The Incredible Decorating Power of White Paint

White paint isn't a "one-size-fits-all" solution. Kevin Sharkey shares his advice for choosing a hue that's perfect for the space you're living in.

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Photo: Bryan Gardner

Don't underestimate the complexity of white paint, says Kevin Sharkey, executive vice president and executive design director for the Martha Stewart brand. Each shade and hue can achieve vastly different results. White paint is "an incredibly powerful tool," Sharkey says. "It gives you lots of possibilities-but don't assume that it's mistake-proof."

Sharkey believes that white can function very much like any other color-and thus, choosing just the right one can be a challenge all its own. A white that is too cool or too warm can feel out-of-sync with your space if it doesn't match the design features of the room itself. When choosing your shade of white, factor in a room's natural lighting-or its lack thereof-as well as your decorating style, which can be better suited to certain tones than others. Creamy white tones, for example, enhance a classic look and acts as a backdrop for your living room decor while creating a cozy living room environment.

The best way to avoid feeling anxious about choosing a shade of white, according to Sharkey, is to try to stop all the white colors from blending together. Try holding swatches of your white paint up against a piece of plain office paper to better gauge their tones. We're sharing a few of our favorites in the following list (pictured above), which are inspired by vintage china, and Sharkey's tips for using them in a myriad of ways across different living spaces.

Notes on Tone

If the space you're painting isn't bathed in natural sunlight, don't fret-selecting a cool, receding tint of white is best for these areas. Our editors' pick for cool white tones is Sherwin-Williams ProMar 200 "Spare White" which has plenty of blue-gray undertones. Use this kind of paint if you decorate with lots of blue or metal finishes. If you're working with plenty of sunlight, on the other hand, it's best to embrace warm whites that emulate their surroundings. These tones are closer to ivory in color, and their creamy hues help anchor rooms that may feature antique furniture or well-worn physical design features, especially wooden accents. Start with Behr's "Polished Marble"which features dream undertones and often is referred to as a "vanilla" white.

If you're looking for the simplest option that doesn't read cool or warm, you'll need to source a neutral tone of white. But just because these colors are neutral doesn't mean the room becomes sterile; these whites allow you to incorporate furniture and art that feature many different colors into a single, cohesive space. Our golden standard is Benjamin Moore's "Simply White," which can also warm up rooms that get less light.

Creamy Whites

These golden-tinged hues bring a sunny glow to any room. Off-white tones, reminiscent of creamware dishes, are very livable-they're bright and pretty. They are comfortable in a somewhat traditional setting, as they coordinate well with the colors and materials often found in rooms decorated that way.

1. Behr "Creamy White" Eggshell Enamel Interior Paint, starting at $28 per gallon,

2. Fine Paints of Europe "WC-07" Eurolux Interior Flat Paint, $40 per liter,

Bright Whites

Like luminous milk glass, these whites are fresh and clean. They tend to appeal to those with a more modern sensibility, given that they create a graphic contrast to whatever other colors they're paired with. Most hues go well with bright white, and we love it on a home's exterior in particular-it can stand up to everything around it in an outdoor setting. Don't think of these pure whites as "basic." In fact, they can be hard to work with. They don't hide anything, so imperfections in your wall or wood surfaces will show.

3. Behr Premium Plus "Ultra Pure White" Semi-Gloss Interior Paint, $32 per gallon,

4. Farrow & Ball "All White" Estate Emulsion Paint, $110 for 4 liters,

Oyster Whites

The diplomats of the paint world, oyster shades-which call to mind salt-glaze pottery-help others get along. They may be the ultimate neutrals, good with gray, beige, and almost every other color in the rainbow. A coat of oyster paint also somehow manages to hide imperfections and highlight fine features: Use it on intricate decorative plasterwork or woodwork, and the play of light and shadow will make the pattern stand out beautifully.

5. Benjamin Moore "Classic Gray" Regal Select Paint, starting at $64 per gallon,

6. Behr Marquee "Statuesque" Eggshell Enamel Interior Paint, starting at $42 per gallon,

Blue Whites

White shades with a hint of blue are soothing and calm. They're also very versatile: People tend to think of them as traditional, because that's the way they're often used, but blue-white tones can also be very clean, contemporary, and youthful. Bluish whites have more "color" than some other whites, so be careful about what you pair them with; they play beautifully with grays and greens. The cool white of ironstone was our jumping-off point for these colors, though we skewed a bit more blue.

7. Sherwin-Williams "Reserved White" ProMar 200 Interior Paint, starting at $27 per gallon,

8. Pratt & Lambert "Smoke Ring" Eggshell Interior Paint, $76 per gallon,

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