White is the perfect backdrop for anyone with bold tastes; it’s also the right color to bring out a bit of the daring in a timid decorator.

Even the tamest tastes loosen up in a kitchen, bath or spare room, which makes those rooms perfect for oh-so-flexible white. It’s the ideal backdrop for showing off an unlimited number of colors and decorating themes, experts agree. And if you don’t like the results of your experiment with color, you’re not stuck with a wall-size reminder.

Rather than include permanent color--such as tiles--in a kitchen or bath, use rugs, towels and personal collections for adding changeable color, decorators suggest. In rooms with a lot of money invested in fixtures, counter tops or furniture, white leaves inexpensive options open to change the decorative scheme down the line. Chair cushions, drapes or a shower curtain add vivid accents; the background remains neutral.

Timeless white can be a subtle, elegant background of contrast for classically colored permanent materials such as terra-cotta-colored floor tiles. As confidence increases, an emboldened decorator might consider, for example, ocean blue tiles, granite counter tops or warmly stained wood floors.


A bonus of using white is that it makes a rejuvenating twosome with light, decorators say. When light bounces off a white surface, it appears to push boundaries outward. In small rooms, such as a galley kitchen, half bath or spare bedroom, white will pair with natural and artificial lighting to refresh the space and make it look larger.

“The darker you go, you kind of close yourself in,” says Jack Greenwood of De Vaul Paints in Santa Ana. “The lighter the room, the more airy and lighter it looks. If you have dark carpet [and paint in a dark color], you will be framing it in, and it will seem smaller too.”

But as easy as it is to decorate, and redecorate, with white, it can be difficult to get started. That’s because all whites are not created equal. Don’t be surprised to have to choose from more than 100 shades.

“It depends what types of fillers, resins or grade of titanium that they use,” Greenwood says. “And when you talk about off-whites, you could get into a thousand of them.”

De Vaul Paints sells five brands, and among those the basic white can vary subtly. For example, “pure titanium white is made by some companies,” such as Behr, he says. Other companies shade their whites. “Benjamin Moore’s white is shaded to the blue side with a kind of grayish tint.”

Most people prefer whites from the warm side of the spectrum, such as pink- or beige-shaded. Cool whites can have a clinical feel. Once it’s up, the pure titanium that looked perfect in the store could have a blue tint and give off a cold, icy feeling.

A shade on a paint chip will look much more intense on a wall. What may be fine at 1 by 2 inches may loom menacingly at 10 by 20 feet. For starters, paint chips will not be exact, Greenwood says.

For people who are “color conscious,” Greenwood recommends taking home a couple of shades after reviewing paint samples in the store. Once you get the paint home, other factors, such as the type of lighting and furniture, will make a difference.

Try painting a huge section, at least a 4-by-4-foot square, and leave the colors on the wall for two or three days. Look at them in the morning light, at midday, in the evening light and in artificial light. If you’re lucky, you can check them out on sunny and partly cloudy days as well. Lighting has a dramatic effect on the way color is perceived. Over a short period of time, you’ll be able to see how they change and what kind of character each shade has.

Remember that even whites look slightly darker and more intense when they cover an entire room. Most people, in hindsight, wish they had gone a shade or more lighter. In fact, some professionals advise buying two shades lighter than what you want. For a major project, you might choose to do an entire room and live with it for a few days or weeks before doing the rest of the house.

Woodwork, too, benefits from the effects of white paint. The play of shadow and light emphasizes architectural details such as crown moldings, the trim around doors or exposed ceiling beams. White shows off details without fighting other elements. Interior or exterior trim in the right shade will complement the white and highlight some of the house’s more interesting features.

“Creamy walls with crisp white moldings is fabulous,” says Leslie Trasport, 29, of Fullerton. Trasport, a decorator with Swenson Interiors in Tustin, favors Dunn-Edwards’ cottage or Swiss coffee white--both warm whites--for walls and paper white for architectural details. The look, she says, is “clean but so versatile and works in contemporary or traditional settings.”

“A pure white on walls looks too chalky to me, and I’d stay away from really yellow-whites,” Trasport says. “A faux finish of white [on a creamy wall] is a fabulous look too. You get texture and movement.”

Once the creative juices are flowing from having pinned down a shade of white, it’s time for more fun: selecting accent colors. White can help determine that too. Greenwood advises against using a green accent with a pink-shaded white, for example; stick with a warm color.

With that in mind, muster the courage for color you wouldn’t use in the rest of the house--but also consider how it will look with the shade of white you have chosen. The more dynamic the accent colors, the more impact they will have on the shade of white.

With warm walls, Trasport says, “people think they can’t use a fabric with bright white in it, but the moldings, windowpanes, make [that possible]. And don’t be afraid of using florals, juicy florals. With [this combination on the walls], there are so many looks.”

In baths, Trasport favors silver fixtures with cool whites and gold-tone fixtures with warmer whites. “But all the same,” she emphasizes, for a cohesive look. “An all-crisp-white bathroom with a cream sink isn’t going to work. And with chrome, you can have shiny, or pewter or brushed, but it needs to all be the same to work.”

Such a neutral scheme leaves the door wide open for accent options. Favorite objects--a collection of porcelain fruit in the kitchen or antique perfume bottles in the bath, for example--can help choose a shade, and even a theme, for tiles, towels, trim or other accent items.

You can even continue the white theme, Trasport suggests, as long as the whites match. “If someone really likes the clean look, and they want a white sofa too, I would suggest a chenille, something with texture, a moire or damask” for variety, she says.

But there’s no need to rush into anything. Consider, as Trasport does with her clients, the function of the room, how and when it’s used and how the light plays at those times. “Come home at lunch,” Trasport suggests, to see the room in midday light.

Once ready to paint, don’t forget two solid coats of a good primer. “You have to have enough paint on the wall to cover whatever’s underneath,” Greenwood advises, or the previous color may subtly leak through and alter the chosen shade of white.

Ask for help choosing a primer that is right for the surface you’ll be painting. This will affect not only how the paint adheres to the surface but also the actual shade of white you’ll end up with.

Then, with the small room looking its biggest and brightest, let your imagination go wild.