Brilliant by name and nature, white paint is the strongest style statement of all. Here's what you need to know to choose the perfect shade of white paint every time
White paint; loved by painters and decorators as much as curators and architects, a pure blank canvas that brightens dark spaces and makes even the smallest room feel spacious and airy. So much more than a neutral, a white interior manages to flatter the fabric of the building and shows off furniture and fabrics at their very best.
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Front wall, trim and door in Ballet White, floor in Mascarpone, middle wall in Simply White and far wall in Paper White, all Benjamin Moore UK.
Choosing the right shade of white can be an overwhelming task. From creamy off-whites to very pale greys, you can find a huge variety of shades with different undertones, which will all create a distinctive look and feel in a space.
Even paint cards can be misleading – you’ll quite often find that a colour looks more or less pigmented when applied to a large surface area and the exact shade will be affected by the light fall, size and even the contents of the room.
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‘If you are painting walls white it is important to consider how your furniture and surroundings will be reflected,’ says Helen Shaw, Marketing Director for Benjamin Moore. ‘There is the ‘right’ white for each space; you just have to find the one that works best for your interior. Get a small sample of the colour on the wall and check it at three different times of the day to see how it changes as the sun moves through the sky.’
How to decorate with shades of white
As interior designers know, a white room painted entirely in one solid shade can look flat and featureless. Instead try combining subtle variations on walls, woodwork, cornicing and ceilings to enhance the proportions of a room. Use the brightest white on the ceiling to give an impression of height and slightly darker shades to pick out interesting details.
‘Identify which colours you are drawn to, then simply work your way up your chosen palette to find an off white tone with a hint of your chosen shade,’ advises Jenny Luck, Colour Consultant at Little Greene. ‘This will give contrast to the wall colour whilst having a soft transition from the walls onto wood woodwork and ceilings. Much softer and easier on the eye.’
How to get a flawless finish
To get the best from a crisp white paint you need to put in a bit of prep. Charlotte Cosby, Head of Creative at Farrow & Ball, recommends applying a primer and undercoat to make the finish long lasting and to fill in any small defects.
James White, Farrow & Ball
Matt and flat matt finishes hide a multitude of sins so it’s a popular choice for walls and ceilings. Satinwood and eggshell finishes work beautifully on woodwork, particularly skirting boards and doors that need a little extra coverage.
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While white is versatile enough to work in almost any style, Marianne Shillingford, Creative Director at Dulux, advises choosing something robust that’s easy to keep clean and pristine. ‘The finish is less important than the formulation because white paint has the tendency to show up every little mark,’ she says. ‘You need to be confident that it will resist spills, scuffs and everyday wear-and-tear.
Jasmine White, in Easycare Washable & Tough Matt, Dulux
‘Dulux Easycare is designed to be 20 times tougher than standard emulsion and resists dirt by making it ‘bead’ on the surface rather than soak in and stain,’ Marianne adds. ‘Any grotty stuff is easy to wipe off, and the paint stays perfectly matt and perfectly white for much longer.’
Shades of white – Cool versus warm tones
It can sometimes be tricky to spot the undertones in a shade, especially in lighter colours. All shades of white behave differently so use a pure brilliant white as your starting point and place gentle variations of the hue next to it to reveal their true nature.
Depending on the light, the time of year and the location of a room, white can take on many varying shades of blue, grey, yellow and red. For example, northern light is often darker and weaker, so warm whites will work best – look for hints of pink, gold and brown in them to create a cosy atmosphere.
South facing rooms are much lighter so any true white can work in the space. If you want a suggestion of colour stick to the cooler end of the spectrum but choose the palest shades as any underlying tint will be amplified meaning your cool ivory could end up looking decidedly yellow.
‘Cool whites have hints of grey, blue, green and violet in them and they create a tranquil breezy look, which is perfect for a room that gets lots of light and sun,’ says Marianne at Dulux.
Slaked Lime by Little Greene – A slight warm grey undertone makes this a perfect choice for sunlit rooms
Stick to whites with a grayish undertone like Dulux’s Clouded Pearl 3, Farrow & Ball’s Slaked Lime or Sail White Emulsion from Crown.
In eastern or western facing rooms, the tone of the light changes most throughout the day, so it is important to consider when you’ll be spending the most time in the space and make a choice based on the cast of light at that time of the day.
Best for small, light-filled rooms – Brilliant white paints
A staple for painters and decorators, pure brilliant white is actually devoid of all pigment. This means it reflects back nearly all light that hits it – conversely, the darker the colour, the more light it absorbs. It is an absence of colour that brightens the space by bouncing light into shadows and lifting the entire room.
Wimbourne White, Farrow & Ball
Choose this for small rooms with a good source of natural light – anything north facing or shaded will feel cold and dim. True white is also a perfect accompaniment on woodwork and ceilings for any shade of off-white you choose, particularly those with a blue or grey tint.
Helen at Benjamin Moore says: ‘In a south facing room Chantilly Lace, which is a pure true white without any undertones, works well. For something more muted, Decorator’s White is also stunning.’
Our pick of the best true white paints:
Best for north-facing rooms with yellow undertones – Warm white paints
Our pick of the best warm white paints:
Best for south-facing rooms with blue and grey undertones – Cool white paints
Our pick of the best cool white paints:
Buy Now: Ultra White, Valspar at B&Q
The best white paint – Expert recommendations
‘For me, the best overall white is Belgravia from Mylands (walls and skirting, pictured above). It can turn from a beige white to a grey white in different lights, but both are beautiful in tone. Mylands also offers all the finishes so you can literally paint walls, floors, woodwork, metal and masonry.’
Nicky Phillips, Decorating Editor for Ideal Home magazine
‘I love Crown’s Sail White (pictured above). It goes on beautifully, is just the right side of a grey – light without being too bright – and it works perfectly with my Mid-century furniture and accessories.’
Amy Cutmore, Digital Editor for Ideal Home
‘I’m a big fan of the soft grey appearance of this white from Fired Earth. It’s clean and fresh – exactly what you want from a white – but the grey tones have extra depth, which adds interest and makes sure it doesn’t feel too stark.’
Heather Young, Blogger and Writer for Ideal Home
So there you have it. White is never really just white but a beautifully uplifting, chic and easy-to-use colour that rarely fails as the main dish in any style of decorating scheme. From chalky shabby chic bathrooms to modern minimalism, white paint is a gift from the interior design deities.
Are you ready to turn to the light side?