By Mayra David

Published on November 2, 2015

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Photography by cnb homes

There’s a lot of  advice out there on how best to paint a small space. A cursory Google search will yield a ton of seemingly contradictory rules telling us in turns to: paint small rooms all white. Or in warm, rich colors. Or in dark, cozy ones. Which rules apply? Well, they all can apply, according to the particulars – such as light, function, ceiling height – of a room. And when it comes to making even the smallest space your own, there are no rules any way.

“To determine the best treatment for a small room, factors include: context and function of the room, the mood one is trying to achieve, the natural light and the type, placement and amount of artificial light. We look at the sight lines, and of course, its height,” says Amy Krane, of Amy Krane Color, an Architectural Color Consultant. 

And another thing? “We are not, by any design trick, going to fool ourselves or anyone else into thinking a very small space is a very large space! Embrace what you have – you really need to love your space,” says color consultant, Debra Kling

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Is it a light or dark room vs. light or dark colors

“Light colored objects generally appear larger. Think about it – do we wear a “little white dress” to appear fashionably lean? Light colors have high light reflective value and reflected light make rooms seem larger, airy and light-filled. However, I agree that one can very successfully use dark colors in a small room, especially if it is north facing or does not receive much natural light. Within a hue, there are always cooler and warmer versions. Work with the light that you have. For example: cool colors are true in north-facing rooms, warm colors glow in western-facing room when the sun sets,” says Kling.

“If the room gets ample natural light, then dark colors can be used as well as light and mid toned ones, especially if the rooms have high ceilings. But in a room with little natural light, white looks dreary. White has no hue and should not be used in poorly lit, dark, small rooms,” says Krane. 

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How to treat ceilings and walls

When to use light tones: “Small rooms with low ceilings can close in on you really fast. If there is natural light I would advocate white, light, or mid-tones walls. The ceiling can be white, very light or even matching the pale walls,” says Krane. 

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“When a ceiling is a different color than the walls the eye stops at the demarcation line between the two, drawing attention to the ceiling height. So a white, low ceiling will help with a feeling of expansiveness above. If the low-ceilinged room gets little natural light I would choose light colors, but not white,” says Krane.

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When to use dark

“If a small room has high ceilings but little natural light I would focus on the context to decide the color. How and when is the rooms used? Is it a powder room or mudroom? Highly saturated colors overpower in small as well as large rooms. While good ergonomics suggest a floor should always be darker than walls to “ground” the room, when using dark colors in a small room, lighter floors will help brighten the room and a light ceiling is essential. Carrying a dark or even mid-tone wall color onto the ceiling creates a cave-like feeling,” says Krane. 

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Painting walls and ceilings the same color can disguise and expand boundaries between them. When very dark colors are used for both, walls can seem to disappear: try it in a small and intimate space!” says Kling. 

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Bathrooms and kitchens

“The same constructs apply to color choice for kitchens. The most popular kitchen color is white. But given that warm colors are said to enhance appetite, they are also appropriate. Ultimately, it’s about your design goals. How do you want the room perceived and how do you want to feel in it? Rooms which fulfill very specific functions where people do not spend many hours – like mudrooms and powder rooms – are places where more adventurous color choices are touted. Bathrooms really run the gamut in terms of color. Light and cool colors are considered spa-like and clean,” says Krane. 

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“A powder room becomes a conversation piece when its walls are brightly painted or better yet, wallpapered! But in other more private bathrooms, cool and calming watery colors are the trend. We all enjoy our own personal spas at the end of a long day. On the other hand, kitchens can be a place to exhibit a little bit of personality. Any color that contains a little bit of sunshine lifts spirits,” says Kling. 

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Hallways go light or go home?

“It’s really about how you want the hallway to feel. Do you like a sense of mystery? Paint it dark. Do you like drama? Give it color as opposed to using a neutral,” says Krane. 

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“Do you want to perceive it larger? Paint it light or up the shine factor on the paint finish. Do you want it to appear less narrow? Paint a darker shade or color on the end wall,” says Krane. 

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Give the ol’ accent wall a rest

“The best way to handle an odd-shaped small room is to create the perception of one volume of space and not break it up with accent walls. A small room with accent walls will feel choppy,” says Krane. 

“I am not an advocate of the Accent Wall. Dark colors recede so they can create an illusion of depth and add dimension to an architecturally lackluster space so the one legitimate purpose of it is to create architectural interest where there is none. More often, people use this when they are afraid to commit to a color, and it shows. Use this device sparingly,” says Kling.

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Stripes!

“Vertical stripes will make a ceiling look higher BUT any pattern brings attention to the wall’s surface, which brings notice to the room’s size. If your only goal is to make the small room feel larger, don’t put pattern on the wall. If you are able to embrace its diminutive size, then a controlled geometric pattern like a stripe is fine,” says Krane. 

“Horizontal stripes will lengthen the appearance of a wall, and the room altogether. Use them in a child’s room only, please! I much prefer vertical stripes. They will make the walls appear taller, but busier, striped room will feel more confining than a quiet, no stripe room,” says Kling.