Fail-Safe Colors

Color experts share personal favorites and offer tips for finding a paint color that you will love for years.

By LuAnn Brandsen | Updated Nov 12, 2013 6:14 PM

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Choosing a Paint Color - Neutral


Are there really such things as fool-proof paint colors that will work well with your existing furnishings and be easy to live with for years? “We all want to think that there are fail-safe colors, but it’s difficult, because everyone’s space has different lighting sources and furnishings that impact a paint color,” says Sharon Grech, color expert for Benjamin Moore. “Still, I have a few colors that I’ve used for 15 years, because they seem to work well in just about any setting.”

For Sharon, those tried-and-true favorites include neutrals like Manchester Tan (a warm off-white), Chelsea Gray (a mid-tone gray), and Sag Harbor Gray (a gray with a tiny hint of green). All are from the company’s historic collection, and all manage to look good with modern furniture, transitional pieces, and antiques.

Related: 12 “Expert Picks” for Fail-Safe Colors

Not surprisingly, perhaps, paint companies sell tons of neutrals. “I think the grays, taupes, beiges, whites, creams, and blacks are fail-safe,” says Debbie Zimmer, color expert for The Paint Quality Institute. “But at the same time, you have to pay careful attention to their undertones. You can choose a gray that is rich, almost platinum, or you could end up with a steely battleship on your wall.”

Though technically a neutral is stark with no undertones, there are very few pure neutrals in the paint world. Instead, they are infused with warm red, pink, and yellow undertones or cool hints of green, blue, or purple. While this makes for an array of interesting neutrals, it also adds to the confusion—a fact confirmed by anyone who has gone to the store to “just pick white.”

If you want the timeless backdrop hues that will work well with the materials generally found in living spaces, these neutrals are a best place to start.

Choosing a Paint Color - Hall

Grays. “Gray is the desired neutral now,” says Jackie Jordan, Director of Color Marketing for Sherwin-Williams. “It’s a little more contemporary, and it’s good with yellows, golds, plums, blues that aren’t too gray, yellow-based greens, and reds.” It’s a chameleon, able to blend into any decorating scheme.

Beiges and Taupes. Color experts describe beige as being more on the yellow, warmer side and taupe as being a cooler blend of beige with gray. Jackie offers two favorites: On the warmer side is Kilim Beige (SW6106), which is great with a lot of warm woods. Accessible Beige (SW7036) is right in the middle and leans a little toward gray.

Whites and Off-Whites. “For me, the most challenging choices come when choosing whites and neutrals,” says Myke Reilly, designer and co-founder of the Happy Collective in San Francisco. Reilly points to two Benjamin Moore colors as his new go-to whites. “Gardenia AF-10 has a very soft glow that is tranquil. Frostline AF-5 is great when I need a cooler white for a clean, modern look.” Another option: Sherwin-William’s Natural Choice, a neutral white that’s not too yellow, not too gray.

A New Classic. “We’re seeing a very interesting direction with the beautiful tints, tones, and shades of white used along with black trim,” says Debbie. “You could paint your ceiling one white and the walls a tinted gray white (or something more on the cool side) that has a softness and envelops the room in a relaxing sort of way. Then accent doors and moldings that have been traditionally white with a deep semi-gloss black. This classy black-and-white scheme can be rich, casual, traditional, or anything you want it to be. It’s timeless—and timely.”

If you are looking for fail-safe colors, don’t miss 12 Expert Picks