White: Making It Work

If you asked me what one of my favorite colors is, the answer might surprise you when I say it’s white.

White is the pause.

It is the buffer between colors.

The breathing room we all need in life.

You may think that white is the absence of color, but in actuality, it is the presence of all the colors in the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. 

Yet, even with so much subliminal complexity, white is still so simple and so beautiful. The possibilities of where it can show up are endless and the smallest of changes can make a huge difference. It is adaptable blends in to compliment any situation. Yet, it can stand on its own full of commanding grace.

To quote Teddy Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

That’s white.

The Perception of White

Here in the USA, we have some color biases. White is seen as pure, clean, and perfect. Think white dresses for brides and first communions, fluffy white towels, crisp white bed sheets, or on a blank sheet of paper. These examples are full of creative possibilities. Whereas dark colors are depressing, moody, and mysterious.

The common misconception that white will make a space appear larger while dark colors will make a space feel smaller – is completely baloney.

It is simply perceived perception.

“The common misconception that white will make a space appear larger while dark colors will make a space feel smaller – is completely baloney.”

In fact, white can actually make a space feel smaller because it reflects light so you notice the beginning, ending, and any breaks in the line of sight like corners or surfaces.

But, if something is dark, you cannot completely make out where something starts and stops so the line of sight seems to continue. Think of the vastness of outer space. Does that seem small to you?

White canvas.

It is actually the juxtaposition between colors in a space that will make something feel larger or smaller. If you had an empty room and painted it white, it would feel just as big as a space painted black. Your perception of the size is then based on the size of the room in relation to the objects in the room and subsequently, how those objects relate to each other.

Your eye will naturally be drawn to a white surface before a black surface. This is because white reflects colors while black absorbs them.

This also is why I hardly ever paint a ceiling white. It just becomes a big white neon sign in a room and the first thing people will see when they enter it.

Instead, I typically wrap the same color the walls are onto the ceiling. Remember what I said about light reacting differently even in the same space? The same color will look lighter on the walls and darker on the ceiling. This is due to the way light hits it in a room. It is a slight shade variation, but just enough to make a difference and works great 99% of the time.

Fun fact – since bees are unable to distinguish the color red, a flower that would look white to us as humans would look blue-green through the eyes of a bee. I learned that in my textbook from college (yes, I still have it) The Secret Influence of Color.

Choosing the Right Shade

There are paint fan decks I reference often that showcase only white tones. These paint decks come in really handy because white always looks white, until you put another white next to it. Putting them next to other whites makes you tell what undertones are in the particular shade you’re looking at. The most common undertones are yellow, pink, and gray.

When deciding on a white, you have to take into account a few factors –

  • Where is this going? Walls? Trim? Countertops?
  • What is the underlying tone of the main color being paired with it?
  • What is the finish? Smooth? Rough?  
  • What is the sheen? Mat? Glossy? Satin?
  • Is this a main feature in the room or just an accent?
  • What kind of lighting is present? Sunlight? LED? Incandescent?
White sculpture over white books.

Knowing the answers to these questions will help steer you in the right direction to the perfect white for your space.

Tips and Tricks for Using White

In the white sea of endless possibilities, I have developed a few of my favorite go-to shades and listed them below for you. That being said, keep in mind that these tones are not guaranteed to look good in your space and because each color is going to react differently in each different space. Even on different walls in the same space!

White color palette.

It is always best to have large swatches of the color you are leaning towards. These can be painted directly on the walls or on a substrate you can take from room to room. I never select anything from a tiny chip and always need a larger sample to see the true range of tone.

That being said, leave a little wiggle room in judgement because a color will always appear slightly different when it is painted due to various factors like surface texture and lighting. Not bad different, just different. So keep that in mind.

Also, important to note, the chances of finding two whites that match each other, especially if they are two different materials, is almost impossible. If two slightly different shades of white next to each other bothers you, I suggest adding a buffer between them. This way, you can trick your brain to see them as the same and save yourself lots of time and money in therapy.

The best route to go when incorporating white into your interiors, is using a variety of textures and tones along with various shades of white. Think of a daybed dressed with crisp white sheets, layered with a creamy furry blanket, and pillows in textures like velvet, linen, and boucle scattered on top. The textures create shadows and more shades of white naturally. It all melts into one big beacon of comfort, coziness, and simplicity begging you to snuggle in and relax.

I dunno about you, but that’s exactly how I want my home to feel. And I have a feeling you might too.

White workspace.

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