Shades of Gray: Selecting Design’s Most Neutral Color Is Trickier Than You Think

Choosing a gray paint can feel like a monumental task—dare we say, right up there with selecting a career or deciding whether to have kids.

OK, maybe it’s not quite that monumental. But if you’re in a decorating mode, a sea of choices—from brown-gray to blue-gray and everything in between—might make you feel like you’re drowning in a smoky, slate- and gunmetal-hued ocean.

Don’t despair! You can go gray without turning your hair the same shade in the process. You just have to follow some simple design rules.

Find the undertone

Photo by Marcia Moore Design

Before jumping into the world of gray, it’s important to figure out which shade will complement the furniture and textiles you already have. To do this, you need to determine whether the undertone in your room is on the warm or cool side.

“If there are warm tones in the home, such as brown or taupe upholstery and flooring, or there’s a lot of red, orange, or yellow accents, then it’s imperative to use a gray with warm (tan or beige) undertones,” explains Dessie Sliekers of Slick Designs.

But if details in the rooms favor blues and purples, you’ll need a gray with cool undertones, which will have a bluish or greenish cast.

Look to your lighting

Photo by Homes by Tradition

To narrow your gray choices, gauge the light your space receives, recommends Sara McLean, color expert and designer at Dunn-Edwards.

“North-facing rooms get little natural light, so a cool gray (green-gray, blue-gray) will only make it feel chilly or cold,” she says. “Instead, choose a warm gray or grays with brownish undertones.”

West-facing rooms also show better with warmer grays, while south-facing views, which get more sunshine, look great with cool grays. East-facing rooms tend to have little bluer natural light, so green- and blue-grays can also work nicely here, pairing beautifully with turquoise and cobalt accents.

A word of caution before you commit, though: Paint a swatch on your wall in your chosen shade, and see how it looks in the light.

“Know that the color will change slightly throughout the day,” says Justin Riordan of Space and Archer Design Agency.

Assess the room

Photo by Brandie McCoy, CKD

Yup, the function of your room is a factor, too. Unless you have an ultracontemporary home, beach-front property, or an industrial loft (these styles look amazing painted a blue-toned, cool gray) look to warmer tones, says Sara Chiarilli, an interior designer with Artful Conceptions in Tampa,FL.

In particular, gray with warmer brown undertones is lovely in living rooms and master bedrooms, she says.

Riordan sticks with cooler grays when designing around sources of water, like in the bathroom. A cool, light gray, like Benjamin Moore Winter Solstice(1605), above, is a solid pick for a spa atmosphere.

Split the difference with ‘greige’


Want a paint shade that’ll work both ways? “Greiges (gray and beige) are the perfect neutral because of its versatility—you can pair it with warm or cool tones,” says Liz Toombs, president of PDR Interiors.

Amazing Gray (Sherwin-Williams 7044), above, is her pick.

“It’s also a wonderful transition color for those who aren’t sure about painting a whole room gray,” she adds.

Don’t be afraid to go dark

Photo by Houzz 

Going gray doesn’t always mean going neutral. Really dark grays such as Sherwin-Williams’ Peppercorn (7674) can look amazing on an accent wall, or even enveloping an entire room, if done right.

“Charcoal grays are very striking and elegant, especially when paired with vivid colors like blue-reds/cranberry, emerald-green, or citrus orange,” McLean says.

Balance with texture

Photo by Porcelanosa

No matter the gray you choose, balance is key. You don’t want the room to feel cold or sterile.

“Add texture and warmth with woods, metals, and fabrics to even out the room,” McLean says.