How to Pick a Paint Color When You're Really Indecisive

Patience, young padawan.

January 31, 2022
Photo by Caroline Mullen

Paint has the ability to make or break a space—without a doubt. A warm beige in a room with no natural light can read a bit sad, but that same beige in a room with a wall of windows can appear luxurious and earthy. Even white paint colors, we know, have a ton of variation, and interior designers swear by lots of different ones.

Knowing this, it can become quite stressful to pick colors for your home, especially if you err on the side of indecisiveness in other areas of your life. I recently moved into a new apartment, and I was more careful with color choice than I ever have been—I wanted to get it right. And I did get it right, but it still took a bit of trial and error. That’s part of the game, though, and it’s also part of the fun! Picking paint certainly doesn’t have to be too serious. It is reversible, after all.

Below, find my time-tested recipe for picking the perfect paint color—even if you’re indecisive.

Start With Inspiration

First things first: You’ll want to get an idea of what color family you’re looking in. Marching to the hardware store and looking at the hundreds of paint samples can be extremely overwhelming (I know, because I’ve done it many times), often resulting in total decision paralysis. Before you trudge out of the house and into the fluorescent lights of a store, take some time to do color research right from the comfort of your bed or couch. Doesn’t that sound so much better?

Make a folder on Instagram to save pictures on your feed, and definitely sign up for Pinterest if you haven’t yet. These platforms are treasure troves of professional interior design and everyday decorators alike—I’m consistently blown away by the variety of interiors I happen upon. Some of my favorite accounts to follow for color inspiration on Instagram are: @dabito, @farrowandball, @em_henderson, and @home52, of course. Another source for inspiration are the websites of paint companies. Natalie Ebel, co-founder of Backdrop, for example, says that “our gallery has images from real people in real spaces with real paint. You can sort by color, room, or even look more specifically into painted shapes, trim, etc.”

You can also make a folder on your phone for IRL inspiration. (Did you like the color of a friend’s dining room? The palette of a hotel lobby? The moody hue of a restaurant bathroom?) Snap photos of everything you like, and I’m sure you’ll start to notice a pattern in the colors you’re drawn to. This will help you hone in on the vibe for your own spaces.

Make a Mood Board

The moodboard for my kitchen. Photo by Caroline Mullen
The final color choice, Minestrone by Behr! Photo by Caroline Mullen

Mood boards, for me, are crucial in determining how to make a space feel cohesive. It’s much easier to envision a room and make tweaks before you’ve already painted, so it’s worth the extra step. In my kitchen, for example, I had to work with the existing light-wood cabinets. It’s a rental, so beyond contact-papering all of them (a nightmare), I needed to back into what was already there.

Right after touring the apartment, I started looking for inspiration photos of kitchens with light-wood cabinets, and that pointed me in the direction of a warmer tone, like pink. I gathered photos of inspiration kitchens, similar cabinets, brass handles I wanted to swap in, and other accents I wanted to add. I put them together in quite a rudimentary fashion on the app Pic Collage, but it totally got the job done! That way, I could see what worked together and what didn’t, before I spent a small fortune at the hardware store.

Order Samples

Up until a few years ago, I didn’t believe in sampling. I (foolishly) trusted my decision-making abilities at the paint department of Home Depot and just went for it. And actually, according to Ebel, “Around 50 percent of Backdrop’s customers are buying paint without the sampling process,” so it’s certainly not just me. Sometimes this works out (as was the case for my dining room makeover), and the quart of paint you purchase ends up being perfect. But sometimes? You end up painting half a room only to step back in horror at the time and money you’ve put into a color you now totally loathe. Oh, and you have almost an entire gallon of paint you don’t know what to do with. That’s…kind of the worst.

Paint samples from Backdrop waiting for a decision in the open concept living & dining room. Photo by Caroline Mullen
The paint of choice, Mojave Gathering by Backdrop. Photo by Caroline Mullen

There are a couple different ways you can experiment with paint samples. Traditionally, you’d go to a brick-and-mortar store to grab a couple paint chips to bring home. Then, once you’d narrowed it down to a couple shades, you’d get some small samples of paint made up to bring home and test out on your wall. This method definitely works (and it’s how I chose my kitchen paint color!), but it does mean that you’ll either need to paint over the test area or stick with the color you chose, so it’s kind of the pre-commitment to painting.

It’s 2022, though, and we have more options! Online paint companies like Backdrop and Clare provide a more manageable range of hues to choose from (Backdrop currently has 62, Care has 61), and you can order—get this—peel-and-stick color samples. They’re just like peel and stick wallpaper: little squares you can stick and re-stick to your walls. If you go the route of picking a paint online, I don’t just recommend but indeed implore you to order the sample swatches. Colors appear very different on your phone or computer than they do in real life.

Sit With the Samples

This is the hardest part, in my opinion. I’m an extremely impatient decorator/DIYer/person in general, and instant gratification is my love language. That said, I really wanted to take my time with picking colors in my new apartment. It’s the first place my boyfriend and I moved in together, and creating a cohesive, cozy home for us was really important. Once all the furniture and rugs were placed and unwrapped, we sat with the paint samples on the walls for a good two to three weeks. I moved them around, whittled them down, and did a lot of eyebrow-raising and arm-crossing during that time. “I like to test paint in the corners of a room,” Ebel says, “so you can really see the different dimensions of the color and also move them around the room.”

Our living room, in particular, was a tough decision to reach. Initially, I wanted to do a dark sage green, but when the sample came in, I immediately knew that wasn’t the choice, and I needed something a little more neutral. Thankfully, the second round of samples played much better in the room, and I really pat my past self on the back for not hastily ordering a gallon of the first color I liked.

Trust Your Gut

It’s great to get opinions on projects and paint colors. I ask for help making decisions all the time. I do share a home, after all, so I seek the counsel of my boyfriend when making big design decisions, and I’ve been known to post an Instagram poll or two when I’m particularly struggling to decide.

That said, I always trust my gut. Even if 95 percent of those who I asked choose one option, if I feel it in my bones that the other is right, you best believe that’s the one I’m going with. As with many other things in life: Trust yourself. I’d bet a lot that you’re making the right choice.

My initial bedroom moodboard with the color Archeological Site by Behr. Photo by Caroline Mullen
VS. what actually came to be in the bedroom, with Behr Sorrel Leaf and pink velvet curtains out of frame. Photo by Caroline Mullen

I'd be remiss if I didn't share my final color choices with you here, as well. For the kitchen, I went with a truly versatile color called Minestrone by Behr—it's pink, it's terracotta, it's so gorgeous against the light wood... I love it. In the living and dining area, I skewed more neutral with Mojave Gathering by Backdrop, which reads beigey gray in some lights, sagey green in others—chef's kiss! Now, the bedroom? There was a hiccup. I originally chose Archeological Site by Behr, but after getting it on half the walls, I knew it was wrong. My friends and family reassured me that it was totally fine, but I trusted my gut and marched back to Home Depot to choose a decidedly more green hue, Sorrel Leaf. And wouldn't you know? I made the right decision.

If All Else Fails, Just Paint Again

At no point should you become so overwhelmed with the choosing of a color that you’re ready to throw in the towel. The absolute best part about paint is that it can be changed—and I would know, given my recent bedroom color debacle. Sure, it’s time-consuming to paint a room and step back only to dislike it, but it’s nothing quite as permanent as say, bathroom tiles or wood stain. “We think of paint as a design purchase,” says Ebel, “but it’s not precious, and we really think it can and should change as often as you do.” Paint wrongs can always be righted, but if you follow the above steps (and have a little bit of patience), you should be on the path to the perfect color.

What's your method for choosing a paint color? Are you quickly decisive or take a while to ponder? Tell us below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Victoria Carr
    Victoria Carr
  • Denise
  • AntoniaJames
  • Chantelle
When I'm not writing & editing for Home52, I'm likely to be found DIY-ing a new piece of furniture (or restoring an old one), hanging things on the wall in my apartment, or watching hours of vintage RHONY.


Victoria C. February 11, 2022
Years ago after a lot of agonizing, I picked a paint color for my living room, Apollo Room Blue, which I hated because in my particular room it had no life to it. Around the same time a friend of mine painted a room blue using a Laura Ashley paint, and it was full of life. Upon investigation I discovered that the Laura Ashley paint was fully pigmented like artist’s colors are - for instance toning down a blue would be done using its complement, not using black or gray. I used the same Laura Ashley blue in my next living room, and it was a total success. Those paints are no longer available, but for the last 25 years and one apartment and a house later, I have exclusively used Fine Paints of Europe to great effect. Yes, the paints are expensive, but the interior of my house was painted in 2006, and none of the paints have faded over time, including raspberry in my dining room, a Wedgwood- like blue in my kitchen, and a bright yellow in my living room. All the trim is a slightly off-white non- oil-base paint for ecological reasons and because it does not yellow. Prep and labor is the most expensive part of painting; get the nicest paint you can afford for the biggest bag for the buck. You won’t regret it. And the suggestion by Ms. James to make movable panels is BRILLIANT!
Denise February 10, 2022
Nice article! And perfect timing since I am deciding on a color for my LR. One question— I really like semigloss for walls- but everyone ( contractor, paint store personnel) totally disagree. Painter is coming in 2 days and I’m sure he will agree with everyone else about no semigloss on the walls. What is your opinion?? Thank you.
Chantelle February 11, 2022
Semi gloss is a commitment for sure. If you like the reflective nature of semi you should try a Satin finish. It's got a bit of a reflective note to it but not as harsh as a semi. I use Satin on my wall surfaces and in the dark areas it reflects light and doesn't over shine in full light. I love it. Hope it works out whatever you end up choosing.
Denise February 11, 2022
Thank you Chantelle.
AntoniaJames January 31, 2022
About samples . . . . many paint stores, such as those that aren't big box stores but are authorized dealers for a particular manufacturers, sell small samples that are just the amount needed to paint a rectangular panel, which they also sell. I like putting the paint on a sample panel and not the wall because it allows you to move the color around in the room, checking on each wall, throughout the day and evening. This gives you a much better sense of the color's true character. It's well worth the modest expense.
An advantage of having the panels is that you can take them with you when going out to look at fabric samples for custom furniture (or the ready made items themselves) and drapes/curtains, as well as decor items. I know that Benjamin Moore sells the tiny containers - not sure about other paint manufacturers. They don't sell them in every color, however - just the really popular ones. For less common colors, you'll need to buy a pint. Our Benjamin Moore retailer also sells tiny foam rollers to use for painting the panels - so convenient!

I might also recommend developing a relationship with a really good color consultant, one who's done work for someone whose space you know and like. A successful pro is worth her or his weight in gold. ;o)
Denise February 10, 2022
Hi Antonia. I enjoyed your comment. I was at a Benjamin Moore store today and they do have small sample paints (6$), however, the samples only come in eggshell finish. What panels are you referring to? He did give me a 5x7 color sample to put on the wall but these panels sound so much better. Thank you.