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Design Mistake #3

Design Mistake #3: Painting a small, dark room white

Design Mistakes_Emily Henderson_painting a small or dark room white_Header revised 1

I like a good, bright white room, sure, but it’s not for everyone. It’s like how some people can pull off really wild, crazy disheveled, sun-blown hair, and look cool while others look like they just finished the walk of shame, in 1987 – it really depends on all the other styling elements.

But there is this misconception flying out there, seemingly promoted by people exactly like me, that painting all rooms white will make them feel bigger, brighter and just generally more beautiful. For some it does, but if the room has very little natural light then it just looks DEAD. Flat. So boring. In photographs we can make any room look really bright, like the sun is just flooding them with light, (and we do) but it’s often VERY much not the case. White paint thrives in really bright rooms (like my living room and bedroom) but without that light bouncing around it, nothing happens.

Click through to what neutral colors you should paint your dark rooms …

It was hard to find white rooms online that weren’t clearly shot cheated to look brighter, but we found a few, relatively depressing/flat ones:

painting a small room white_bad_1
painting a small room white_bad

Those rooms would have looked WILDLY more alive and inviting if they were painted a medium tone – a neutral that has some pigment in it. Stick to white in rooms like these, below, that have a lot of sun light, otherwise, folk, you gotta consider a neutral color.

painting a small room white_good
painting a small room white_good_1

I’ve had to break the news to clients so many times – white is just not right for you and your room. It’s like breaking the news that the kitty they rescued from the pound belongs to another family. They show me their pin board with blown out white rooms, airy curtains flapping in the breeze, sunlight pouring in (and us California designer/bloggers are not helping the situation), with the look of eager hope on their faces. But their walls are heavy, their windows are small, and they face south … with an awning. Their room will never look like that and moreover will look just so sad if we don’t add some sort of tone to the walls to help give it some dimension, depth and texture. It’s disappointment followed by ‘so what do we do now??;

A neutral paint color is the answer.

But first, how do you know if you room has enough natural light to be painted white? Ask yourself – do you need to turn on lights during the day in that room? If so, then consider a neutral/medium toned color. I’m in my family room/kitchen right now (its 7am) and I have to turn on lights but around 10am the sun comes around and it gets bright in here and then in the afternoon its pretty bright, often where we have to close the shade. So don’t judge it by just one time of day (and obviously not at night, duh). But if your room never gets enough light to read without a lamp, then white isn’t for you or it. Move along. You’ll be happier you went with a gray or taupe or blue.

I’m not saying paint it a dark color. If it’s a smaller sized room then yes, be careful, a darker paint color will make it feel smaller (and cozier) so generally unless you want a small cozy room I’m suggesting a medium toned neutral. Not dark, just not white. If you are wondering if the rule applies to bright rooms – not being dark, it doesn’t. Bright rooms can pull off any color – light, medium or black, its dark rooms that are trickier and just can’t go WHITE.

So here are some neutral tones that I have found work really well in darker rooms – colors that have some movement in them to help move and bounce the light around  – so it actually looks like it does something.


Before you go ordering gallons of those paint colors PLEASE sample them on your wall. I’ve used November Rain now 3 times and it’s always been beautiful, but your particular room and light might pull the brown out of it whereas my old living room pulled the blue out it. At this point I’ve painted hundreds of rooms, with a 75% success rate, and i’m a designer. So please swatch them on paper or directly on the walls and yes MULTIPLE walls because light reflects color around differently on different walls. Then watch it for 24 hours to make sure that you like how it is both in the morning and in the evening.

Unless you don’t have the patience to do that, like me 1/2 the time, and you are willing to waste time/money by just going balls out and painting the room, to then be like well, whoops… that looks kinda green … 

Those neutrals above are just an off-the-top-of-my-head collection, so if you have a favorite neutral please leave in the comments so the world can be full of appropriately painted toned walls, and the myth that ‘every wall should be white’ can be finally dispelled.

White walls = good if lots of natural light and bad if not.

See design mistake #1 (the generic sofa) and #2 (the too small rug).


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  1. As someone obsessed with white walls, I really needed to hear this, so thank you! What about finish? Would you do an eggshell finish on a room without windows to bounce more light around? Or is flat better?

  2. I’m so grateful for this article (and glad I found it again after the makeover…)

    What if you DO have ample sunlight and can do white walls? What white paint do you then go with? There are so many choices!

    1. I have BM Horizon painted in my bedroom and it’s gorgeous. On the walls the color looks more like Serena and Lily Spin drift. Very subtle and very calming.

  3. Hi Emily, Thanks for the article. I needed that info.! Can you identify the wall color in the 1st picture of this May 8, 2015 dated entry? The one of the desk in the corner and large, brass, round clock above it? Lovely mix of color… Thank you, Susan

  4. BOY HOWDY did I make this mistake the first time painting my bedroom. The existing color when we moved in was awful, so literally any color looked better. I went with a white with a blue base, and in my south-facing room, all you could read was BLUE. I still went with a “white” the second time around, but it’s actually more of a blush color (i know, i know. fads. whatever) in a matte finish. it warms the room up just a little bit, but still reads fresh, clean, and bright.. exactly what I was going for!

  5. What trim color would you suggest in a room that you paint with one of those neutrals? Can you still paint the trim white? How do you handle a darkish room that is totally open to a sunny, bright room? Paint both the same non-white neutral?
    Wonderful series!

    1. Wondering the same question? Any answers? My sunny white kitchen opens up into a smaller, not well lit living room. Should I paint it white to have continuity and flow between the rooms?

    2. Wow, I came here looking for an answer to that exact question!! Darkish kitchen (white cabinets, so white is already prominent in there), that opens up to a really sunny room that is begging to be painted white; I think connecting them with same wall color would unify the space. The opening is so big they are almost the same room.

      It’s so hard to find answers to these gray (no pun intended) questions. Like, “if you have a dark room, then….” But it’s not…but sort of….?

      By the by, had a small, darkish dining room painted in that
      French gray color and it looked dead. Now it’s van deusen blue (navy) and it’s gorgeous. Never would have thunk it.

  6. I used gray owl at 50% tint in my living room/dining room and it is SO BLUE. I should have tested it first…no going back now, I am definitely not repainting!

  7. Hi,

    I saw a wood pendant light used in a white room pictured on apartmenttherapy’s website. I’m wondering where you got it from.

    Thanks for any information,

  8. This article was so helpful. I chose a neutral from the affinity collection of BM called Fossil. It seems to be working well with the BM Constellation and also the trim paint BM Frostine. I put it on several parts of our wall in our LR/KIT. I was going to do all trim and walls in Frostine… very cool white, but even though we have lots of windows… we don’t get direct sunlight and we have huge trees casting large shadows… so you probably really save us!

  9. This has come at a good time for me, since I’ve been planning to paint the knotty pine paneling in our cabin. In the main room, two large windows face north and one window has a porch roof over it. I’d planned to use white, but I’m thinking now of using SW Rice Grain, a neutral I’ve used before with good results.

  10. Thanks for keeping me from making an expensive design mistake by painting my walls white.
    My great room is located in the center of my house and although I have large windows, it remains quite dark at all times of the day.
    I have two choices. Repaint a lighter color (currently SW Townhall Tan) or buy a new light colored sofa (currently chocolate brown like everyone else’s). Or both!!
    Any chance Emily,
    you’ll be visiting the Kentucky area in the near future:-)))))))

  11. We have had good luck with a BenjaminMoore color called Abalone 2108-60. A neutral Grey with some Greenish Blues depending on the type of light.

  12. Emily, just wanted to say thanks for this post! I painted my bedroom, which doesn’t get much light, a 50% tint of BM Gray Owl. It looks great!

  13. I find your comment that “and they face south …” to be a little puzzling. In my house, the rooms that are brightest face south, and the darker ones face north.

  14. We painted the interior of our suburban Phoenix home GRAY OWL this year and are so pleased! Sometimes I wonder if we just should have gone all white but even though we have pretty good sunlight I’m now convinced that we chose exactly the right color. Thanks!

  15. For the past few months I’ve been wallowing about our dark bedroom, convinced it’s the dreariest room in SoCal, and I keep fantasizing about painting it Fabulous Internet White. Now I know I officially live in La La Land and it’s never going to look like that, so I might as well stop trying to make fetch happen. (And remind myself the French Gray is perfect for it.) So thank you, Emily, for speaking The Truth that we all need to hear sometimes!

  16. What if the house at issue is a tiny beach house and there are lots of windows, but it’s still dark due to trees and nearby houses. Not a ton of natural light, unfortunately. Can I still paint the walls white and maybe paint the vaulted, wood-paneled ceiling a neutral?

  17. Oh man, so THAT’S why the white we found and love works so well in the sunny rooms in our house… and not at all in our dark dark kitchen. It’s so yellow there, it always bums me out.

  18. I have always heard that white paint makes a room seem bigger. Now that I see the white rooms in the picture, I understand your point about the color looking flat. So If I have a room with low light levels, like my basement, I will be sure to stick to the pretty neutrals you picked out!

  19. This article is very helpful! Thank you! I’ve been struggling to find the right color scheme in my low lit living room (similar to what you described your room to be). I have a lighter gray sofa (which I believe is a more warm tone) and am having difficulty finding paint/carpet combination that is neutral enough but not depressing. Do I need to have darker walls with the lighter gray sofa? Loved the go to colors you mentioned before (indigo, teal, etc). Any advice you could give would be appreciated! Thank you!

  20. Hi- what a great article-thanks!! I realize now that my north facing living room looks plain dingy with white walls! Can you suggest a good white trim? I used Dover White for the trim which was great in my other house (the designer said that was all she ever used, so I used it in this house). However it just looks yellowish and dingy in this house! Is there a cool white that you would recommend for trim or is it best to stick with a warm white?
    Thanks so much!

  21. This was a white-exposing eye opener for me. I am currently constructing a new hair salon spa in a beautiful space that is long and narrow, with the only two windows being in the front, facing the West, allowing the front half to illuminate brightly, but leaving the rear rather dark. We have unique light/med wood floors with exposed truss ceiling. My complete vision of course, has to been to create the most bright, crisp atmosphere as possible, not only for a fresh feeling, but to also help create more light for the hair stylists and nail technicians to work in. I’m hanging on to hope. Do you believe that it is at all possible with added lighting, to create that “natural” bright atmosphere throughout the space? Can we bend the rules for a commercial setting?

  22. Thanks for your tips. I live in an older house and there isn’t a ton of natural light in my basement. So, I was planning on painting it white so that it would be brighter. I had no idea that it might make my rooms look dead. However, would painting the rooms white be OK if I had an accent wall?

    1. Don’t do it! When we moved into our house the basement was painted white. The front room was fine because it actually has a ton of light because the front of the house is only half underground and it has huge windows. The back room on the other hand was horrible. One teeny tiny window so basically no natural light. It makes a great TV room but until I painted it was physically uncomfortable to be in and just felt depressing.

  23. My walls in our bedroom are currently green and I would love to change them to white. The room is tricky to say whether it’s bright or not. The green really darkens it in my opinion. We have a small window facing SE and patio double doors facing W. So we do get light but it is usually indirect. Even the setting sun gets obscured by the ficus line fence outside. We also have dark wood furniture/floors which is why I was looking to brighten it up with white walls…but now I’m not so sure….any advice?

  24. Hi! I’m wondering if you can provide some guidance here. We just bought a 1790 farmhouse with an immense amount of natural light. I’m going to be painting the interior super bright white by BM. What are your thoughts on trim with that tone of white? Do I have the trim painted the same color in a different finish? Or would you suggest a different white for the trim?

    Thanks so much – I can’t believe the inner turmoil I’m experiencing over this decision!

  25. I’m not so much into the mid-century modern thing, but I always come back to your blog (and book–yup, I bought it!) for good advice. It transcends genres. As always, thank you for an edifying post!

    1. Dear Emily

      Our house is very light in all rooms. What white paint is best if you want walls to be white? Also what white have you used in your light rooms?

      Kindest regards

  26. I love white rooms but you are totally right. It doesn’t always look right in certain rooms. Good thing there are plenty of other options available that are close to white. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Emily, your posts on paint colors saved us during our last move! We used gray owl and horizon without having time to swatch and everything turned out great! We also took your advice on using a dark color in a dark room and we are extremely happy with our cozy (albeit light-deficient) living room. Thank you!!!

  28. I have to say, I went with Horizon in my basement and still find it too light (having young kids it also does not hide inevitable marks well enough). The feature wall and window wells that I did in Escarpement look better although I’m not sure I’d want the whole basement that colour either. The Horizon probably looks best in the room with the most natural light and worst in the stairwell with no natural light. There’s very little contrast between the walls and trim, to my non-designer eye the Horizon is in fact reading as “white”.

  29. i am moving into 2b/2b condo. planned to paint the walk-in-closet —wait for it – yes, white. now your timely and very helpful information is presenting a bit of a pickle for me. Picrture this: you lenter the closet trough the interior ath – no natural light. The interior bath

  30. Thanks a lot for the post! Recently even I discovered that the color and theme of each rooms plays a vital role in the mindset while we survive in a house. White has a pleasant and calm texture and its properties are apt especially for living rooms as white has the property of reflective, awakening openness, growth and creativity. Usually interior designers prefer for cloud white in dinning as its designer’s favorite. There are even various other psychological factors ( http://www.bedfordbrooks.com/colour-psychology/the-psychology-of-colours-use-in-designs/ ) that govern colors of any room in a house.

  31. Thanks a lot for the post! Recently even I discovered that the color and theme of each rooms plays a vital role in the mindset while we survive in a house. White has a pleasant and calm texture and its properties are apt especially for living rooms as white has the property of reflective, awakening openness, growth and creativity. Usually interior designers prefer for cloud white in dining as its designer’s favorite. There are even various other psychological factors ( http://www.bedfordbrooks.com/colour-psychology/the-psychology-of-colours-use-in-designs/ ) that govern colors of any room in a house.

  32. I’m reading mixed opinions regarding dark small rooms with low light. I’m specifically referring to northern facing rooms.

    One designer says to only use flat paint because otherwise you will see every brush stroke, then another says use shiny to bounce the light around.

    Most say use a saturated medium tone, some say neutrals and others say you can go really dark if you add proper lighting. Very confusing.

    Most designers are recommending yellow or red based hues on the warmer side of the spectrum, and say to avoid green based colors or blues as it will only read dreary and cold in northern light. But I see you give grays above with blue undertones as recommendations.
    Yellows are not really trending these days, and I don’t want a blue or gray bedroom since the lighting is poor, and yet I don’t want Tuscan colors either.

    Utterly confused.

  33. I love color on my walls so most of the rooms in my house are painted colors (3 rooms are shades of blue, one is a green (that I would repaint if it wouldn’t require moving so much stuff), and my bedroom is eggplant).

    But I painted the living room a lovely shade of grey. It is Valspar Bay Waves. In certain light it has a vague hint of purple/lavender (which I like) but usually it just looks neutral grey. I also used Valspar Polished Silver on one wall but they are right next to each other on the paint chip (Polished Silver is the darker of the two) so the difference is not noticeable (at least in my fairly well-lit room).

  34. One of my go to recommends is Sherwin Williams Moderne White SW6168 and I also am a fan of Benjamin Moore Icicle.

    I am a kitchen designer and its refreshing to see the styles changing. Wood tone cabinets are back….and love them with fresh white walls, and a huge mix of metals!

  35. Great post! I was wondering what you might recommend for a commercial/retail space, that is long and narrow and has only one front window? The lights will have to be on ALL the time, with added lighting for merchandise displays. The merchandise will be colourful, so I thought white would make sense, but now after reading this, I’m not sure if that’s a good idea! Help!


  36. I have been thinking about this post for a year now (yikes) and am finally going to ask you my question. My living room gets amazing light and I’m pretty sure it will look fantastic with white walls, but it connects to two different, short hallways, one of which gets ok light in the afternoon. The other hallway, that leads back to the bedrooms, gets no light at all. What would you do? I’m leaning towards going white and just not caring about the hallways.

  37. I am so confused , I have a real dark bedroom, which really hardly any light comes it’s used as a spare room and to brighten it up a bit I don’t like Gray’s , I looked at many colors in the room just dies ,
    What would you suggest that is light and has a bit of gold in it

  38. I am looking for a neutral color for my high ceiling all the open areas. There are a lot of windows. This is lit up north facing situation. A lot colors look blue in the house. I am trying to stay away from gray/green tone. Would you please help me out? What is the best color for my situation?


    1. Hi, I need help with a beautiful grey color for my dim house. I’ll try you suggestion soon after i finish this message but i painted one room in sherwin williams grey color (Online) and its sooo dark. should i go one shade lighter? or what other colors do you suggest??? as you mentioned, when entering home, light has to be turned on at 7 am all the way till evening….any advice would be much appreciated.
      PS: not a big fan of yellow or orange colors and i dont want house to look traditional. i want it to look more modern,casual…. my email is peid@att.net.

  39. BUT BUT BUT…. What if I really had my heart set on dark gray trim and doors and light walls?? ? Big room, Windows, but our neighborhood is smoking oaks, soooooo… Lots of shade. This throws a wrench in my dreams for our new house, but it’s probably for the best. I was just dying to buck the white trim standard. (There’s no buck emoji)

  40. Does anybody have any feelings about a color like BM graytint? My bedroom is fairly large, east facing, with only one window at one end of the room, outside of which is a lovely oak tree that blocks most of the natural light. The room is currently painted a dark, dark grey and I’m longing for bright white, but after reading this I’m searching for a neutral that will work in the space. Thanks!

  41. These are great colors! Would any of them work for vaulted ceilings (open kitchen, living room, dining room)? I am looking for natural colors for my house, and different colors from different room (2 bed and bath).



  42. This is a great explanation. I’m trying to redo my room and am running into the exact problem you described. My room always needs the light turned on no matter what time of day -_- White is just so *snore* up in here. I was considering a new paint job, and the colors you provided definitely help. Any tips for better design with lighting? I have two very small windows…

  43. I re-repainted our family room with bleeker beige. I wanted to update to earthtones from an all white room. The ceiling will stay white and we have a mix of oak cabinetry and white base boards. The existing carpet is burgundy. Any suggestions for small low light entry way that leads into this room. I have tried a few greens to try add some interest. Any help is greatly appreciated.
    Thank you.

  44. I found that the colour I normally use for joinery as an off-white called Joanna by Little Greene (it looks much better in ‘real’ life than on their website) can be that lovely, neutral-ish but not boring colour for the walls in places where natural light is at a premium. It is similar to Mushroom, that classic colour, but lighter. It looks almost white but it certainly is not!

  45. Ugh! I’ve been wanting to paint my kids’ basement ?bedrooms WHITE ever since we moved in 18 months ago. Currently they are both a very light gray color (I have no idea what color it really is-the whole house was painted this color before we moved in and there is no leftover paint…we’ll have to custom match it someday) and I HATE how dark they are. Both rooms are small and have TINY basement windows. One room has only one tiny, south-facing window…and the other room has two-one south-facing and the other west-facing. However…I never turn the lights on in either room most of the day. Only when it is getting dark outside-so maybe they aren’t as dark as I think they are?? Anyway-my questions are: I feel like the paint color I have could be one of the options shown here…and the rooms are still too dark for me. Are there ways to improve the lighting? We mostly use flush-mount overhead lights and nightlight-ish lamps. I’ve been fantasizing about getting new HUGE windows…but it’s never going to happen. I was planning on painting the rooms “fabulous internet white” in just a couple of days…and am still going to unless someone can offer me some answers…I’ve read all of the earlier comments too, FYI. ? Thanks!

  46. And one more thing…I’m
    curious about how you mentioned some people “cheating” with their bright white interiors online… how??? I mean, I know how to brighten photos… but is there something else I should know? ?

  47. I just bought my first house! Yay!

    My living room is HUGE with a 13ft vaulted ceiling. I LOVE it. We are planking the ceiling, putting in dark hardwood floors, doing a green accent wall, but not knowing how to paint the other walls is killing me. The house is very shaded so not a lot of light pours in. There are two windows that neighbor each side of our fireplace, but that’s it. We are installing two skylights in the spring though!

    Can I get away with painting the dark entryway white and living room white or should I go neutral???


  48. Love and thank you for this information. We are trying to update our home (first floor) and wanted to brighten it up not much light. I originally wanted white dove but then found it had yellow undertones. Yesterday I went to the Benjamin Moore store and the woman there said no to white!!!!!! I said I wanted to have a tint of grey so she recommended horizon, white wisp or paper white. I am going to buy darker grey sofas for the living room and an L shaped grey sofa for the family room. Both of those rooms are connected by French doors. I of course will introduce colors Please your thoughts.

  49. Edgecomb Gray by Sherwin Williams, beautiful in every room with natural occurring light or none at all! Best color, it is a warm greige.

  50. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I am obsessed with white walls but have no light in living/kitchen area. Have been trying to pick paint colors for weeks. Almost decided to bite the bullet and go snow white. Not anymore! Going back the the Greige color pallet I started with. I really like SW Gauzy White (greige) but had been thinking the room will be too dark. Now I am not sure what to do. So many decisions and can only do this once!

    Not only were you helpful but fun to read! Thanks.

  51. My kitchen faces west, but I only get a small amount of afternoon sun because my enclosed porch behind the kitchen gets the brunt of the light. In other words, I must turn on the kitchen lights every time I need to do something in there. My granite countertop is called Super White, but mostly gray. I want to paint my kitchen cabinets yellow. Any suggestions on the best shade of yellow for cabinets in a dark kitchen? What color should I paint the walls?

  52. Love this article! Question: I have a very large, open basement with wainscotting throughout. It does get some light from thr egress windows but it is still a basement…
    I have a Pilates studio in one part and I need it to feel bright and airy for clients, so I’m thinking of painting the wainscotting white and the walls a lighter neutral, also maybe put led daylight bulbs in the studio. Who knows if this will work!? Do you have any suggestions?

    1. I used Moonshine at 50% in my basement and have a workout studio (big mirrors) with 3 basement size windows and love it! I did a ton of research (originally planning to paint it white until I found just as described here) this was a bad idea as the majority of the basement gets no natural light. So glad I chose this fabulous color and used white on half-walls of bead-board. This color looks great with white trim and mirrors! Oh and I painted the ceiling a beautiful watery blue/green shade. Best to you!