Many shades of gray: More than meets the eye to painting walls with the new neutral
Gray is the new beige for any room in your house, from kitchen to nursery.
However, there’s more than meets the eye when rolling one of the many shades of gray onto your walls. Some have warm red or brown undertones, others have a cool blue or purple. Green undertones can be either warm or cool, and some grays look more beige, hence the trending term “greige.”
These subtleties may not even show up until you see an array of paint chips side-by-side or paint different swatches on your walls at home, next to that maroon sofa or dark woodwork.
So how can the everyday DIY homeowner select neutral wall colors wisely and well?
“You have to be very careful when choosing grays — very careful,” said interior designer Aaron Murphy, who owns and operates Spruced Up Staging in Cedar Rapids. He and husband Brian Kipp chose a gray palette for their midcentury home in southeast Cedar Rapids, recently featured in The Gazette.
“I know it seems trendy for everyone to go and jump on the gray bandwagon,” Murphy said from his downtown office. “But really, if you have personality in your furnishings and your artwork, gray or off-white are wonderful ways to set that off, and have the pieces that you collect be the statement in a room.”
“It’s so easy to say, ‘Well, I have a big personality, I’m going to paint my living room orange.’ And then you realize that you have a red sofa and yellow pops of artwork. Well that’s just not gonna work. It’ll look like you’re walking into hell,” he said. “Gray and off-white and greige are wonderful ways to make your personality a statement.”
Wall color — even neutrals — can liven up a room, too.
“If you have a brown leather couch, and you have brown end tables and a brown coffee table or mixed woods and no other contrast in that room, well there’s your opportunity to do color (on your walls) or skew more toward a warm green-gray or a cooler blue-gray. Then those (furniture) pieces start to speak a little bit more,” Murphy said.
“If you’re not a designer, it’s easy to say, ‘Just put gray on the walls, and it’ll be perfect.’ A designer walks into a room and says, ‘Out of the 700 different grays, which one is gonna speak best in this room?’ That’s the big difference.”
But even designers make mistakes.
“Not to say that color theory is the easiest thing for someone to learn. There’s trial and error that I’ve experienced, even in our own house,” Murphy said with a laugh. “I’ve repainted walls several times. Or I’ve gone in to clients and said, ‘This is probably the right gray for you,’ and I’ll bring in a large sample board and we move throughout the room and in the light — and I’ll change my mind.”
Light sources play a critical factor in paint color selection, from natural light to the various kinds of light bulbs used in housing.
For instance, Marsha Lynch, an interior decorator at Klinger Paint and Interiors in downtown Cedar Rapids, points to a perpendicular wall in the showroom that looks like five different colors, depending on where you stand. Paint colors and appearances are affected by shadows, windows and proximity to floors, ceiling and wood trim, she said. “And they’re going to look different in your home on a rainy day or on a sunny day.”
Murphy’s home has a long, narrow hallway with no window, so he painted the north facing wall a granite boulder color, and used a shade three times lighter on the south-facing wall, to give “a nice visual contrast.”
“However, when you walk down the hall, you cannot tell that they’re different paint colors,” he said, “just because of the light — which I think is fascinating.”
In one of his guest bedrooms, two walls look purple and two look gray, even though they’re all painted the same color, he added.
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Out of the 3,000 paint color samples in Klinger’s showroom, it’s the grays that are flying off those walls and onto their customers’ walls.
“I’ve been here one year and it’s all I’ve sold,” Klinger interior designer Amber Coberly said. It’s been a strong trend for at least three years, Lynch added.
Since most shoppers are decorating around existing furniture or flooring, Lynch and Coberly advise them to take pillows, cushions, sofa arm covers or bedspreads to the paint store to help figure out what shade of gray will best complement their decor.
Buying several paint samples that you can take home and brush on your walls, for about $7 each, can be an inexpensive way to save yourself from costly errors, Coberly noted.
“It’s difficult to tell the difference until you see them side by side,” Lynch added.
Apply the samples near the trim and ceilings, too, Coberly said, and in spaces that have a lot of shading or direct sunlight.
“Trim is a big part of it, too,” Lynch said. “A lot of the colors that you see on House.com have rooms with painted trim. In the Midwest, we have a whole lot of people with oak trim. You don’t see as many of those rooms on House.com. And sometimes, because oak is a form of brown, I like the grays that are a total departure from it, because it doesn’t look like you tried to match and missed. A lot of oak can be very orangy.”
“That’s a big reason why people pick these grays and take them home and paint them against their big yellow-oak trim,” Coberly said. “The grays look extremely blue.”
That may not be to the liking of Midwesterners, who gravitate toward the earth tones, Lynch said. “Blue shades are more popular elsewhere, especially where they use white trim.”
Having some contrast between ceiling, floor and trim keeps a room from looking muddy, washed out or too monochromatic, all three designers said.
Changing from beige to gray can be a big leap for people who have lived with beige for 30 years, Lynch said, but “it’s the least expensive way to get a gigantic change, with a quick remedy” if you don’t like the end result.
A gallon of quality paint can range from $35 to $57 and cover 300 to 350 square feet. So depending on how many coats you apply, room size, plus primer and the application equipment you’ll need, the costs may range between $200 and $300.
Preparation plays into the paint choices, as well. Condition of the walls is a prime consideration when selecting the sheen, Lynch and Coberly said. Flat/matte and eggshell are the most popular finishes and will hide the most flaws, whereas the shinier satin and semi-gloss will draw attention to imperfections. With improvements in paint quality, all the finishes are easy to clean, Lynch said.
Before painting, be sure to clean the walls, knock off the cobwebs and fill in all the nail holes, Lynch said, and if your walls have water stains, she advises using oil-based paint so the stain won’t bleed back through. Speaking from experience, she said it’s best to call in the pros if you have old plaster walls that need to be repaired.
Grays are even showing up in hardwood floor stains and new wood flooring and tiles with a wood-grain look, Murphy said. “It’s how you get out of the oak you’ve had for years and years.”
It’s easy to add pops of color to gray rooms. “Teal, green and navy are big right now,” Coberly said, as well as purple. Gray and teal are popular combinations for bathrooms, kids’ rooms and kitchens, she added. Pink also goes well with gray, to bring traditional touches to a little girl’s room.
Colorful pillows, rugs, curtains, bedspreads and small items like vases are simple ways to spice up a room. Painting a vibrant accent wall can add drama or whimsy — but can be challenging if you put your house on the market, Murphy warns.
He recently staged a house that had a lime-green wall, surrounded by light gray/off-white neutral walls.
“I went in and had lime-green accent pillows, I had lime green accessories, and I used copious amounts of white and neutral colors to really ground out that accent wall,” he said. “Would it have been easier to repaint? Absolutely. But it would have cost that seller a little bit more, and it was something I could work with and make funky.
“But for anyone else, just repaint the wall. It doesn’t cost that much to repaint,” he said. “From a staging standpoint, it’s best to have a neutral palette.”