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Choosing Interior and Exterior Colors

Although I have been referred to as the "color police," I will not attempt to impose color selections for this article, but rather to outline a process for choosing interior and exterior colors and "green" considerations.

We all have favorite colors. The colors we choose for our cars, clothing or other personal items often have emotional responses. While I am not suggesting that you paint your living room or the façade of your home or office a color that you dislike, I think it is important to make choices based on the architecture and surroundings.

Exterior considerations: It is important to consider the surrounding colors of materials when selecting paint. Luckily, there are so many choices! Roofing material, windows (clad color or stain), front door, hardscape, pathways, neighboring buildings, plantings and foliage colors are but a few elements to consider.

Joseph Albers, a Yale scholar, created a visual textbook on color adjacencies. In his classic study, varying colors surround a constant color square. The inner square always "appears" to be different. He demonstrated how our visual perception of color relies on the surroundings.

Interior considerations:
While the Presidential White House is known for many colorful rooms, most homes or offices look better if there is a color theme. Existing carpets, furnishings, bedding or artworks may be an influence. The theme would include a primary color and complimentary colors that branch off the main room and hallways. Often, a powder room and sleeping rooms make a color departure. Children seem to like bolder, more primary colors. These can always be changed in a few years when their taste changes.

Selecting the brand of paint: The painter often selects the paint brand, depending on ease of purchase or familiarity with the consistency. As a designer, I look for color choices and quality. Each major company has several levels of choices. We specify a manufacture, color and sheen, which are determined by use.

"Green" paint is considered to be low odor and low volatile organic compounds (VOC). Luckily there are more choices and major companies are also providing this option.

We have recently made a comparison between many manufacturers. A few key points that may guide your choice are:

1. Base paint is made with water-based/solvent-free base or acrylic latex (synthetic
2. Coloring agents are natural or synthetic.
3. VOC (volatile organic compounds). Key: Does the paint leave a smell after painting?
4. Colors available.
5. Sheen availability. Trim, ceiling, halls, etc., all require different sheen.
6. Interior or exterior application.
7. Availability.
8. Price.

In general all paints we researched have a lot in common. The differences we found are generally in the base paint, coloring agents, colors available, ease of purchase and price.

Well-known brands such as Benjamin Moore (Eco Spec), Kelly-Moore (Enviro Cote, E-Coat) and Sherwin-Williams (Harmony, Duration Home, Pro-green) produce more or less the same kind of eco-friendly, low-VOC paints.

The paints are acrylic-based, have natural and synthetic coloring agents and are available in a wide range of colors, with exception of the deeper/darker colors. The darker the color, the more chemical coloring agents need to be added and this will result in higher VOCs. Pricing is similar (between $30-$40 per gallon). They are available in many locations.

Yolo paint is another supplier of eco-friendly paint. The color choices are limited but beautiful and are purchased in specialty shops in many areas. The advantage is that their low-VOC paints are suitable for the exterior as well.

The more exclusive/less-known brands, Bioshield and Safecoat are different from the well-known brands in several ways. Both paint manufacturers do not use any solvents in their base coat, their coloring agents are natural, and they can be used for interior and exterior.

The color palette for BioShield is not as extensive as major brands. Safecoat, also limited, can produce any color you like. The price of Safecoat paint is between $30-$40 per gallon and Bioshield is slightly higher. A limited number of retailers carry these paints.

(Finally) Selecting the main paint color: Considering such factors as personal preferences and pre-existing elements, create several color schemes with a few variations. Trim around doors, windows and ceilings are usually lighter.

Samples of paint are then purchased and can be painted directly on the wall or on large sheets of coated paper, which I prefer. These samples need to be labeled and can be moved around to see what the color looks like in the corner, near windows and during different times of day.

This process should take no less than two days. A week is often very helpful.

What not to do: Select a paint color from a tiny color swatch or off the Internet without making a "brush out" sample.

The best part: Paint has the biggest impact and relative to other costs, is one of the least expensive ways to give your home or workplace a fresh look.

Risë Krag, ASID, associate AIA, IESGG, is founder of RKI Interior Design,
a full-service interior-design firm. Learn more at

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