Seattle offers gray sidewalks, gray streets, gray skies … and plenty of homes that are painted gray, inside and out.

“Gray is the color of fear,” says Anne Viggiano, the Seattle-based founder of Color & Design Collective, which provides color consultations to homeowners. Specifically, she says, basic gray represents a fear of choosing the wrong colors, then having to live with those mistakes.

And yet, there it is, in its various shades, on so many of the walls around us. “[Gray is] the safe, go-to neutral color for homes,” Viggiano says, “and it can be lovely when done right.” 

Gray may never go away, nor should it. But experts are noting a change in the air, as Northwest homeowners increasingly eschew the old standby in favor of paint colors that add variety and depth.

“I see a shift toward homeowners taking more risks and seeking out color, pattern and texture to mix things up in their homes,” says Amy Vroom, owner of The Residency Bureau, a Seattle design studio. “People are thinking more about how color makes them feel and what makes them happy, and a neutral color palette is becoming less and less interesting.” 

Whether you’re looking for the best neutral paint color for your home or you’re ready for something a bit outside your comfort zone, start by considering these 15 factors, with tips from local color experts.

Advertising

The basics 

1. Light. A paint color’s Light Reflective Value (LRV) measures how much light reflects from a color on a scale of 0 to 100. An LRV of 50 or higher will reflect more light than it absorbs, according to Vasilisa Crosthwaite, the lead color specialist at Mallory Paint Store in Bellevue, which sells Benjamin Moore paint. Colors with LRVs that are less than 50 can add depth and dimension to a room — or make it feel like a cave, Crosthwaite says, if the space lacks proper lighting.

2. Undertones. These are the secondary colors beyond your first impressions of a color, like that bit of orange within a beige that you never noticed until the light changed. “In the Pacific Northwest, we want warm color to offset drab winters,” says Crosthwaite. She recommends a couple of Benjamin Moore favorites with buttery, orangish or reddish undertones: Revere Pewter, a warm gray-beige (or greige), and Simply White, a warm, versatile white.

An interior paint color with warm undertones can add depth to a space with neutral walls, according to Vasilisa Crosthwaite, lead color specialist at Mallory Paint Store in Bellevue. Benjamin Moore’s Revere Pewter, seen on the walls of this living room, is a greige color with butter undertones. (Courtesy of Benjamin Moore)

3. Sheen. Beyond the color, all paint has its own sheen. Crosthwaite says a flat sheen is best for ceilings. Matte is a low, washable sheen that’s well-suited for disguising wall imperfections or for creating a contemporary feel. High-traffic areas like the laundry room or kitchen would benefit from easy-to-clean satin or pearl sheens. With its slight gloss, eggshell is relatively standard for other rooms. Trim and doors should get a coat or two of self-leveling and durable satin or semigloss paint. 

4. Taste. Light, neutral tones can have the same soothing effect as moody, desaturated hues, depending on one’s personal preference. For outdoor lovers, colors in the Northwest’s natural palette, such as vibrant evergreen or the blue of summer skies and waters, may be pleasing. “If I have clients who are intimidated by color, I recommend starting small, like a powder room or a hallway that transitions from public to private spaces,” Vroom says. 

The process

5. Shades. Don’t slap a color on the wall just because it looked exquisite on Instagram, Vroom says. The shade will undoubtedly look different on your walls, thanks to the usual culprits that affect paint color: undertones, light direction (north versus south, east versus west), window placement, artificial lighting and furnishings. 

6. Options. At Mallory Paint Store, Crosthwaite starts with four or five colors and, much like an optometrist performing an eye exam, uses a process of elimination to help the customer narrow the list down to option A and option B. By comparing and contrasting each color’s features, customers are able to focus on making the right choice rather than feeling overwhelmed by the possibilities. Crosthwaite says you can perform the same process on your own, although it may take longer without the guidance of a paint pro. 

Advertising

7. Patience. Take home all the paint chips or sample pints you need, and “never decide in the store,” Crosthwaite says. You won’t know how a shade truly works on your wall until you try it out. “Colors are like reading the fine print,” she says. “Take the color home and ‘read’ it overnight.”

8. Proximity. “Color never happens in a vacuum,” Viggiano says. Put the paint chip alongside colors that are already being used in the room. That could include your 1950s wood floors, a mahogany door or a beloved set of drapes. 

Philipsburg Blue by Benjamin Moore is among the midtone exterior colors recommended by Anne Viggiano, founder of Seattle-based Color & Design Collective. (Courtesy of Benjamin Moore)

Exteriors

9. Dark colors. Viggiano says that darker exterior paint colors work well on smaller, street-level houses and on Victorian homes (with lighter trim to show off the architectural details). But if the house is perched on a hill or sits above the road, she recommends avoiding dark colors — you may give off a haunted-house vibe. Instead, choose midtone or lighter colors, such as Amherst Gray or Philipsburg Blue, both from Benjamin Moore. 

10. Bold colors. Vroom used Sherwin-Williams’ Caviar, a black hue, in a matte finish on her home’s exterior. “While black isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s a beautiful tone that makes landscaping stand out,” she says. “In the past month in my neighborhood, I’ve seen more adventurous selections for exterior paint colors: a light aqua, a buttery yellow and a beautiful cobalt blue.”

Experts recommend using paint chips to determine which colors will look best on your walls. “Never decide in the store,” says Vasilisa Crosthwaite, lead color specialist at Mallory Paint Store in Bellevue. (Getty Images)

11. Nature. Exterior paint is going to look 10% lighter when it’s applied to your home, due to the effects of natural light, Viggiano says. And be aware that if your house is near a body of water — not unheard of in Seattle — the reflection of the lake or bay can amplify any blue in the paint. 

12. Surfaces. Base your choice of exterior paint sheen on the siding material. For example, apply matte or low-luster paint to fiber cement or other composite sidings, Viggiano says, or it may end up with a plastic-like appearance. But it’s fine to add a small amount of shine to your paint on cedar shingle, wood and stucco surfaces for easier cleaning and maintenance. Crosthwaite notes that colors with low LRVs run the risk of failing and warping vinyl siding due to heat absorption.

Advertising

Interiors

13. Coordination. When selecting colors for the whole house, try flowing similar hues throughout by using variations on a monochromatic scheme, Viggiano says. For example, a bedroom’s rich, medium green might flow into a neighboring hallway’s lighter green. “Take risks with brighter colors in smaller spaces, like powder rooms,” she says. 

14. Repetition. To create a more modern mood, paint interior walls and trim the same color, Viggiano says, but in different sheens. For instance, the wall could showcase the slight gleam of an eggshell sheen, while the trim shines with satin. Crosthwaite likes dark trim, too. She says it can be a controversial choice. To get it right, she suggests painting trim with a color that is darker than the floor and doesn’t clash.

15. Joy. Vroom says her clients often fear bringing color into the kitchen, defaulting instead to all-white or neutral paint choices. “It can be a missed opportunity to bring a lot of joy into your everyday,” Vroom says. Recently, she used the desaturated grayed-green of Sherwin-Williams’ Basil paint color to visually connect a client’s kitchen with their backyard.

For outdoor lovers, colors in the Northwest’s natural palette may be pleasing. (Courtesy of Sugar High Photography)

Pros pick their favorites

Looking for just the right colors for your Seattle-area home? Our experts offer their suggestions for paint choices to consider for interiors and exteriors. 

Anne Viggiano, founder of Seattle-based Color & Design Collective

Interior: Benjamin Moore’s Cloud White, Horizon, Soft Shell, Oil Cloth and Palladian Blue; and Sherwin-Williams’ Origami White and Shoji White.

Exterior: Benjamin Moore’s Amherst Grey, Knoxville Grey, Hale Navy and Philipsburg Blue; and Sherwin-Williams’ Rock Bottom and Urbane Bronze.

Sponsored

Vasilisa Crosthwaite, lead color specialist at Mallory Paint Store in Bellevue

Interior: Benjamin Moore’s Kendall Charcoal, Chelsea Grey, Desert Twilight, Grandma’s China and Tandoori.

Exterior: Benjamin Moore’s Honeymoon, Soft Fern, Waller Green, Tucker Chocolate and Tulsa Twilight.

Amy Vroom, owner of The Residency Bureau design studio in Seattle

Interior: Farrow & Ball’s Inchyra Blue, Sherwin-Williams’ Pewter Green and Benjamin Moore’s Pale Oak.