For those of us more comfortable with whitewashed walls, however, it’s not so easy to make the leap to eggplant or onyx. But here are some tips from design and color experts on how to use dark colors without becoming overwhelmed — or claustrophobic.
START SMALL If you’re nervous about playing with a deep, dark hue, “limit the color to the inside of cabinets, backs of bookshelves or a painted floor,” said Donald Kaufman, who owns the paint company Donald Kaufman Color with his wife, Taffy Dahl. “Dark, bold windows often bring the outside in.”
Ms. Studholme, of Farrow & Ball, suggested starting with a contained space like a powder room, the underside of a claw-foot tub or a hallway. “When you arrive, it creates a sense of drama,” she said. “You come through and go, ‘Wow.’” An added bonus, she noted: “A dark color in the hall makes the rooms off the hall feel really big and light.”
Ellen O’Neill, director of strategic design intelligence for Benjamin Moore, recommends starting with a focal point, like a fireplace mantel or the inside of shelves or drawers. “I recently photographed a home where the owner painted the inside of the drawers of an antique Chippendale chest a rich aubergine,” she said. “What a color surprise every time you open a drawer.” And as you become more confident, she said, “you can graduate to painting doors to a room or hallway, window trim or wainscoting.”
TEST IT OUT When you’re ready to tackle a whole room, “start with a color family that is already dominant in the home and select two to three shades that you feel makes a statement,” Ms. O’Neill said. “I’d get quarts of each color and paint large swatches of each, one set next to a window and one set in a corner. Observe how the room’s lighting affects the colors three times a day.”
EMBRACE THE DARKNESS “A deep, rich color goes an especially long way in a room without a lot of natural light, as dim rooms look particularly dull in lighter colors,” said Frances Merrill, the founder of Reath Design in Los Angeles, who painted her children’s room Farrow & Ball’s Pigeon gray. “It makes the small space feel finished and gives definition to the ever-rotating collection of artwork.”
In the playroom, she used Templeton Gray from Benjamin Moore. “Every surface in this room is usually covered in a layer of Legos and half-finished science experiments,” she said. “I find that the deeper colors mask the chaos.”
“Conventional wisdom states that small spaces — especially those facing north — should be lightened to increase the sense of space,” said Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute consultancy. “However, painting trim a lighter color in an area painted with darker hues can actually increase the illusion of space,” she said, because it creates a “greater impression of height or width in the space.”
Whatever your situation, “it’s best to work with what you’ve got, rather than try to fight the light,” said Ms. Studholme of Farrow & Ball, which offers a guide to how light affects color on its website.
PREPARATION IS KEY “Before painting, ensure surfaces are sound, clean, dry and free from dirt, grease and any other contamination,” said Ms. Cosby of Farrow & Ball. “Always sand down surfaces to achieve a smooth base.”
And if you change your mind later, dark colors are just as easy to paint over as light ones, assuming you prep properly. “Start by priming over the bold hue, then apply two coats of the desired color,” said Ms. O’Neill of Benjamin Moore. But “be sure to allow the primer coat to dry completely before applying the first coat of color.”
GO HALFSIES To add “sophistication and spirit” to a client’s “stark, boxy, white rental,” Alex Kalita, a founder of Common Bond Design in Manhattan, painted the bottom half of the bedroom wall in Hague Blue from Farrow & Ball. She calls it “the chair-rail effect” and notes that it serves a few purposes: “It simulates architectural variation in otherwise uniform space; it ties in the building’s teal window frames; and it leverages the cozy, rich, complex and grown-up quality of Hague Blue, while maintaining the practical qualities of white paint, like the illusion of ceiling height.”
Another tip: “If you’re tempted to go dark and bold on the walls, but you prefer a restrained aesthetic, try keeping the furniture neutral,” Ms. Kalita said. “You can even make bulkier pieces recede by camouflaging them in the wall color. We had our client’s Wonk NYC dresser color-matched to Hague Blue, so that the piece could augment the client’s storage without competing for attention with the room’s more deliberate and sculptural design elements. Dark walls do a good job of visually absorbing things.”
FINALLY, BE BRAVE “I encourage people to be brave with color and unleash their inner artist,” said Ms. Eiseman of the Pantone Color Institute. “Experiment with color, have fun with it, allow yourself to live with it for a while. It is, after all, just one or two cans of paint. And when, and if, you tire of it, move on to another color and treat yourself to another creative exercise.”