You’ve probably noticed by now, but I’m a little obsessed with grey; in fact, our entire house is painted in one shade or another. For me, it’s the perfect colour: it’s sleek, it’s sophisticated, it works as a neutral backdrop for all sorts of accents, and it’s wonderfully calming to come home to at the end of a busy day. But choosing exactly the right shade can be tricky, so here are a few tips that I’ve picked up after years of practice (and a fair few mistakes)…
Warm vs cool
Most grey paints aren’t pure grey (black mixed with white), but in fact contain other colours which give them distinct cool or warm undertones – line grey colour cards up under natural light and you’ll see what I mean. Whether to choose a warm or cool grey is perhaps the most important factor to consider, as it will have a huge impact on the look and feel of a room.
Grey can appear cold and clinical in north-facing spaces, so opt for a shade with warm yellow, pink or beige undertones. Sunnier south-facing spaces are much easier to decorate and you can get away with almost any shade, though if you want to balance out particularly warm light then try a grey with a slight blue undertone. Of course this works for the Northern Hemisphere only – readers in Australia and New Zealand will need to do the opposite!
If your room faces east or west, the light will change as the sun moves around during the day – warmer in the morning for east-facing spaces, and warmer in the evening for west-facing ones. You’ll therefore need to find a fairly neutral grey which works with the light at either end of the spectrum. That said, eastern light can have a bluish tinge to it, so you might want to enhance this with a blue- or green-based grey, rather than trying to work against it.
In our house we’ve used a pale, blue-toned grey by Valspar, called Harp Strings. It works well in the north-east facing rooms, where it appears almost silver; it also balances out the golden light in the south-west facing rooms at the back, where a warm-hued grey would look overpowering and yellow-ish.
Light vs dark
Grey paints range from very pale shades with the merest whisper of grey, right through to dark charcoal and slate greys. Light greys work well in small or dark rooms as they bounce the light around. Darker greys, by contrast, create cosy, cocooning spaces; they also make a dramatic statement and look great with bright pops of colour. But don’t assume they’re restricted to large rooms only; moody hues can look just as good in small rooms, particularly if you extend the colour over the ceiling and woodwork to fool the eye into thinking the dimensions are bigger than they are.
You can even mix light and dark shades to create a focal point, or vary the darkness – and therefore the atmosphere – from room to room. I love the home shown below, where a light, bright lounge leads into a cosier bedroom space.
Grey looks fantastic when offset by wood, stone and metal, particularly if you create just enough contrast to make the material stand out. If you’re pairing it with timber, limestone, sandstone, copper or brass, which tend to have warm tones, try a slightly cooler grey; if you’re using steel, white marble or concrete, opt for a slightly warmer shade instead.
Use a tester
Of course, the above aren’t hard and fast rules, and breaking them can sometimes yield stunning results. But there is one rule that I reckon you should always stick to: buy a sample pot and paint test squares on the wall to check how a shade will look in situ (particularly important if choosing paint online, as different screens will render colours in different ways). The paint will change slightly as it dries, so wait at least 24 hours before making a decision; this will also enable you to see it in all lights.