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Everyone talks about wanting a house with character, but what does that actually look like? For us, it’s the little details that come to mind: wainscoting in a bathroom, stairwells with swirly spindles, and intricately carved ceiling medallions to name a few. Loving these special architectural elements is easy—painting them, if you so wish, isn’t as straightforward. Luckily, Farrow & Ball’s color curator, Joa Studholme, and creative director, Charlotte Cosby, just wrote a book (really, it’s more like a manual) to assist when you need some inspiration or when you’re facing a paint quandary. In this excerpt from the paint purveyor’s newest release, How to Redecorate, they share their top tips for adding personality to paneled doors, chair rails, picture rails, and crown molding. 

How to Paint a Paneled Door in 3 Colors

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What Goes Where

Darkest color: Stiles and rails

Mid-color: Panels

Lightest colors: Panel moldings

Chair and Picture Rails

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Picture and chair rails are often painted white through force of habit or, if the moldings are particularly grand, to draw attention to their architectural beauty. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with this form of decorating, it does tend to create overly busy rooms, because the eye is constantly drawn to the white stripes running around the room rather than to the beautiful wall color or the view. 

Chair Rails

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If you decide to pick out your chair rails and make a feature of them, it is best to do so with the same white (or other color) that you have used for the rest of the trim. Alternatively, you could try a tone that is sympathetic to the wall color for a more harmonious visual balance. Simplest of all is to paint over them in the wall color to make them “disappear.” 

And, of course, having a chair rail gives you the opportunity to consider a range of options for the walls: two sympathetic paint colors, a combination of paint and wallpaper, or two different wallpapers—one above and one below the rail. 

Again, there are no rules about which area should be lighter or darker, but using a stronger color above the chair rail than below can create a feeling of the walls tipping in toward you and the room closing in. Using a darker color below the chair rail grounds the room and tends to make it open up and feel bigger. This is especially useful in long, thin entrance halls, where a darker color below the chair rail and a lighter color on the walls will immediately make the space feel wider and airier. 

Picture Rails

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There are a number of useful visual tricks that can be played with picture rails to change the appearance of a space. If the picture rail and the area of wall above it are painted the same color as the rest of the wall, the ceiling will appear much higher. On the other hand, if the wall color stops at the picture rail, the eye will be deceived into thinking that that is where the wall ends and the ceiling begins, giving the impression that the ceiling is lower than it really is—a useful device in making a very tall room appear less intimidating.

Another option to consider is to use gradations in color, where the wall and picture rail are painted the strongest color, with a slightly lighter version above the picture rail and a sympathetic white on the cornice. This approach opens up a room, making it feel lighter and more spacious.


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First, I should point out that moldings have different names on either side of the Atlantic. In Britain, we refer to them as cornices, or covings, while in the U.S. they are usually called crown molding. Whichever term you use, I am referring to the decorative element that runs around the top of a room to cover the transition from wall to ceiling. Embellished cornices tend to be found in larger, more ornate interiors and are to be treasured. The plainer type is generally used in simpler, contemporary homes. However, both can be painted in four basic ways: 

  1. Molding and ceiling the same color
  2. Gradating color from walls to ceiling
  3. Molding and walls the same color
  4. Pick out the molding in an accent color

Molding and Ceiling the Same Color

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Very often the molding and ceiling are painted the same plain white, either out of habit or a wish for clean simplicity. However, this does tend to make the perceived height of the room drop by the depth of the molding. This is because we register the top of the wall at the point where it meets the white of the molding, making the wall appear shorter than it actually is. Matching the molding and ceiling is most appropriate when the protruding part of the molding, which sits on the ceiling, is bigger than the dropper part, which sits against the wall. In this case, it would look clumsy to have anything but the ceiling color on the molding. It is best to paint intricate cornices as infrequently as possible, to prevent the detailing from becoming clogged up with paint. 

Molding and Walls the Same Color

Painting the molding the same color as the walls will make the walls appear taller and the room feel loftier. This approach is particularly effective with plain convex molding that is used purely as a means to soften the transition from wall to ceiling. Using the same color on the walls and moldings also gives a simple and strong, contemporary feel to a room.

Graduating Color From Walls to Ceiling

To draw attention to your molding, use a subtle gradation of color between the walls and the ceiling, thereby creating a visual balance in the room. With a very strong color on the walls, it may feel uncomfortable to use the same tone on the molding. In this case, it is best to consider a gradation of color. Not only will this make the room feel higher, but the eye will be led gently upward rather than being pulled dramatically toward the ceiling. 

Pick Out the Molding in an Accent Color

It tends to be only the very adventurous who take up the option of painting moldings in a strong color. Doing so creates a sharp contrast between the wall and the ceiling, resulting in you constantly reading the shape and confines of the room, which makes the space feel smaller overall. This method of decoration is most often used when one wants to draw the eye to both the decorative molding and a ceiling rose, which are best painted in the same color.

All too often, decorative moldings, including ceiling roses, have been painted over so many times that they end up losing a lot of their delicate detail. To prevent this from happening and to create an authentic look, use a specialist finish such as F&B’s Soft Distemper. Available in a range of colors, its exquisite soft powdery finish is perfect for very detailed interior plasterwork. Make sure that you check the product details for its suitability in your home, and bear in mind that the molding must not have been previously painted with an emulsion paint.

book cover

“Farrow & Ball: How to Redecorate,” Amazon ($45).