Learn to Test Paint Colors Like a PRO

Take it from a pro, EVERYONE needs to test paint colors, even me.  I recently got complacent and decided to paint one of my bedrooms Sherwin Williams Incredible White without testing. This gorgeous color that has never failed me looked like Pepto Bismol!  It cost me $400 to repaint the room.

What if you could accurately test paint colors before you invest your time, energy, and hard cold cash on a new paint job? Here you go!

Use a large painted poster board instead of a paint swatch

Undertones are much easier to see when you use a poster board instead of a tiny paint swatch.  The poster board should be at least 8.5 x 11, and bigger is better. Make sure that the poster board has 2 coats of paint. Small paint swatches don’t have enough surface area to see enough of the undertones and look different than the paint board.  Compare all your options to find your favorite.

In the photo below, the color swatch looks MUCH darker than the painted color board behind it. Both colors are Benjamin Moore Hale Navy HC-154.

Test paint colors in daylight 

Natural light is critical to test the undertones of your paint colors.  If it works in natural light, it will look great with artificial light.  If the room does not have windows, test after lighting in the room has been finalized.  An LED will look different than an incandescent light.

Ensure the surfaces in the room are clean before you test paint colors

Sometimes a color looks dingy because it’s dirty, not because it’s the wrong color for the room.  I recommended a wall color once for a bathroom. When the client moved in, they steam cleaned the floor tile, and it changed from pink-beige to bright white, and we had to repaint it.  In another project, we tried to match an exterior white.  Once we cleaned it, we chose a much different color.

Surround samples with white and place the same way it will exist in the room

When you contrast a test board with white, it removes distraction from the current color.  If you are testing a wall, look at the poster vertically. Test the paint colors at different times of the day.

how to test paint colors



How to test paint colors

Move sample board around the room for interiors, and around the house for exteriors

View the color next to hard finishes, furniture, and art. Make sure that it looks right on every wall.

Give yourself at least one day to make your decision

Test the paint colors at different times of the day. Morning, noon, and evening light varies and can make the color look different.

Test your final color choice on the wall inside or outside

The test area should be at least 5 ft by 5ft.  The easiest way to see your colors is to isolate it in a large section, next to the hard or existing finishes you need to match.  Also, consider painting white around the edges so that you can isolate the color more effectively. Areas with wall corners and edges work very well.

For an interior, paint a wall that is next to a door or molding, and has a painting and furniture.  The more furniture or existing finishes you can use to compare, the better your results will be.

Paint test for interiors

For an exterior, consider painting a trim color and wall color in a corner, around a window or near existing brick or stone.  The following would be good areas to test.

Exterior paint color test

Paint color test area for exteriors

Test exterior paint colors with a test area over garage.
Exterior paint color test over garage, next to trim and stone.

The Verdict

You can save time and money with the perfect paint color when you follow these steps.

Online Color Consulting

If you still need help with paint colors, check out our Online Color Consulting packages or an In-Person Color Consultation in the Denver Metro area.

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How to test paint colors

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18 Responses

  1. Can you please tell me the differences and similarities of Agreeable Gray and Modern Gray. There is no color strip for Modern Gray so I’m a bit confused about the undertones.

    1. Hi Ruth,
      Agreeable Gray is a lovely mid-toned gray with green undertones and slight violet undertones mixed in. It is a pretty magical color. It has an LRV of 60, which is considered slightly light reflecting. The LRV scale goes from 0 to 100 (Dark to Light scale). Modern Gray has a similar LRV at 62, and is very slightly lighter than AG. Modern Gray has taupe undertones, which are warmer than Agreeable Gray. On a chip they will look very close, but once you paint them on a wall they will look completely different. Hope that helps! If you have questions about our recent online consult specifically, please let me know directly. Thanks, Michelle

  2. Hi, I have painted the living room and the paint on the walls looks different coz the house is facing south. I like to paint the room white, what colour white would you recommend.

  3. Using a paint board is a great idea, but doesn’t that require buying a small can of the paint? I can’t imagine any other way to do it. Please advise.

  4. Hi Michelle,
    Its cost me a small fortune in mistakes with paint colours and all the undertones. The lighting in the hardware store are so difficult to see what it woukd look like. Great idea about using a larger chip in the room you want to paint.

    1. Hi Pauline,
      The other tip that is very important is to look at the paint colors with natural light and without overhead lights on.

  5. What would be a great white to use in a north facing bedroom surrounded by trees. I was thinking about White Dove OC-17 since it is not too yellow and feels fresh,but worried the trees will add too much green?? There is also a roof window for some added light. The trim on windows is medium dark wood – not painted.

    1. If you have alot of greenery outside, try a paint color with more warmth and red to counteract the green in the trees. White is a mirror… White Dove might work, but make sure you test on a VERY LARGE swatch on the wall. By large I mean 5′ high by 3’wide to see the effect of the landscape green. Other possibilities are Ballet White, Cloud White (which has lots of warmth) and SW Snowbound. Test, test test!

  6. Thank you for these tips! My daughter recently had her townhouse interior painted white that looks beautiful. She has given me the six sample pots so I will be painting poster board tomorrow and following your instructions. My interior 2 story foyer hasn’t been painted in 25 yrs.

  7. Hi Michelle,

    Great blog – really helpful tips! We are redoing our east facing kitchen with chantilly lace cabinets. The wall colours are currently simply white… would you suggest changing our wall colours to chantilly lace as well, or do you think the two whites will compliment?

    Thanks so much for your help!

    1. Hi Kristin,
      Its difficult for me to make a recommendation about specific colors without seeing your space. I can give you the following general guidelines:
      1. We usually like to match the trim white with the cabinet white
      2. Chantilly Lace and Simply White look great together, when Chantilly is the trim and ceiling color, if Simply is a good color for the room already.

      I hope that helps!

  8. Hi Michelle, I am painting my kitchen cabinets and am trying to decide on white or gray.. I have white subway tiles and colonial white granite.
    I also have simply white trim in room.
    Kitchen is bright and is a north facing room.
    I am looking at chantily white or cloud cover white. No idea what shade of gray to go with, suggestion appreciated.
    I would really appreciate your advice.

    1. Hi Trudy,
      It’s very difficult for me to advise you without photos and a consultation. Please consider a cabinet color consultation.
      Thank you,

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Meet Michelle

Driven to help clients fall back in love with their homes with intentional paint color schemes. She started the company based on her passion for color and its ability to make a house a home.

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8 Easy Ways to Pick Paint Colors