarrowBallPaint

 

And several months later, with a little more furniture:

SkylightFarrowBallPaint2

 

I love how the color as a calming, old-world feel to it.

 

How to Get Designer Color at a Hardware Store Price

Now for the money-saving trick that I mentioned in the title. According to interior designers, Farrow & Ball paints are unmatched in beauty, depth, and quality. But they are also expensive. They are made one batch at a time in Dorset, England. The company says:

We use more high quality pigments and resins and no low quality ‘fillers’, which gives our colours visibly greater depth and purity often referred to as the ‘Farrow & Ball look’. Unlike many other manufacturers we use naturally occurring pigments, such as Umbers in their purest form, and we continue to use natural ingredients such as Chalk, Lime Putty and China Clay.

Enthusiasts claim that off-the-shelf paints look “plasticky” in comparison. I believe them, but I feel a little foolish plunking down $85 for a gallon of paint when we are just getting started. The solution? Have the paint store match a Farrow & Ball color with an off-the-shelf paint. (You can order a Farrow & Ball free color sample chart or a color book for $35.)

Most paint companies, like Sherwin Williams, have all the colors of other companies keyed into their computer system, so all the matching is done. Last week I ordered up a sample quart of ‘Elephant’s Breath’ and knew I had found the right gray for our industrial chic bathroom (inspired by that cute airplane sink with the exposed pipes).  See more of the vintage industrial look on my Pinterest board of the same name.

When it comes to doing our next project, I may seek out the real thing. For now, in this world of overwhelming choice, I am just relieved to have someone do the homework for me and say, pick this one.

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12 comments

  • Helen July 24, 2014, 10:17 pm

    Followed your blog with great interest as I am trying to give my thirteen year old townhome an updating…from window treatments, to repainting walls, to changing furniture. Included in this process is declutterng, and streamlining; I guess one could say I am transitioning. One question regarding saving money by having the store match a F&B color with an off- the- shelf paint. How does that idea give you the same quality paint one is looking for in the expensive F&B, though the colors may match? Or am I missing the point; the point being to get as close as possible to the color you crave, without paying through the nose?

    Reply
    • Amy July 25, 2014, 10:10 am

      Hi Helen,

      Your townhouse project sounds like fun! I found that the F&B colors look rich and old world, even if you can’t afford the high-quality paint they produce. We’ve used the F&B palette, in addition to Benjamin Moore’s historical collection, throughout our house and I love the results.

      Best of luck on your transition,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Frugal Design Girl April 25, 2013, 12:45 pm

    It is so great to run into other bloggers who are passionate about spreading the message: You don’t have to spend a lot of money to live well! Check out my musings at frugaldesigngirl.com for more frugal design inspiration.

    Cheers –

    Frugal Design Girl (FDG)

    Reply
  • Elise van Looij March 1, 2013, 10:46 pm

    Here in The Netherlands, chalk paints are touted as the way to achieve the understated elegant look, but they too are very expensive. I usually go with Laura Ashley paints, which give great results at a price I can just afford. Recently, however, I could not get their sage green in time. I found a really nice olive green from a good brand, but when it was on the wall of my bedroom it was much too strong. Debating whether I would splurge on the chalk paint or endure the heavy olive, I decided to take a chance. I bought some chalk from a sewing store and mixed about two teaspoons with some ivory white through the remainder of the olive paint. Alarmingly, it started to foam but that soon subsided thought it remained a bit bubbly and more liquid than before. Anyway, I gave the wall a second coat , dealt with the runners and hoped for the best. The next day, the wall had dried up beautifully tight. The color was still a bit stronger than I had hoped for, but as the week progressed, I noticed it started to mellow. Or was I just getting used to it? I can’t prove it, but I’m convinced the mellowing continued for another month or two and now I’m very happy with the color. Not a bad result for a little bottle of chalk powder the price of a loaf of bread.

    Reply
    • Amy March 11, 2013, 10:26 am

      Dear Elise,

      This is an amazing process. I love that you just made up your own recipe for chalk paint and it served your purposes. The bubbling part was funny — I’m glad that you didn’t create any weird chemical reactions — and now you have a room that you are happy with.

      I once put a wash over a yellow wall that was too bright. I think I brushed it on with a rag, and the end result looked like an old ochre wall in Italy.

      Sounds kind of like yours! Thanks for sharing your story,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Anne April 6, 2012, 10:31 am

    Hi Amy,
    Your paint selection process seems very close to mine. I just received the complimentary color sample info from Farrow & Ball. The color cards for purchase are not available at this time.

    My question is, did you have their color(s) matched and if so, where and were you pleased with the results? What colors did you decide upon?

    Look forward to reading how it turned out!

    Anne

    Reply
    • Amy April 6, 2012, 10:51 am

      Hi Anne,

      I’m glad you are on the same page! My experience with matching was pretty good. I think it gets harder as the color gets lighter. For example, I tried to match Skimming Stone, their lightest greige, but it didn’t come out right. So I went one shade darker, Elephant’s Breath, and it matched perfectly.

      In our house so far we have Elephant’s Breath in the powder room and on the attic floors, Charleston Gray on the attic stairs, and Skylight on the foyer walls. All of those colors matched great, and they look very elegant and old-fashioned.

      You can see a few pictures of the process here: http://www.frugal-mama.com/2012/03/our-house-is-becoming-a-home-and-our-yard-is-almost-edible-but-can-i-check-into-a-spa-now/

      I will post more pictures once the rooms are decorated.

      I’d love to hear more about your projects!

      Take care,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Paola February 22, 2012, 9:22 pm

    Amy, I had no idea you were going to do something like that. Having lived inside a house through a major renovation project, you have all my support: you are the bravest woman I know!!!! One thing I learned well from my mistakes (and there were many…) is to always check the references of the people you are going to work with; and also to be present, and to check every single little detail: it is a pain, but it is also necessary…
    I wish you a big “in bocca al lupo”. Can’t wait to see the finished project!
    With love,
    Paola

    Reply
    • Amy February 23, 2012, 6:08 am

      Hi Paola,

      Thank you for the moral support and the important reminders! I want to do the best job possible, so I appreciate your advice. I agree that you don’t want just anyone working on your house, and I’ve had a handyman screw up our front porch and I was too timid to check his work. I have to get better at that. It’s a business transaction, not a friendship (no matter how nice the contractors are).

      Thanks again, Paola!

      Amy

      Reply
  • Jen @ Jen Spends February 22, 2012, 5:23 pm

    How exciting that you’ve started a big project! I can totally relate to the difficulty in starting from scratch. I’m so accustomed to making do with predefined conditions (whether it’s a less than ideal house that I can’t afford to change, hand-me-down clothing or furniture, etc.) that I find myself at a complete loss when I have a blank slate to work with. I’m finding Pinterest to be very helpful for discovering the common traits in all of the interior images that strike my fancy. Hopefully by the time I have a different house and some money to work with, I’ll kind of know what I want! I’m really enjoying following your pins–I think our tastes are very similar. I like the way you are really thinking through every detail before taking the plunge. Your house is going to be gorgeous!
    Jen @ Jen Spends´s last post ..Improving oral care with Listerine and Reach

    Reply
    • Amy February 22, 2012, 7:33 pm

      Hi Jen!

      I’m glad you identify with what I’m going through. I have been in your exact position for so long — making do with predefined conditions (which you define so well) — that it’s a little scary being in the driver’s seat. I love our house so much that I don’t want to mess it up in any way. Freedom often comes with responsibility, right?

      I’m sure you will know what you want, given your interest in design and decor. I like your pins too!

      Take care,
      Amy

      Reply

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