Standing in front of paint chips at the hardware store, it can be hard to tell the difference between the hundreds of options out there (after a while, Cloud White, White Linen and Marshmallow really do look the same). Roll it on the walls and it’s an entirely different story. That crisp white you loved in the store looks glow-in-the-dark against your IKEA furniture. The creamy shade you plucked from the paint chip clashes with your white kitchen cabinets.

Turns out, the design classic is anything but simple.

To help us discern the nuances of white paint, we turned to Toronto-based interior designer, television personality and color expert Jane Lockhart.

Photo: Jane Lockhart / Paint: Simply White 

Why white is so tricky

Before you get rolling, consider this. “One of the biggest problems with white paint is that it doesn’t look white when it goes on the walls,” the designer explains. “The paint reflects other colors that are in the room or more importantly, transforms into a color you didn’t intend once you review it against other elements in the space.”

Things to consider are the type of artificial lighting (the same white will look slightly different with halogen versus LED bulbs), your room’s geographic exposure and other paint colors, furniture, flooring and design elements around it.

Even white paint has undertones

In the end, it’s all about undertones, the automatic result of mixing two or more colors together.

The designer breaks it down: “A warm undertone in white paint will have a bit more yellow in the color, tempered with black paint. A cool undertone will usually have some blue in it, tempered with black. Those undertones will really come out when they’re against other items in the room. If you have warm wood floors, for example, you’ll want to look for a white with warmer undertones to complement it.”

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In the paint industry, there is no white that hasn’t been tinted with other colors, even slightly. “People often only think of undertones when they’re talking about color, but you won’t find a white without them.”

The designer favors white shades from Benjamin Moore and has turned to these five again and again.

Cloud White (OC-130)

Photo: Jane Lockhart / Paint: Cloud White

“For overall use, a good warm white is Benjamin Moore’s Cloud White which has a touch of yellow and black in it,” Lockhart suggests.

The designer recommends trying it on your ceiling instead of the typical pre-mixed white you can grab off the shelf at the hardware store.

Simply White (OC-117)

Photo: Jane Lockhart / Paint: Simply White

Simply White is a crisp warm white with slightly less yellow than its sister, Cloud White.

Lockhart gravitates to Simply White when going for a more modern feel to complement warm accents in the room.

White Down (OC-131)

Photo: Jane Lockhart / Paint: White Down (on trim, wainscotting and crown) 

According to Lockhart, White Down is the perfect antique white, without leaning too yellow or making the walls look aged. “It feels very natural but still appears white,” she says. “This is a great color for kitchen cabinets if you wish for your space to feel a little more relaxed overall.”

Lockhart explains that White Down is a more taupe-based white, so it maintains its warmth without going flat. But before you commit, be sure to match the color against any white accents in the space, like kitchen tile or appliances, to ensure it’s complementary.

Oxford White (CC-30)

Photo: Jane Lockhart / Paint: Oxford White (on wainscotting) 

For Lockhart, the Goldilocks of white paint is Oxford White.

“My favorite white sits in the middle,” the designer explains. “Oxford White isn’t too blue or too yellow. It’s got a little bit more black to it than Simply White and Cloud White, without going grey. A great choice if you want a clean, bright white and a modern look.”

Looking to paint your trim to enhance the architectural details? Oxford White is a safe bet, Lockhart suggests.

Decorator’s White (CC-20)

Photo: Jane Lockhart / Paint: Decorators White 

True to its name, Decorator’s White has been a standby for designers for years. Lockhart suggests using the shade if you want to complement cooler color tones in the room (think grey or black accents).

The current trend in white paint is leaning towards using warmer whites, but they are constantly swinging back and forth.

“If people really love that blue-tone white it’s great, but be careful. Decorators White has a tendency to look a little blue in a lot of homes with hardwood,” Lockhart warns.

To help you choose a color with confidence, Lockhart suggests putting a swatch of your color of choice on a board before applying to a wall. With these five tried-and-tested shades, you’re sure to find one that is just right for you.

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