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6 Paint Dilemmas: Solved (by an Expert)

“I am”, said my friend and fellow journalist, Claire, “actually losing sleep over paint samples.” She was 8 months pregnant, with a toddler and a job clamouring for attention, in the throes of moving and doing up her new flat. I knew exactly what – or rather who – she needed: our favourite interiors guru Laura Stephens, here to answer every one of her – and your – paint dilemmas. (Check back in next week to see Claire’s flat…)

Regulars to W&W will already be familiar with the interior design genius of Laura Stephens, writes Claire Matthiae. This colour whiz has been beautifying homes across London for the past seven years, brightening up the boring and gloomy with her keen eye for paint and pattern. I, on the other hand, am a print journalist who works in black and white text every day. Give me 1000 words to edit and cut and you’ll see smoke coming off my scissor fingers. Put me in front of a wall of paint samples and I’m an indecisive mess. When I found myself redecorating and moving flat six weeks before my second child was due, I was lost. Forget baby names: I had 101 decorating decisions to make, from door knobs to curtain fabric, and I stalled on the very first. What colour should I paint the place? The bigger my Pinterest boards got, the more confused I became. I needed help. I needed Laura!

Dilemma 1: Grey: modern classic or cliché?

French Grey, Cornforth White, Dove Slate… To me grey paint says, ‘homely, elegant, easy,’ like my favourite cashmere sweater, but it’s <everywhere>. Little Greene’s Grey capsule collection alone consists of no less than 28 shades. Still, surrounded by colour charts, every time I shift my eyes away from the grey scale (‘Ooh, isn’t denim blue the colour of 2017?’) they spring right back like my toddler on reins. So, do I join the grey brigade or should I go for something more original?

Laura says:

Grey paint is ubiquitous at the moment, but the reason why people love it so much is because it’s easy to use and feels contemporary.

While the spectrum of whites can offer you different tones, like pink and blue hues, with grey you can achieve so much more contrast from room to room by going into the vast scale of shades. For instance, you could use a really dark grey such as Worsted by Farrow & Ball in one room for a cosy and dramatic feel and then a pale grey (think French Grey Pale from Little Greene) in another for smart, put-together elegance. The Paint & Paper Library collection offers five gradients of the same colour so it’s an easy way to play with tones and get a sense of continuity running through your home.

The key to avoiding a cliché look is how you use it. Go for everything monochrome and grey and it can feel like a boutique hotel. But bright coloured furniture, art and cushions will add personality and pop fantastically against mid grey walls. I love using fuchsia pinks against warm greys like Slate from the Paint & Paper Library and Half Silver by Zoffany. Mustard yellow and rich, dark greens also work well.

“Some clients say they feel a little ‘greyed out’ but it’s such a versatile neutral I think it’s going to be around for a long time.”

Dilemma 2: Should I consider the psychology of colour?

OK, so I’m sold on grey, but I still have a niggling worry. Grey tones are said to be calming but also draining. And I <do> still blame that grey away kit for England’s footie defeat in Euro 1996. Should I put aesthetics to one side and think about my paint in terms of a ‘healthy’ home? Maybe I should be looking at sunny yellows to lift the spirits or blues for relaxation and clear thinking? Will grey leave me feeling a bit, well, <grey>?

Laura says:

How you feel surrounded by certain colours is very personal. Some people find pink cloying and difficult, while I really like it. Little Greene’s China Clay is my perfect blush pink because it leaves me feeling warm and uplifted. Equally, greens are supposed to be soothing, but that doesn’t work for me.

“This is China Clay – I find blush shades really easy to live in.”

When my clients want to go for a bold colour, I often show them photos of rooms in that tone to gauge their immediate reaction. People tend to have a very instant – sometimes even physical – response to different colours. So, if grey makes you shiver inside, don’t go there. But before you write it off completely, consider the shade of grey you’re looking at. If you feel chilly and drained surrounded by the colder blue-based greys (Farrow & Ball’s Pavilion Gray or Manor House Gray, say), try a warmer tone with a red base, such as Farrow & Ball’s soft Skimming Stone or Paris Grey by Zoffany.

“I love dark colours in reception rooms and sometimes the most unique shade can be stunning. The Burnt Verdigris tabacco colour by Fired Earth on these walls creates real atmosphere.”

It also depends where you’re <putting> the colour. Dark reception rooms can feel atmospheric and cosy, while the same colour in a bedroom can become claustrophobic. If you want to experiment with a really strong colour, I suggest starting with a bathroom. The large areas of tiling prevent it becoming overpowering. The hall is another good option because it’s an area you’re only ever passing through.

“A client was desperate to try dark indigo in her bedroom. The finished result felt like going into a cave, so we used it in her en suite instead and it looked amazing.”

Dilemma 3: Painted woodwork: traditional white or same shade from top to toe?

Growing up, my family home was very traditional with creamy Almond White walls and white skirting boards, doors, cupboards and fireplace. Until now it hadn’t occurred to me to do anything differently – glossy white woodwork was a given. Then came a zillion hours of Pinterest interiors porn and suddenly the options seem endless. There’s nothing wrong with traditional – it’s sophisticated and timeless. But when it comes to woodwork, am I stuck on paint autopilot?

Laura says:

It feels very brave to take the paint colour over the skirting, architraves, window frames and so on, but it really pays off by making a room feel contemporary and streamlined. I prefer this modern approach because having a white stripe along the skirting can be distracting. If white isn’t part of your colour scheme, why add it here? The same goes for inbuilt cupboards and shelves. If they’re painted white they can look like white blocks, instantly drawing your eye to them. When you paint your woodwork the same colour as the walls it blends in beautifully and your furniture and accent colours do all the talking. And there’s another bonus: This approach makes your ceilings seem higher because the walls aren’t cut off a foot under your ceiling by the white above the picture rail. This has the sense of elongating them.

“Little Greene’s Portland Stone was used in this project and we went for it on everything – walls, the panelled doors, skirting, built in units, architraves and picture rail. Having a single colour on all these features let the stunning turquoise sofa, yellow and pink rug and the muted gold touches really sing.”

Dilemma 4: Will painting my home the same colour throughout make it feel seamless or bland?

‘For heaven’s sake, let’s just pick one bloody colour and go with it – EVERYWHERE… ‘ Words regularly cried while scratching my head in front of so many paint splodges and stripes that my walls look like an SOS in paint Morse code. I’ve hit peak sample pot! I’ve spent around £75. It’s the simple shortcut but will a one-colour-fits-all solution look boring?

Laura says:

Unless you have a very small flat, I would say no to painting every room the same colour. Yes, partly because it’s unimaginative but there are actually two more important reasons.

The first is that every room gets different natural light so you should go for paint that works with the particular light in each room. For instance, a white in a south-facing room will look rich and creamy while in a north-facing room it becomes gloomy.

Secondly, if you paint the whole house one colour you don’t get a sense of the different character of each room. How you want to feel in your busy family kitchen is going to be different to the mood you want to evoke in your living room for relaxing in the evening. Using different shades and colours will give each room an identity.

When the sheer number of colours out there feels overwhelming, the way around this is to settle on one colour palette and then work within it. Most brands divide their charts into colour families so the tones within them compliment each other. Farrow & Ball for instance offer six neutral families from Traditional to Contemporary. This gives your home a lovely sense of flow.

“This is Paint & Paper Library Porcelain II and V. Each tone can be taken into a different room whilst keeping continuity and flow throughout.”

Dilemma 6: Budget for Johnsons, lover of Farrow & Ball…

I’m calling it – I’m going for tones of Slate from I to IV from The Paint & Paper Library. It’s a warm and easy neutral grey, yet still rich enough to make a colour statement. Cue a mental montage of clouds parting, birds singing and a Mexican wave! And it brings me to my final dilemma: Blow the budget on posh paint at £21 for 750ml, or cheat with a cheaper brand such as Leyland or Johnsons (generally half the price) via a nifty colour-mixing machine? My head says mix, my heart says high-end.

Laura says:

If you don’t have the budget for high-end paint, the solution is simple: go for a mix. You won’t get the same finish, but you can get a really good match. Just be careful to start with a tester of your mixed paint first, as the closeness of the match varies from shop to shop.

If you can afford to splash out, I’d go for real brands in the rooms that are most important to you, like the living room, leaving the mix for walk-through areas such as hallways. Meanwhile, in children’s rooms, ideally go with a brand’s tougher mix like Little Greene’s Intelligent Eggshell which has a more durable finish. You will see a difference – the real deals will look richer because they are more highly pigmented. I love Little Greene and The Paint & Paper Library because you only have to put a couple of coats on to get amazing coverage. With Farrow & Ball it’s equally highly pigmented but you have to put on a few coats to really get the depth of colour. When you do though, you get a lovely chalky texture that is unique to them.

The problem with some of the more popular branded paints is that you find them everywhere. About five years ago it felt like every living room I went into was painted in Farrow & Ball Elephant’s Breath. To avoid this, take a look at The Paint & Paper Library, Little Greene, Zoffany, and in particular Fired Earth if you’re looking for more off-beat colours. These will give you a look that feels more unique.

For more from Laura Stephens visit her site or contact her for interior design advice at

All images W&W or courtesy of Laura Stephens, aside from the bathroom, hall and living room from Paint & Paper Library






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1 Comment

  • Reply
    October 22, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    Such a useful article packed with so many good tips!!!! Bookmarked xx

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