There is a perennial debate between the two following rationales.. Either that you should make a small dark space look lighter and brighter by painting it in a light colour, or that you should work with the room’s natural features and do the opposite. There is a valid logic to both, but I have generally found that working with, rather than trying to counteract the nature of the room in question works best.
So, I would most often use deep, dark colours in rooms that are in themselves small, without much by way of beautiful sunlight. It can be a lost cause to try to flatter what was not there in the first place- so the infamous adage does not go. Bathrooms are great for this, or little snugs. The best darker colours must be richly pigmented, velvety and deep, and feel complex. By complex I mean not just straight-up red, or black black (for excellently straightforward colours, skip to the section on Brights). I have Picture Gallery Red by Farrow & Ball on my living room walls (inspired by Farrow & Ball co-founder Tom Helme’s boot room). Its tone sits elusively between terracotta, cocoa powder and oxblood, and it somehow seems like if you were to run your fingers along the walls, a dusty earth pigment might come off on your hands.
The same goes for Drab Green by Edward Bulmer, and all the dark, plummy colours of Emery & Cie and Atelier Ellis. That is why they look good either as a matt emulsion, or a slick gloss (or, perfection, very matt and very gloss combined). Any satin or performance finishes can, unfortunately, look cheap here; and good quality paint is the most important in this category.
If you don’t want to fill an entire room with a deep colour, then I would suggest using it on woodwork, especially where you have rather a lot of it – built in storage and panelling for example, and then you can break the mood with wallpaper or other colours. For the deep, dark category of paint, I wouldn’t recommend painting your ceiling to match (which seems to be the paint trend of the moment) as it could look too nightclubby. But don’t just paint the ceiling white white either: it will seem harsh and unconsidered. Ask whoever you bought your chosen deep colour from to recommend you a partner neutral. In general it will be one which features a hint of warmth, or a tint of whatever deep colour you have chosen. Another great use of dark paints is a dramatic dark floor. If you dare go for a dark paint on the floor, varnish it to a gloss, and pair it with a mid-or light toned wall: you could be the owner of a very beautiful room indeed.
This category is where my all time, most-used favourites are to be found, and I don’t think we need to be as rules-y here as with the other categories. A gutsy, mid-tone yellow is a beautiful colour to paint a room. I would generally say to err on the side of warm yellows: anything with just a touch of curry powder or egg yolk. Babouche by Farrow & Ball is perfect, as is Mister David by Little Greene, if you lean towards turmeric. A perfect mid-green for me is quite oliveish. As with the yellows, erring on the side of warmth (in our British light, that is) will generally get you much friendlier results than going for cold tones.
For browns, Havane by Aplat (available at Vicalvi) is an excellent colour: it never fails to look chic.
‘Havane’ by Aplat, £74.50 for 2.5 litres matt emulsion, from Vicalvi.
Also look at Caddie by Paint & Paper Library.
I personally have a front room in Setting Plaster and adore it, but it does need a fair bit of space and light – I am just on the cusp of having enough. Given enough light it looks a confident, chic colour somewhere elusively hiding between stone and pink. Given not enough light and it looks, well, drab and fleshy, more like sticking plaster than setting plaster. Fleshy pinks are definitely colours that benefit from white ceilings and plasterwork, note this beautiful room by Howe and Harding & Read. If you choose a lovely mid tone, do be brave and paint the whole room: a feature wall is such a cop-out!
As per my section on deep colours, emphasising a spacious, well-lit room with a beautiful off-white or neutral works wonderfully. I would always avoid the purest, whitest whites as they throw everything else into such stark relief and look hurried. ‘Off White’ by Farrow & Ball is a favourite. It looks really not white on the paint chart or sample pot, but when the entire room is painted in it, your eye meets it halfway and reads it as, yes, white, but a natural white that has been that way forever. It is really good for period properties.
If you want something fresher, however, try Stucco by Designers Guild, Pointing by Farrow & Ball or Acanthus Leaf by Mylands, all of which have a nice white-plaster cleanness that feels architectural and fresh.
I also like to use the very lightest of blues or greens to get the effect of an almost white wall. Acorn by Little Greene is lovely and fresh, for a kitchen, breakfast room or the bedroom of a ‘morning person’, and looks good when paired with Starling’s Egg for the woodwork. Celestial Light, also by Little Greene, has a similarly wakeful effect, but perhaps should be avoided for small living rooms. Also, much as I love these dawn-light, super fresh pale greens and blues, I would not use them in a small bathroom (ignore me if your bathroom is the height of palatial luxury!), as I think they will feel depressingly institutional.
With these palest of colours, it does work to paint the ceiling and / or skirting boards in the same colour, so as to emphasise that feeling of spaciousness. Even better, most paint companies sell their paints as tints (a tint is simply when they add white to a colour, or add a little colour to white). Little Greene call them, for example, Ice I, Ice 2, Ice 3; some companies say ‘double’ this or ‘half’ that, and Edward Bulmer will do tints of 70%, 60%, and 40% for any of their colours. If you were to choose three tints of the same colour, and paint the ceiling one tint up from the wall colour, and the door one tint down (or the other way around) the room will have that extra touch of elegance, and very few people will quite know why. A long room can benefit from having the narrow walls painted a tint or two down from the long walls, to balance them up a little.
Now these are the colours that you can really get excited about! They are the colours that draw all the attention to themselves, that leap to the eye and bring joy to the whole room even – or should I say preferably – in small doses. I would suggest that every home has to have a colour like this somewhere in it, but perhaps not necessarily on its walls. Paint a whole room in one of these at your peril!
A couple of years ago, I painted a bookshelf in Grandiflora by Sanderson, I have never looked back. It has just enough warmth in it to be able to get along well with other colours (any greenish, chartreuse-y or acid yellow can be a difficult bedfellow), but it is simple and cheerful.
Whereas with the dark colours we celebrate subtlety and complexity, these brights are unabashedly themselves: Medici Green by Papers & Paints or Atomic Red by Little Greene are cases in point. Paint a chair in Atomic Red, or install a glossy run of Medici Green cupboards in a pale pink kitchen. Paint the inside of your cupboards, or a little boot-room that you spend five minutes in.
A small window frame would look great in a playful primary colour. If you have a long corridor full of doors (the classic side return in a Victorian terrace, for example), a good look could be to paint every door, door frame and skirting board in the hall a fantastic bright colour – I recommend the ultra-pretty Bluebell from Designers Guild – and then choose a complimentary neutral – something creamy – for the walls. This keeps the potentially narrow hallway light and fresh, but makes a feature of that gang of doors.