Thursday, April 12, 2012

Paint Color Chips and Strips

Have you ever looked at a paint chip or at a paint color strip to choose a color for a painting project? Tough, isn't it! Most of the time this is the way the color decisions are made, so it's not surprising that the color you wind up with often isn't the color you wanted, or the color you thought you'd chosen.

Nobody, including those of us who work with color all the time, can make an informed color decision from a tiny sample.

Chips and Strips Are Deceiving

Here are some reasons why samples from chips or strips are deceiving: 

  • The effect of color is cumulative and becomes more intense in larger quantities. Studying a paint chip, even one of those 3x5 inch cards some manufacturers now provide, won't give you an accurate idea of how the color will look on a large surface. Think of the effect of red paint on a wall vs. on the trim of an accent pillow. Once applied to a wall, dark colors will look darker and bright colors will look even brighter. Not only that, the impression a color makes on one wall will intensify once it's applied to all the walls. 
Two Approaches to the Color Strip

  • Strip color distortion  When the color you're considering is on a strip, you can get an even more distorted impression. There's no standardization in how paint strips are organized. Sometimes there's a progression of one color from light to dark, as in the lower strip in this picture. Sometimes there are different versions of the color as in the upper strip, or altogether different colors. While paint strips can sometimes help you make comparisons, placing small color samples side by side between white borders makes it impossible to know what each really looks like. However, when I'm trying to work with a certain hue, I find the strips with a progression of just one color to be the most useful. 

  • Paint color changes, depending on the orientation in which it's applied. Your wall color will look different if you apply it to the ceiling. Choosing a ceiling color can be challenging because you can't put a chip or paint strip on the ceiling and tell how it will look. Another reason is that the ceiling color will be affected by the colors of the walls, flooring and furniture, among other factors, but you won't be able see this phenomenon working from a chip or a strip. 

Paint colors are becoming increasingly complex. When you look at a group of individual color chips, it can be difficult to identify the hue family(ies), but this is often where many color choices go wrong. Hue families are a topic in themselves, which I'll write about another time. 

Large Color Samples

Color is light and it changes all the time, so you won't really know how a color will look on your walls, until the work is done. Larger samples are the best way to make an educated guess about the impression a color will make - before you buy large quantities of paint. Some people paint samples directly on the wall side by side and try to compare them. This approach doesn't work because the existing wall color and the neighboring samples distort what you see, making sound analysis impossible, and also because a color will look different on every wall, and change as the light in the room changes. 

I usually order at least two large samples of each proposed color from the paint company (free to professionals) and sometimes tape them together to create an even larger one. To create your own oversize color samples, use inexpensive, lightweight foam core sample boards at least 2 x 3 feet in size, and apply two coats of paint. 

The advantages of these giant sample boards are:
  • The true color impression is more apparent than on a chip.
  • You avoid the color competition or distortion caused looking at a color on a strip or on the wall next to others you're considering.
  • You can move the sample around the room and even affix it to the ceiling with removable tape to view it in different orientations.
  • You can move the sample to view it adjacent to large pieces of furniture, window treatments and accessories.
  • You can easily evaluate how the color works with colors used in adjacent spaces.
  • Sample boards avoid the need to prime or use additional coats to cover test areas on the wall.
When you're choosing paint colors, large individual samples are best. Be sure to look at the samples on every wall at different times during the day and at night under artificial lighting, as these factors can drastically affect the color.


  1. Foam core as samples!!! - I used to have Herb cut up a sheet of drywall (1 4x8 = 8 2x2's) I used these also in my faux painting classes - foam would have been much easier on the back! Love your ideas!

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