How To Choose The Right White Paint

Now in theory this should be easy. White is white right? The perfect neutral that goes with everything. Except when it doesn’t. Like grey (and how to choose the right shade of grey paint remains one of my most popular posts) white is white in name only – and often not even then. It can have a green undertone that will make it cooler, a red one that can turn pink, while brilliant white can be too much in a period property although it can work in a modern building of straight lines and angles.

wimborne white by farrow & ball at
wimborne white by farrow & ball at

You have only to look at the Farrow & Ball page under white to see white with a hint of grey, or green, or yellow, not to mention red and then there are several options under each one. And given that you need to buy tester pots for each one because you can’t tell how it will react in your own house it’s an expensive rabbit hole to fall down. And you absolutely can’t tell what it looks like from looking at a computer screen so obtaining a free colour card is your first task.

Given the difficulties of finding the right shade, I am sharing the opinions of a few experts today. And some tips to help you narrow down the sort of thing you might want. One thing that did emerge is that once people have found the right white they tend to stick to it. In my house that colour is Wimborne White by Farrow & Ball. I’m sure there are others that are equally lovely, but having gone through the mill of testers once and found a good one that’s where it stops for me. It is, according to the paint company (which was recently sold for around £500m so it would seem someone wants to buy into the expertise) white with a hint of yellow that is one shade away from pure white. I often refer to it as a milk colour and it works in both north and south facing rooms in my house where it will appear like creamier milk under the golden south facing light and a bit semi-skimmed in the cooler north facing.

flawless by crown paint on the walls in melanie lissack's bedroom
flawless by crown paint on the walls in melanie lissack’s bedroom

And that is the key. Just as grey will change according to the light so will white. A warm yellowy or white with a red base will become creamier and pinkier in a south-facing room. If that’s not what you want, you need to go paler or choose a green or grey base to fight against the golden light. Likewise in a north-facing room, a cool white will become cooler under the blue light. This is why cool blue greys can turn purple in north-facing rooms while yellow-based greys may turn beige in the south. Once you factor that in it becomes easier to filter out the wrong ones.

Silent White by Little Greene comes also in pale and deep as well as a mid version
Silent White by Little Greene comes also in pale and deep as well as a mid version

Ruth Mottershead, creative director of Little Greene, whose newest “perfect” white Silent White (which comes in three shades) is pictured above, agrees that (name that tune) it’s all about the base. “If you want a warm scheme with pinks and dark woods then look for a white with a red oxide base such as China Clay. But if you are looking for a shade that will work in both north and south-facing rooms (or both at the same time) then Gauze and Green Stone Pale will work as they are truly neutral and neither warm nor cold. Bone China Pale, on the other hand, has a blue undertone that will make a room feel both cooler and brighter.”

The Little Greene colour cards are also arranged in families so you can see at a glance if you are looking at a warm or cool base and build a scheme from there.

crown paint cream white with mustard jar styled by Lucy Gough
crown paint cream white with mustard jar styled by Lucy Gough

Of course, paint is never seen in isolation – you might have a pink sofa in a north-facing room which will counteract the blue light and warm things up. I mention this not to make you feel daunted, but to point out that if you get it wrong you can work to counteract the effect with your furniture and accessories. Also to underline the importance of testing.

Snowy Owl by Sanderson in the home of Lisa Dawson (the door is Farrow & Ball Arsenic)
Snowy Owl by Sanderson in the home of Lisa Dawson (the door is Farrow & Ball Arsenic)

You need to paint a large piece of paper (don’t forget to write the name on the corner if you are working with several) and stick it to the wall in one spot and move it around to another. You must also look at it under both daylight and natural light as they are different and will change the colour significantly.

So to sum up – check the orientation of your room, decide if you want a warm or a cool white, check different times of day and look at what else will be in the room. Easy right? Well in case you want more ideas here are some suggestions:

Lisa Dawson, author of Resourceful Living: “Snowy Owl by Sanderson is a proper white but with a touch of warmth that brilliant white doesn’t have. I have used it in all my downstairs rooms (pictured above in her hall) and my converted barn (which is available to rent). The quality is excellent. I also like Architects White by Zoffany but that is a colder shade.”

steamed milk by rustoleum as seen in @theousethatblackbuilt
steamed milk by rustoleum as seen in @thehousethatblackbuilt 

That’s another clue when you are paint-hunting – look at the names. I agree that Wimborne may not give much away, but there are plenty of other companies that are a little more straight forward in their naming process – look for words like ecru and linen and chemise, all of which imply some warmth. Anything “architect” will be cooler as will Salt and Loft, which is recommended by Little Greene if you want a brilliant white but don’t want to aggravate your eyes.

crown paints highlight on the walls and pole styling by lucy gough
crown paints highlight on the walls and pole styling by lucy gough

Andrew Griffiths, of A New Day Design Studio, agrees with me on Wimborne: “It’s one of my go to whites. It’s clean, fresh and has the ‘blank canvas’ quality of a good white, but with a tiny bit of yellow so it has a subtle warmth to it that just softens things and avoids it looking sterile.”

I should also add that in my last house I used Pointing everywhere – it was a much darker house and when we used it here it was very yellow so we abandoned it for Wimborne. Above, the stylist Lucy Gough has used highlight on the walls, woodwork and pole. And a word in the Australians’ ears – she is about to move to Australia for a year in September and is one of the most talented stylists I know (these Crown paints shots as well as years with Living Etc and other brands) so if you need anyone then contact her via her instagram.

wimborne white by farrow and ball in a scheme by A New Day Interiors
wimborne white by farrow and ball in a scheme by A New Day Design Studio 

Sophie Robinson, who is, of course, known for her love of bold colour, likes a bit of Farrow and Ball White Tie, which also has a warm yellow base but is darker than my wimborne. And let me stress again that you can’t choose paint colours from instagram – professional shots (and amateur ones come to that) will be doctored to remove dark shadows and enhance the overall look which means colours can be distorted in the process.

I once had a shoot done by a major high street store when my entire house was wimborne white (so several years ago). The images were posted without any retouching and every single room looked yellow. And not only yellow but the tobacco-stained yellow of a long time smoker. They were terrible pictures and when I asked for them to be retouched to present a more realistic view, they were simply lightened so that everything else in the image was blown out. Photography, especially of interiors, is a highly skilled job where many elements have to be balanced in pursuit of the perfect shot but it can mean the colours are slightly altered – especially when it comes to shades of white.

white tie by farrow & ball in Sophie Robinson's bathroom, image by Alun Callendar
white tie by farrow & ball in Sophie Robinson’s bathroom, image by Alun Callendar

Melanie Lissack likes Flawless by Crown, which is part of the Elle Deco range. “It has the perfect level of softness with a a slight pink/caramel undertone so it’s warm without being creamy. I have used a dead flat finish in my bedroom so it’s not too blinding either.”

Rebecca Wakefield, an interior designer known for her gorgeous neutral rooms loves Farrow & Ball Shaded White as the perfect paint colour: ” It’s my favourite colour of all time I could drink it in a cocktail.”

Another huge favourite is Steamed Milk by Rustoleum. First used by Chelsea, of @thehousethatblackbuilt, she has since moved but says she will be using it again all over her new house. It’s a soft milk shade (as you might imagine) and while it has a grey undertone it’s a warm shade that should work in any room.

If you have a dark room that you won’t want to paint in a dark colour then Em Gurner,  of Folds Inside, based in North London, says: “If I was looking to brighten up a room that lacks natural light I would choose Chantilly Lace By Benjamin Moore which has a high LRV (light reflectance value) of 92. Despite being a pure white it still feels warm as it has no blue undertones.” See below.

Chantilly Lace by Benjamin Moore as used by Em Gurner is perfect for brightening a dark room
Chantilly Lace by Benjamin Moore as used by Em Gurner is perfect for brightening a dark room

I hope that has given you some pointers. As I said I can’t choose for you as it depends so much on your own space and light but at least you might have some pointers to guide you now. And do ignore the computer renditions of the colours – they will be wrong – and vary between each machine – that’s why I have tried to explain each colours pros and cons to be a more useful guide.




Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.


  1. I have Little Greene slaked lime mid walls in my east facing and very light filled lounge and it’s gorgeous. But even better is the slaked lime deep woodwork – it’s like painting with clotted cream. I love it.

  2. I recently painted my bathroom (not white) and had about 10 different samples, painted onto the back of old wallpaper, moved them around to see how it would look and chose my shade after much deliberation.

    I was so surprised to walk in when it was finished and see that it was MUCH brighter than expected. I have since learned to love it, but it was definitely not the shade I was expecting. So that is a cautionary tale to say that no matter how much you may plan, colours sometimes don’t turn out as expected!

  3. Excellent post. Beautiful images. I myself am suffering from a white apartment with no consideration for these nuances.

  4. My large windows face west & all my walls are Chantilly Lace, the ceiling as well. In the early morning it has slightly green undertones & as the day progresses it becomes creamier & then by late afternoon it’s almost golden.

  5. Thank you Kate! I remember F&B Pointing. It really was the go to colour in the late 1990s. Very interesting programme about F&B on Channel 5 recently with interview with Sophie R.
    Hope you are recovering ok from your terrible flooding emergency. Take care.

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