The best thing I ever did for my home was create a whole house color palette before painting a single wall.
After six years of home ownership, I was sick of the constant trips to the paint store to stare at way too many paint chips agonizing over which one would be best. Choosing wall colors on an as-needed basis caused extra stress and indecisiveness. And, in my last two homes I never achieved a cohesive look. There was always one or two rooms that seemed disjointed from the rest.
In this home I set out to decide on a color palette for the entire home upfront. Since then, I have not gone to the paint store in four years to pick out a new color and I have never second-guessed a color decision in my home. Because I did the work upfront, I know I can use any color from my palette and it will fit right in with the rest of the home.
And, no, my home is anything but boring and match-matchy.
If anything, the restrained palette has opened up my creativity. We use a limited palette throughout our home, but vary how we use the colors from room to room to keep it interesting. For example, dark teal appears on the upper walls in my dining room. I used the color differently in my basement family room on the painted media center. The same color reappears as an accent color in my master bedroom.
If you are ready to end the color in-decision and create a color palette that works for your home, just follow the 7 steps below.
With a whole house color palette, you will:
- Create a home with a cohesive look that flows from room to room.
- Make decisions upfront and never have to think of it again.
- Feel confident in any wall color choice you make, because you already know it goes with all the other colors in your home.
Every home no matter the size or layout can benefit from a whole house color scheme. It doesn’t matter if your home is an open floor plan or a series of separate rooms. It seems more obvious to use coordinated colors in an open floor plan or small space, but even in a home with separate rooms you don’t want to turn the corner and have a jarring effect caused by an out of place color.
Here’s the goal: If someone were to see your home as a series of snapshots, each room a separate picture jumbled up with pictures of other people’s homes, you want them to know all of your rooms are from the same house. You create that connection with color.
If I gave someone a stack of pictures of each room in your home right now, would they know they were all from the same home? If not, read on and learn how to create your cohesive color palette.
There are only 7 steps in this system, but choosing colors can be confusing and overwhelming. To make it easier, I am including a worksheet you can take notes on as you work through the 7 steps.
You don’t have to choose specific colors on your first time through, but you should describe the color, like “light blue” or “gray with a blue undertone”. Later you can use those notes to guide specific color choices and complete a second worksheet with your final color choices. For the best results, complete each step in order.
Download the worksheet at the end of this post.
7 Steps to Your Whole House Color Palette
1. Understand Your Fixed Elements
Before you do anything else, you need to understand the colors you are already stuck with. All of the fixed elements in your home automatically become part of your whole house color palette. The fixed elements in your home include trim, cabinetry, flooring (wood, carpet, tile), wall tiles, and countertops (stone, laminate, wood).
Although most of your fixed elements are probably a neutral color, even neutrals have color undertones. To properly choose colors to go with your fixed elements, you need to understand what undertone colors you are working with.
Make a list of all your fixed elements. Next to each element write the undertone.
If the person designing your house did a good job, you should see some trends in the undertones. For example, most of the undertones of the fixed elements in my home are warm colors. My dark wood floors have a red undertone. My cinnamon maple cabinetry has a distinctly orange undertone. My white trim has a yellow undertone. Tile throughout our home has a pink undertone. Even the slate on our fireplace has warm undertones.
Check out the undertones in my kitchen:
Once you understand the undertones in your fixed elements, you basically have two options for building your whole house color palette:
Option A. Match the undertones. If your undertones are mostly warm colors (red, orange, yellow), choose a wall color palette of warm colors. If your undertones are mostly cool colors (green, blue, purple), choose a wall color palette of cool colors.
Option B. Contrast against the undertones. If your undertones are mostly warm colors, choose a wall color palette of cool colors to complement the warm undertones. If your undertones are mostly cool colors, choose a wall color palette of warm colors to complement the cool undertones.
I almost always prefer Option B, complementing the undertones, because it provides balance and prevents your home from being too warm or too cold.
The rest of the steps show you how to choose wall colors. In Step 2, you will choose a color scheme. The remaining steps are like a choose-your-own-adventure for your color scheme (monochromatic, analogous, or complementary).
2. Choose a Color Scheme
Popular advice suggests you choose your color scheme based on some sort of inspiration. All too often, I think people either waste time looking for inspiration or use an inspiration image as a crutch. You may choose an inspiration you appreciate, but don’t love. You may not understand the color theory behind your inspiration, which makes it impossible to add more colors to your palette. You get locked into your inspiration.
I want to help you choose a palette that is best for your home. I want you to understand the basic color theory behind your chosen color scheme. I want you to know how to add colors to extend your palette.
In my experience, it is better to start with the overall feeling you want for your home and what your favorite color is. Your desired feeling and favorite color will lead you to the right color scheme. Once you know which color scheme is best, you can look for inspiration in nature, interiors, fashion, and fabrics to help you round out your palette.
Vintage Color Wheel Image via JustSomethingImade.com
There are many color schemes to choose from, but some practically require a PhD in color theory. To keep it simple, focus on one of these three color schemes:
Use one hue for your entire color palette in different shades, tints, and tones. This color scheme is great if you only like one particular color. It is also great for the color-shy, because using the same hue lessens the contrast in the space and reads more like a neutral space.
- If you are matching the undertones of your fixed elements, your starting color (in Step 4) should be on the same side of the color wheel as your dominant undertones.
- If you are complimenting the undertones of your fixed elements, your starting color (in Step 4) should be on the opposite side of the color wheel as your dominant undertones.
Also sometimes called harmonious, this color scheme uses colors adjacent, or next to each other on the color wheel. For example, blue, green, yellow or purple, red, orange. This color scheme is very livable and generally feels relaxing and calm.
- If you are matching the undertones of your fixed elements, your starting color (in Step 4) will match your dominant undertone and then you will build your palette with colors next to it on the color wheel. For example, if your undertone is red, then the analogous colors would be purple, red, orange or red, orange, yellow or blue, purple, red.
- If you are complimenting the undertones of your fixed elements, your starting color (in Step 4) will be a color opposite your dominant color undertone on the color wheel, then choose colors next to it to build the rest of your palette. For example, if your undertone is red, then start with green and use the analogous colors, like yellow and blue.
Complementary colors are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. For example, blue and orange, yellow and purple, red and green. This type of color scheme is not for the color-shy. It is a more energetic and lively color scheme, because it is all about contrast.
- If you are matching the undertones of your fixed elements, start with a monochromatic or analogous color to your dominant undertone in step 4.
- If you are complementing the undertones of your fixed elements, then start with a complementary color to your dominant undertone in steps 4.
3. Choose Your Neutrals
Neutrals are an important part of any color palette. In this step, you need to choose a white and a dominant neutral color.
Choose a White
Choose a white with the same undertone as your fixed elements or a complimentary undertone. This is a personal preference. I recommend testing samples of several whites. They all look white in the paint store, but on the wall next to each other, you will see the difference in the undertones.
The white you choose here will be the default white color used for trim, cabinetry, furniture, and ceilings. For example, my undertones are warm, so I chose a white that has a slight yellow undertone, making it a warm white. This is the color of our trim and doors throughout our home.
Choose a Neutral
Choose a default neutral. This will be your go-to neutral color to use in all the connected areas of your home, like open spaces, hallways, and lofts. It is also great for closets and bathrooms. You have three choices with your default neutral.
Option A. A warm neutral is anything from warm white (yellow or pink undertone) to beige to brown. A warm neutral will coordinate with warm undertones, like red, orange, or yellow. A warm neutral will complement cool undertones, like blue, green, or purple.
Option B. A cool neutrals is anything from a cool white (blue of green undertone) to gray to black. A cool neutral will coordinate with cool undertones, like blue, green, or purple. A cool neutral will complement warm undertones, like red, orange, and yellow.
Option C. Greige colors were created for the indecisive. Greige is a mix of grey and beige. It is basically like a chameleon and can go well with warm or cool colors. I think griege works extremely well for complementary wall color palettes.
Since I prefer complementing undertones to create balance, the dominant neutral in my home is Driftwood Grey, which has a blue undertone. The blue undertone of my neutral complements the orange and red undertones of my cabinetry and flooring. Because my fixed elements have warm undertones, I can get away with cool wall colors without ever worrying about my space feeling cold.
4. Choose One Bold Color
Bold is relative here, but this color will be the boldest in your entire color palette, meaning it will either be the darkest or most saturated color.
What color should you choose? A version of your favorite color, which either matches or complements the undertone of your fixed elements (based on your answers from Step 1 and Step 2). Your favorite color is probably the only one you won’t tire of and the one you are most comfortable risk-taking with, because you love it.
My favorite color is turquoise, but I wanted to go even bolder. So, the boldest color in my palette is Plumage, a very dark, saturated teal.
Your bold color might be a lot lighter and less saturated than mine, but it will be the boldest in your palette.
If you are color-shy, start with colors that act as neutrals. In the Sherwin Williams paint deck, they call these Fundamentally Neutrals. You know how blue jeans go with everything? It’s because they read as neutral. The Fundamentally Neutrals are the blue jeans of paint color.
5. Choose a Friend for Your Bold Color
The second color you choose should be the best friend of your bold color.
- If you are creating a monochromatic or complementary wall color palette, then choose a tint (lighter version) of your bold color for this step.
- If you are creating an analogous wall color palette, then choose a color next to your bold color on the color wheel. For example, if your bold color is purple, then you would choose a red or blue for your second color.
My wall color palette is analogous. Since my bold color is dark teal (which is a green), I chose a dark blue, called Azurite, for my second color. It is the wall color in our guest room, the accent wall color in my studio, and the accent color for the mural in our pirate-themed playroom.
My second color also happens to be bold, because I am not color-shy. The intensity of the colors you choose for your palette is up to you.
6. Choose an Accent Color
This color will be used sparingly in your home or used to create a dramatic impact. Either choose a color using the guidelines below for your color scheme or choose a neutral that contrasts with your default.
- If you are creating a monochromatic palette, then choose a tint (lighter version) or a shade (dark version) of your bold color for this step.
- If you are creating an analogous wall color palette, then choose either a tint of your second color or an analogous color on the color wheel. For example, if your bold color was purple and your second color was blue, your third color could either be a lighter shade of blue or it could be a green, which is next to blue on the color wheel.
- If you are creating a complementary color palette, then your accent color should be a complementary color (opposite on the color wheel) to either your bold color or your second color. For example, if your bold color is blue and your second color is green, your complementary accent could be orange or red (the respective compliments of blue and green).
In my home, we chose a charcoal gray called Zinc as our accent color. It is a dark charcoal gray, which contrasts with the lighter blue/gray of our default neutral. We use it on the walls in our living room and our office. It also appears on some of our larger upholstered furniture. We used this dark gray to make our two-story living room feel cozier.
7. How to Extend Your Color Palette
The steps above result in a 5-color palette. A good rule of thumb for a cohesive color palette is to use no more than 5 distinct colors throughout your home. In this case, a white, a neutral, and 3 colors.
But, that doesn’t mean you are limited to only 5 paint colors in your home.
Here are two ways to extend your palette and stick within the 5 distinct color rule:
- Choose more colors that are a shade (darker) or tint (lighter) version of your chosen colors.
- Choose colors that match an undertone in one of your neutrals and fit within your overall color scheme.
My whole house color palette only has 5 distinct colors; white, blue/gray, dark gray, blue, and green. But, our actual paint palette has over 10 colors, because we have a few shades and tints of blue, green, and gray.
The dark gray we use in our living room, office, and master bedroom, was the inspiration for the wall color in my son’s room. The dark gray color, called Zinc, has a green undertone. So we chose a green, called Schoolhouse Slate for my son’s room. With our overall blue and green analogous color scheme, it fits right in.
How to Use Your Color Palette
Keeping Track of Your Colors
1. Get a minimum of two paint chips for each color in your palette. Make sure they have the color mixing information on the back. If not, ask the paint store to print you a label (that they would normally put on the mixed can of paint) and stick it to the back of the paint sample. With this information, you will always be able to get the same color mixed, even if they stop carrying it.
2. Create a swatch book. This is a place to collect paint swatches and other samples for every room in your home. Great for planning your rooms, but also great after they are complete to refer to before making a new purchase for the space.
3. Create a key chain of mini paint samples. For the ultimate portable color palette, create a color scheme key ring to take with you everywhere. You will never wonder again if that piece will go with the wall color in your dining room.
4. Create large sample boards. Because you will be using these colors over and over again in your home, it is handy to have large samples ready to go. I used to make these on foam core, which warped a bit with the paint, until my friend Heather from the blog Setting For Four, suggested using $1 canvases from the dollar store. The cheap, flat canvases are perfect for color samples. They are lightweight, can be taped to the wall, and store flat. Whenever you need to choose a color for a new room, you can bring all your big samples into the space.
Which Color Goes Where?
Here is how to use the 5 colors in your palette:
Use for trim, cabinetry, furniture, and ceilings or anything else you want to paint white, even the walls. Stick with one white color and always keep some on hand for touch-ups.
I call this the default neutral, because it is your default in all open, connected spaces of your home. It is also the back up when you don’t know what color to paint a space. Works great for small spaces like closets and bathrooms, where you don’t want to choose another color.
In my home, Driftwood Grey is my default neutral. It runs from our front door through the foyer, up the stairwell, around the second floor hallways and loft. It goes into the kitchen and mud room. By using this one color throughout all the connected hallways and open areas we didn’t have to agonize over where to start and stop color.
3. Bold Color
This is the color you use when you want to create a big WOW factor. I used my bold color, Plumage, above the board and batten in our dining room. I also used it as a wall color in my son’s nursery. It makes a statement in the dining room. It makes the nursery dark and cozy.
Your bold color is hard to pull off in open areas. It works best in separate rooms or as an accent wall only.
4. Second Color
This color is great for any room. It isn’t as bold, so it is easier to live with. It works best in separate rooms or for a more subtle accent wall.
5. Accent Color
This color should be used sparingly on walls or intentionally to create a certain feeling in a room.
- If this is a complementary color it should be used carefully and only in rooms where the adjacent colors are complementary. If your color palette is blue and green, with orange as a complementary color, only use the orange in an area where the adjacent rooms are blue or neutral, not green.
- If this is part of a monochromatic or analogous color scheme, you can use it pretty much anywhere, like your second color.
- If it is a neutral, it should be a more dramatic neutral. For example, our accent color is dark gray, called Zinc. We chose it to make our two-story great room cozier. We loved it so much we repeated it in my husband’s office for a masculine look. When I wanted to make our light blue master bedroom moody, I used Zinc on the accent wall behind the bed.
6. Extended Colors
If you want all the separate rooms, like bedrooms and bathrooms in your home to be a different color without your house looking like a circus, extend your existing colors.
Choose shades (darker) or tints (lighter) of one the 3 colors or the neutral in your palette. Choose as many as you like for all the rooms you have. My favorite trick is to use a tint of the bedroom color in an adjacent bathroom, or in any two rooms that flow together.
Vintage Color Wheel Image via JustSomethingImade.com
In our home, the bold color is dark teal. My laundry room is turquoise, a tint of dark teal.
Also, remember that the same paint color used in two different rooms, could become a totally different color depending on the natural light in each room. Sometimes this is a disadvantage, because it doesn’t look the way you want. But, you can also use it to your advantage to get more miles out of the same paint colors.
Phew! Did you make it?
I know that was intense. But, I promise if you work through this process once you will never have to think about your wall colors again. You can start living your life outside the hardware store paint aisle. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Remember, the worksheet makes the whole process easier. Download your Whole House Color Palette worksheet below. Work through it once with general notes. Then, go through a second time using your notes as a guide to choose actual paint colors.
Free Step by Step Guide to Your Whole House Color Palette
Choosing color doesn't have to be complicated. Use this simple seven step system to plan your whole house color palette. Just tell me where to send your worksheet.