A Visual Guide to Describing & Selecting Paint Colors

Hello there! Dawn here, from DesigningDawn.com and I’m back again this month, but this time I’m switching things up slightly from my usual mood board contribution. (You can see all my past monthly posts by clicking here.) Instead, I thought I’d talk a little bit about one of the most difficult decisions in decorating any space: choosing the right paint colors.

One of the questions I hear most often is how to select paint for a space. Most people know what they like, but somewhere between the paint swatch at the store and the gallon on their walls, something goes terribly wrong. It seems like there is a lot of confusion over how to select the right paint colors, and in my opinion, it starts with confusion over how to describe color.

To help, I’ve created this handy visual guide:

A Visual Guide to Describing & Selecting Paint Colors


This may seem like a simple concept, but you’d be surprised how convoluted it can get when you’re facing a wall of every paint swatch imaginable. Probably the mistake I see most often is that people confuse terms like light and bright.  While light means that a color has a lot of white in it, usually making it soft in color, bright means that a color is very saturated, usually making it very vivid and strong. So if you’re looking for a soft, calming pastel pink for your nursery, what you want is a light paint color, not necessarily a bright paint color.

Similarly, dark and dull are often confused. A color can be both dark and bright, which a lot of people find counter-intuitive. However, when you remember that dull equates to desaturated or muddier colors, it’s easier to see how you could have a dark color that is also bright.

So how does this translate to room designs? I’ve found that if you can think of color in these terms, it helps narrow your focus when shopping for paint swatches. When I design a room, I like to start with the idea of the overall mood I’m going for, and then decide what tone will get me that mood: Dark, Light, Dull, or Bright?

For example, if you’re going for a room with a lot of energy, a bright color is a good choice, while a more dull color works better for a calm or relaxed vibe. A moody feeling is easy to achieve with dark colors, while a soft fresh feeling might require a light color instead. See what I mean? Although there are always other factors, like what accents you choose, it’s a much more effective way to select color than just saying “I want a blue room” and then getting (unsurprisingly) overwhelmed by all the blue paint in the universe.

If you’re still having trouble translating the chart above to actual real life examples, fear not. I’ve done the legwork for you. Here are a few beautiful inspiration rooms I’ve gathered to illustrate my point. I’ve kept them all in the same hue (turquoise) to make it easy to see how one color can be used in various tones with completely different results.

—————————————————   LIGHT   —————————————————

Describing paint colors: Light
Found on sandandsisal.com

Describing paint colors: Light
Found on homebunch.com

Describing paint colors: Light
Found on countryliving.com

Describing paint colors: Light
Found on babble.com


—————————————————   DARK   —————————————————

Describing paint colors: Dark
Found on thefreshexchangeblog.com

Describing paint colors: Dark
Found on bhg.com

Describing paint colors: Dark
Found on centsationalgirl.com

Describing paint colors: Dark
Found on apartmenttherapy.com


—————————————————   DULL   —————————————————

Describing paint colors: Dull
Found on bhg.com

Describing paint colors: Dull
Found on thisoldhouse.com

Describing paint colors: Dull
Found on younghouselove.com

Describing paint colors: Dull
Found on justagirlwithahammer.com


—————————————————   BRIGHT   —————————————————

Describing paint color: Bright
Found on settingforfour.com

Describing paint color: Bright
Found on hgtv.com

Describing paint color: Bright
Found on greatist.com

Describing paint color: Bright
Found on onekindesign.com

You can start to see from these examples, how each of these turquoise rooms gives off a very different feel. You could easily describe each by just saying they’re turquoise, but that’s not going to get you very far when you’re starting from scratch and trying to decide what shade of turquoise to commit to.

Obviously this isn’t a complete color theory course, but I’m convince that being able to accurately describe color and correlate it to the mood of your space is the first step to picking a color you’re going to be really happy with.

Describing Color: Turquoise walls that are light, bright, dull, and dark. This is a great guide for describing color so everyone in a home decor project is on the same page!

I’d love to hear what you think. Do you use a technique like this when selecting paint colors for your space, or just go with your gut? Are you guilty of mixing up light colors with bright colors and living to regret it? If so, I hope my quick guide will help out in the future!

If you like what you see here, I’d love you to come visit me over at my blog, Designing Dawn, or join me on Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram. Have a great day, friends!


See more from Dawn:

Exterior home makeover

Creating an open floor plan

Updating a small laundry room



More paint tips and tricks:

An EASY way to create a whole home paint palette

Easy paint color strategy for the whole home {Remodelaholic}

A still-easy way to create a custom whole home paint color scheme

Whole Home Color Scheme

Test out a paint color BEFORE you buy it

How to try a paint color before you buy it

Best painting tips and tricks

Best Painting Tips, Tricks, and Techniques - I wish I had known all of these before my last painting project

Website | + posts

Dawn is one half of the team behind the creative blog, AD Aesthetic. By day she works as the VP of Creative for a design and marketing company (getting paid to make things look good!), while by night she renovates her Midwest home, refinishes thrift-store furniture for fun, and works with her husband on raising two tiny humans. Dawn believes in the potential to design your surroundings and your life one day at a time, and lives by the motto, 'Make everything beautiful.' Get to know her better by visiting her blog, ADaesthetic.com, or following along on Facebook and Instagram.

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One Comment

  1. What do you call the color in the center? Would you call it a ‘true’ orange? I can see this being very helpful with my hubby. ; p