Our Guide to Finding The Right White Paint

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From working with a number of clients, we’ve realized that is that there is a common misconception that “white is white” but the reality is, this seemingly uncomplicated neutral is far more complex than many realize. With an endless selection of white paints with different coloured undertones, white paints have the power to create a variety of different moods and looks. In reality, selecting the right white paint actually requires a great deal of care and consideration as the wrong selection can be the difference between a herringbone-floored Parisienne apartment vibe and that of an industrial-style Brooklyn loft. Neither is wrong or bad, it’s just a question of knowing what you want and selecting the right white to achieve it. Here’s our crash course in hopes of dispelling any white paint myths and giving it the credit it deserves…

The Three Camps

To make it simple, think of white paints as falling into one of three categories; warm whites, neutral whites and cool whites. Whether a white is warm, neutral or cool depends on the undertone of the paint. Warm whites tend to have this “lit from within” feel or mimic the sun’s glow. Cool whites, on the other hand, tend to feel more crisp and luminous. They are great for when you want a space to feel fresh. Neutral whites or “pure” whites are almost void of any undertone at all. They are super bright, have a high reflective value and are incredibly adaptable and versatile.

Warm Whites

Warm whites are paints that typically contain undertone colours that you would see in a sunset; yellow, red or orange. Each of these undertones will create a different mood in a room and if you’re looking to paint trim, some will pair better with the contrasting wall paint than others. 

If you’re frightened of the room in question looking like a stark, contemporary art gallery, paints with a yellow undertone are inherently inviting but also sophisticated and completely versatile. They create an atmosphere that is tranquil and an environment that is serene. 

Welcoming and friendly, red-based whites are great for an easy-going colour scheme. These paints are great for woodwork and ceilings, particularly in more traditional settings.

Orange-based whites tend to feel more earthy and are great for spaces that feel cold or need to be brightened up.

Photos courtesy of Farrow & Ball

Cool Whites

Cool whites are paints that contain an undertone of blue, green or violet. They instantly bring freshness to a space and work particularly well in well-lit areas with lots of natural light flooding in. Like the warm whites, there is great variance within the category, depending on the vibe you wish to achieve. 

Whites with a blue undertone read the coolest of all but don’t misunderstand the term cool to mean unwelcoming or sinister in any way. They are cool like Lake Como cool, you know? In any case, we love a cool blue-ish white as they are incredibly chic in an understated way when used in a minimalist or industrial scheme. 

For a softer, Jo Malone-fragrance vibe that is fresh and energizing, we simply adore a good white with a green-undertone. These whites can actually work incredibly well in the cooler light of a North-facing room. 

Violet undertone whites have a tendency to read more grey and for that reason, we generally find that they add a contemporary twist wherever they are used. These whites are clean and pared back, making them very easy to live with.

Photos courtesy of Farrow & Ball

Neutral Whites

As the name suggests, neutral whites are somewhere in between cool and warm, having no perceptible or obvious undertones. These are the go-to whites for art galleries and sometimes used for trim and ceilings. If you’re really having a hard time finding a paint that pairs well with your floors, tiles, what have you, neutral whites might be a territory worth visiting.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Moore

Taking the plunge

Though it’s often a matter of preference, deciding between warm or cool white paint can depend on the amount of natural light the room in question gets throughout the day. More specifically, consider what times of day the room will be used. It’s truly amazing how much natural light can affect the look of a white paint. 

Information overload? The best way to wrap your head around all this is to go out and grab a selection of white paint-chip samples from all three camps and start comparing. You’ll be amazed at how different they are. Fasten them to the wall with painter’s tape and live with them for a few days. Be sure to look at the paint chips at different times throughout the day. When you’ve found a few that appeal to you, buy small paint samples and literally paint a few patches on the wall and repeat the aforementioned process until you’re able to narrow it down. Trust us, it’s worth the extra effort!