Colour Smarts

Choosing paint colours is probably the number one challenge faced by the people who hire you. There are so many choices and so many opinions about what looks good that it often leads to indecision and second guessing. When clients fail to make firm colour decisions, it can slow you down. And even if you do an excellent job with brush and roller, clients will feel less than delighted with your work if the colour disappoints them. Here’s how to help your clients get it right.

Feeling the Colours
Paint colours are all about emotion. Feeling good is, in fact, the main reason people paint in the first place. Shade, saturation, value and colour temperature all work together to set the tone for any space. The thing is, almost none of your clients have anything more than the most primitive understanding of colour. The last time most of them had any formal colour education was probably back in kindergarten. A child’s understanding of colour isn’t enough to support the decisions that an adult needs to make before painting, and this is one reason there’s so much frustration, indecision and bad colour choices in the world. Another issue is that property owners want to add colour to their lives, but they usually can’t visualize the results. With hundreds of thousands of paint colours to choose from, and no guidance for choosing except “pick what you like,”it’s no wonder so many people have trouble. You can make things better. And look good doing it. Here’s the first step…

Step #1

“It’s the stuff that will be in a room that should determine paint colours,” explains Len Churchill, a commercial artist working in Markham, Ontario. “When I’m choosing residential colours, I look for options that change throughout the day, depending on natural lighting. Greys and taupes are great for this. People these days expect to live with a paint job for a long time, so it’s worth the trouble of choosing well.”

How to Use the 60/30/10 Colour Rule
This simple, time-tested decorating strategy helps create a balanced colour theme in any room:

  • Primary colour: 60 per cent of the surfaces in a given space should be the same colour. This primary colour is what you’ll find on most wall areas, area rugs, large pieces of furniture, etc
  • Secondary colour: 30 per cent of the room should be a secondary colour. This should have some relation with the primary colour (complementary, split complementary, analogous, etc., more on this later)
  • Accent colour: 10% of the room should be a kind of visual spice – different from the primary and secondary colours. This could come from paint, but you might be able to get it with decorator pillows or painted furniture, too.


A colour wheel is a small, hand-held tool that identifies which colours go well together. Most people are surprised to learn that there’s math and logic behind which colours look good together and which don’t. It’s not random and it’s not just a matter of personal taste. A colour wheel makes it easy to identify colour harmonies and communicate them to clients with a sense of authority. Here are the basics:

Complementary colours
These are completely different colours that go well together. Colours 180º opposite each other on the colour wheel are complementary and they harmonize visually. Three main, primary complementary colours that go together in this way are yellow & violet; blue & orange; red & green.

Split complementary colours
Choose a colour, look at the opposite on the other side of the wheel, then look again for the colours flanking those opposites. These are what they call “split complementaries” and they offer more variety than just straight complementaries.

Analogous colours
Three colours next to each other on the colour wheel are closer in shade than complementaries, but they still look good together, too.

Monochromatic colour
This is an approach that uses one colour, but a single colour doesn’t necessarily mean just one thing. Choosing variations of saturation and value can add interest to a space while also making the effect quite visually cohesive. A monochromatic colour scheme would use different colours from the same paint strip.

Triadic colours
These appear 120º apart on the colour wheel. A surprising number of painters don’t pay attention to the annual colour choices published by paint companies, but that’s a mistake. Since some of your fashion-conscious clients will be right on top of this sort of thing, you should know at least something about trending colours. This year DULUX Paints, for instance, has named Night Watch (DLX1145-7) and Mojito Shimmer (036VS) as colours of the year. One nice thing about trending colours is that they usually come as a collection of colours that go well together. Night Watch, for instance, is officially recommended to go with the sandy beige colours Elusion (DXL1005-2) and Earthy Can (DLX1103-4) or Lucky Penny (DLX1201-7). You might not care personally about trending colours, but they do offer a convenient shortcut for clients choosing colours.

Something called the Nix Mini Color Sensor ( is a small (very small) wireless device that works with your smartphone to let it “see” existing colours and offer colour suggestions. Besides helping you make better suggestions more efficiently, having your phone display colour choices boosts your authority with clients and reduces indecision. Charge the Nix Mini with a USB cord, download the app, then pair your Wix and phone wirelessly. Any time you want to record an existing colour as a basis for recommendations, just place the Wix eye-side-down, then hit the scan button on your phone. In a second or two the colour will be scanned and recorded, with colour suggestions automatically generated. You can share these colours with any other phone, you can choose from many different paint manufacturers and see their corresponding paint chip numbers and paint availability online. Look further into the app and you’ll find colour suggestions including monochromatic, complementary, analogous, split complementary, triadic and more. Nix will also help you find local paint suppliers for the choices your client has settled on.[/textblock]


“I always put paint samples on walls in one way or another”, explains Churchill. “I work with colour every day, but I never choose only from a paint chip. Colour choice is a mood thing, too. The way you feel about a colour one day isn’t necessarily the way you’ll feel tomorrow. That’s why I always suggest that people live with test patches on walls for a few days. Cool colours make small rooms look larger, and warm colours make large rooms look cozier and more inviting.”

A square of painted drywall moved around the room makes it easier for clients to get the big picture, especially under different light conditions. It’s all about angle of light, intensity of light and colour of light. Painting and repainting the same pieces of drywall let’s you help multiple clients select paint on different jobs. People have to live with paint colours for a long time. Just do your part to make sure it doesn’t feel too long to them.

Got a client interested in white? Don’t forget to tell them how white is unique among paint colours. It’s a fabulous and classic option because it goes with so many other colours, and is especially attractive in a room with dark trim and floors. Realtors often recommend white paint for selling homes since it appeals to the widest cross section of the public. The thing is, not all whites are created equal. In fact, choosing the right white can be tricky. The issue comes down to hue and tone, but this isn’t necessarily easy to see. White’s only look different when compared with other whites. When you find yourself working with a client who favours white, be sure to get them to get more detailed. There are many whites out there, some warm, some cold, and some in between.
There’s a lot more to running a successful painting business than just colour skills, but for all the trouble it takes to learn the basics, the effort is worth it. pp

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