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So you Want to Paint Your Home? First Step – test your colors!

Q: If you’re a homeowner…
Are you about to make decisions about paint color?

Q: If you’re a builder or design professional…
Are you about to recommend paint colors for a client?

Q: What are the best ways that you can…
Make high quality color test samples to help you make your color recommendations and decisions?

You are Not Alone!
Color Overwhelm is A Common Experience!

Are you a homeowner who is overwhelmed by the thousands of color choices available? If so, you’re not alone! In fact, even building professionals, who have been asked a thousand times “how will it look?” can sometimes feel like there are just too many colors out there to sort through to provide clients with something unique yet suitable. Either way, how much time and diligence do you have, to test a lot of color swatches and come up with the very best answer?

Whether you are doing this yourself or perhaps even suggesting that your client do it and let you know what they want to use (and some people will actually want to do this), I’d like to share a few tips that you can recommend, or even use yourself if they are new to you. It’s not “rocket science,” we all know that. But as with many things that seem simple and yet become overwhelming, there are proven methods to help.

Tips for Testing

Keep it simple – see the light

The approach is similar for interior and exterior color testing.I recommend starting with the premise that color looks different in all types of lighting and of course throughout the day—and evening—on different surfaces. Color changes in corners, also, as it intensifies where two walls of the same color meet, and it changes in other ways depending on the actual lighting and also when two walls or surfaces (ie: wall and ceiling) of differing colors meet. It’s the angle that does it – whether the typical 90 degrees or something else, as in a vaulted ceiling, and the reflection of light causes the colors to affect each other.

Test sheen samples
Test the color in the sheens you want to use

Therefore, the following apply
1. Make the paint test on a moveable and reposition-able surface. Something that can be affixed temporarily to any wall, ceiling, or even floor (when you are painting a floor).

Note: do not use your blue tape on the edges of this! Tape the back side only.

2. Make the colored surfaces in proportion to each other, for example: Trim colors will usually be narrower than the wall or siding color surfaces.

3. Be sure the surface you paint the test on is primed, or at least under-painted with a color similar to what you’re testing. For example, you can of course use poster board but since it’s paper, it must be oil-primed so it does not warp. Personally I like to use a flat-finish, fast drying low odor product for this.  You can also use one of the available professional quality paint testing surface products. “SmallWall” in 12″x12″ size,  and “Mighty Boards” at 18″ x 24″ are two of the best.

Dont paint your tests right on the wall

Note to professionals
I’ve typically prepared up to 20 or so poster boards with a fast drying, low odor, matte surface oil primer, to have ready to go in advance–and easy to use at a moment’s notice–when preparing color tests for clients.

  1. Roll on 2 coats of your finish (test) color, making the application as close to what you intend to do on the final surface. Use a roller or brush similar to what you plan to use on the job.
  2. Use a stable surface with a texture similar to the wall or surface to be painted. IF the target surface is textured, it’s worth it to make a replica since color reacts so differently with the light falling on textured or smooth surfaces.
  3. Be sure to do the test with the same finish you’ll be using on the actual surface (Flat? Eggshell? Semi-or-high-gloss?)
  4. Label your sample cards.
  5. Size: even if you have to create a few boards to make up each test color, try to end up with at least 4 square feet of new color. You can configure it in any way that they fit for your house view.
  6. For exterior color testing, paint an area about 5’x5’ minimum of white, right on the house, so that when you test your new color boards you are not influenced by the existing house color. If this is not possible, hang up a white sheet on the side of the house (Pin, or even staple it to the siding) and put your test color boards on that. Be sure to include your new or existing trim color in this method.


Image 4 Testing 2 colors right on a colored wall is confusing
Using the white background Can you tell which of the 2 colors in image 4 this one matches
Using the white background with another test color Can you tell which of the 2 colors in image 4 this one matches

What about materials?
I mentioned using wood, (smooth and primed, of course), poster board and foam core (oil prime first), and you can use other substrates like gator board, or drywall (also prime).

Interior or exterior, the same process applies. For exterior work you might want to have some siding pieces available that are at least very similar to the house, if not the exact same thing. Doing more than just one “strip” (minimum 4 to 6 strips high, of clapboard style) will give a more accurate view of what the shadows will do at various times of day. Remember to make trim samples also, in the same widths as the actual trim and casings or other details.

Further Guidance

  • Block the other colors by hanging a white sheet, using white paper, or painting a white primer background.
  • Note: Using a roller is best to get the most solid coverage (yes, apply two coats) and no streaks. The point is to replicate the actual color appearance of the final surface.
  • Placement is important—Try to place your siding sample color strips next to the window or door casings, for the most accurate view of the colors and how they relate to each other.
  • Patches are confusing—use one color at a time. This is a useless waste of time, money and emotion. 

What if you would like to see what your house or other building would look like with new colors…BEFORE it’s painted?  That’s possible, and I can help!

Digital Color Views! Check out Designer Color Palettes on this site.
For any interior and exterior projects, there is one more thing you can offer, that some painters have even used as their palette application guidelines: You can order a digital rendition of what the house will look like (exterior) with the various colors on the different parts of the house. That’s a great way to show a couple of color options in an overall visual. The output you receive is in .jpg or .pdf format.  We can even show up to 50 different color areas on each image we prepare for you, if needed! Any detail can be included in the views.
Just ask me about this service.

So, you might ask, why go to all this trouble, anyway?
The main reason is: Minimize confusion, and make the color choices easy.
Stripes and color patches on the walls – and that includes exteriors – look messy and are visually confusing. You can’t see the specified colors next to each other on a large enough surface because there is just too much going on and the existing colors will inform the appearance of the tested colors.

To review, and illustrate a few notes about color testing…

exterior color texting 1
Testing color strips right on the building is confusing and you cant move the colors

Instead of painting one or more “new” colors right on the house body, be sure to put the test colors on a moveable surface as described. It’s confusing to test multiple colors on the same surface (Note in this picture the blue is above, yellow is existing, and the brown is another test color.

Narrow strips for testing trim and detail colors should be placed right where they will be used.

color testing trim
Testing colors in proportion to their use

Make narrow strips proportionate in size to the overall area when testing detail trim or other accent colors.

Fantasy testing – don’t do this!

testing paint colors

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