What you need to know about painting your walls white

Is white the new gray? If you're making the switch, here's how to do it right, according to a interior designer.
Image: Laptop on coffee table in a modern living room of an old country house
Think about your light source when choosing a paint color. The direction it’s coming from isn’t necessarily as important as how much light you have coming in. Westend61 / Getty Images
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By Dana McMahan

If you’ve repainted in the last few years, chances are your home has some gray walls. Mine certainly does. And if you’re feeling like it’s time to move on, you’re not alone. Inspired by the fresh, white walls in a recent Paris vacation rental, I’m ready to swap the many gray walls in my house for clean, classic white — and a quick scroll through Pinterest or Instagram shows that a lot of us are saying goodbye to gray.

But the number and variety of white paints available is overwhelming. To find out where to start, I turned to interior designer and assistant professor of interior design at the University of Louisville Laura McGarity. Currently teaching a class on color theory, she’s studied color for some 20 years (and consulted with me when I renovated my kitchen).

When everything went gray

And to understand where we’re going, we first looked at where we’ve been, and just why gray took over all our homes. McGarity points to the economy. “When September 11 and the stock market crash in 2008 happened there was an onslaught of gray,” she said. “Consumers, they don't feel hopeful so they were more drawn to gray and if you look back the same thing happened in the Great Depression. Anytime the economy takes a downturn, color trends change.”

But it wasn’t all just cocooning. It’s super versatile. Gray is “almost like a chameleon,” said McGarity. “You can make it do a lot of things and people liked that.” Gray can go warm or cool, and it fit with the move in interiors and design to a more gender neutral, slightly more masculine look, she said. It also let people experiment. Before I painted my kitchen walls black, I painted other rooms increasingly darker shades of gray.

Like any trend though, gray may have finally played out. “Right now people are moving away from gray, the cool gray especially,” McGarity said. “I don’t think it will ever go away but it’s hit its peak.” And once a darling of realtors, word in design circles is that realtors are turning away from it.

Gray has left the building

Where do we go from here? We’re definitely using a lot more color, said McGarity, as people "want to feel happy, they want to feel warm again.” But crisp, clean white fits our current lifestyle, she said. And we can thank … IKEA?

Think about it. In past generations, people bought furniture in their 20s when they got married, and that’s what they kept for 40 years, said McGarity. Now we have access to design-forward furnishings and accessories that are financially plausible to replace every few years.

“We live in an economy and society where we can have anything we want,” she said. “Now we can have the bright red sofa or the green chair. If you have a blue velvet couch for five years then you can change it.”

Not that this is necessarily a good thing, she added. “I’m not saying I agree. I don’t like that we have a throwaway society. But it’s influenced how we live.”

And it’s influenced how we paint. The fact is “many of those low price furnishings look better with a white backdrop because it’s clean,” she said. Trendy accessories and the omni-present houseplants pop more against white, and the interior furnishings become the star.

It also works without all the accessories. McGarity points to the movement toward Marie Kondo and simplicity. “When you get rid of things and don’t have stuff everywhere, the white is serene. White ... feels like simplicity and clean.”

50 shades of white

If this is your first leap to white, how do you know if it’s for you, and which white is for you?

A good test to see if you can live surrounded by white walls, McGarity said, is to head to a museum or gallery. They “go one of two ways,” she said. “It’s white walls or the most saturated color you can imagine.” Spend some time in those with a lot of white spaces, she said. While you’re there, consider how it makes you feel. “Comforted and at ease, or anxious like it’s a surgical suite?” she said. Most people either really enjoy the white spaces or think it’s too sterile.

If you fall into the love it camp, now the fun begins. What’s the right shade of white for you and your space? I loved the Farrow & Ball Pointing white in that Paris apartment, but does that mean it will work in my house?

Kathryn Brown's Paris apartment features Farrow & Ball Pointing white paint on the walls. Courtesy of Kathryn Brown

There are several considerations, McGarity said. When people don’t like the white paint in their space most often it’s because it has the wrong undertone. Because of course white is almost never pure white. While undertones are subtle, they have a big impact.

The biggest trick is to assess what other colors you have in the space, McGarity said. So head to a big box store and find the paint swatch with, say, the blue from your sofa. Now go all the way up the swatch to the lightest shade with those undertones to find a complementary white.

Without a color in mind, you can use those cards as clues. “Think of paint decks as sliding scales,” she said. When you’re looking at a white, go all the way down to the most saturated color. Even a neutral has undertones, 100 percent and that’s where most people go wrong. Fun fact: McGarity said the biggest mistake people make is getting a white that has too much pink in it.

Let the light shine in

Think about your light source, too, McGarity said. And the direction it’s coming from isn’t necessarily as important as how much light you have coming in. “White is obviously very reflective so the more windows you have the more it will reflect and brighten the space,” she said. So if you have a ton of natural light, “get a white with a little bit of color, not a pure white because it’s going to be so bright.”

And if your space isn’t exactly flooded with natural light? That could actually be part of why we see so many white spaces in all those photos of beautiful urban apartments filling our feeds. “With all the people who live in metropolitan areas who don’t have [as much natural] light the whites work well because they’re reflecting light.],” she explained.

Another thing McGarity cautions when choosing a white is to consider any trim in the room. If you have white semi-gloss baseboards and trim around doors and windows, you want to be careful not to get too close to that color. When it comes to trim color, if you aren’t matching the colors exactly with the walls, “make it enough different that it looks intentional,” she said. “You want to avoid looking like you tried to match and miss.”

And don’t forget about adjacent rooms that are visible from the space you’ll paint white. The number one consideration is whether that color is warm or cool, McGarity said. Whichever it is, go with the same for your white, she said. And the more intense the color, the more complex your white should be (colors away from the very top of the swatch).

Go big or go home

To get to that perfect white, McGarity has a few tips.

  • Get a lot of paint swatches. “Start by getting a lot of the little paint swatches,” she said, “More than you think. Don’t be shy. Don’t take two or three, that’s not enough. Take home eight to 15 swatches. You can eliminate half off the bat when you get home.”
  • Look at them in the daylight and under artificial light. This is especially key if you have different lighting at home than you’re seeing at the store. If you have a lot of windows, be sure to look at the color on every wall because it’s going to look different on each.
  • Get a bigger swatch before you paint. Once you’ve narrowed it down to two or three, get big swatches if you can — and then paint. “Everybody is afraid to buy a pint of paint but spend the 20 bucks so you don’t hate life later,” McGarity said. If you don’t want to paint the actual wall, you can get a piece of foam core to paint and hold that up, she said. But the good thing about white is it’s easy to cover, like a primer.
  • Splurge on primer. Get the good stuff, McGarity said. “Spend money on the best primer you can afford if you’ve got a red wall and you’re trying to paint white.”
  • Same with paint. “There are some things in life where spending more money doesn’t get you more, but paint is not one of them,” she said. For most consumers, McGarity recommends Sherwin Williams or Benjamin Moore. I’ve been happy with both in the past, but am still more than a little obsessed with the eye-poppingly expensive Farrow & Ball Pointing, so if my best white does end up being the color I saw in Paris, well, I’m just glad to hear it may be money well spent. And if I don’t like it? Luckily white makes a great blank slate.

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