Looking Up – What Color to Paint the Ceiling

by Donna on February 3, 2011

The Question of Ceiling Color

“What color should I paint the ceiling?” you may, or may not, be asking yourself as you prepare to paint the walls of your room decorating project. If you’re not asking the question you’re probably being guided by the ‘conventional wisdom’ that ceilings should be painted white.  A concept not without merit.

White Wins — some of the time…

Peruse the pages of decor magazines and it becomes evident that white is a frequently preferred choice among designers for ceiling color.

White works for many reasons:

    1. White is the ultimate neutral. And when the walls are neutral white — any one of the many white choices available in paint — enveloping the space with the chosen white creates spatial continuity.
    2. There’s a traditional formality associated with white; a tastefulness, if you will: white gloves, white tie event, white dress shirt, …. This ‘tastefulness’, this formality, is what seems to translate to the look of white ceilings in many cases.
    3. White is crisp and clean. It often extends the crisp white of crown molding and other trim, as in these two examples:

Dining room with brown walls and crisp white trim and ceiling.

Dining room and hallway with neutral-toned walls and white trim and ceiling.
The dining room in brown (top image) was sourced from MyHomeIdeas. The dining room and hallway (bottom image) was designed by Michael Carter. The dining room color is Benjamin Moore HC-47, Brookline Beige. Image from Traditional Home.

    1. White adds brightness by reflecting light into a room. This can be especially needed when walls are dark or deep in color, and in rooms low in natural light.

In this room with deep blue walls, designed by Todd Romano, the white ceiling helps to reflect light into the room. Very possibly the white contains a little of the blue, or is at least a bluish leaning off-white, a way of tying the white of the ceiling to the room color.

Room painted deep blue

    1. White can add visual pause when there’s an abundance of colorful elements in a room, as well as serving to echo white elements in the room. This can be true even when the walls themselves are light in color as in these two rooms, the first designed by Olivier Gagnère, the second by Gwen Driscoll:

Room with pale green walls and a white ceiling, adding pause to the abundance of color in the room.
Room with very pale green walls and a white ceiling

In the room below the white ceiling, in addition to serving as visual pause, adds brightness as a foil to the dullness of the color gray, the color of the wallpaper. The white ceiling again effectively echoes the white of furnishings and accessories. Room design: Sig Bergamin.
The white ceiling adds brightness and color relief.
The above four images are from Elle Decor online.

    1. White can function as visual relief from bright wall color.

This bright red dining room, from Sunset online, benefits from the contrast with white, and the white ceiling and wainscoting give the eye a break from the intense red.

Dining room with bright red wall and white trim and ceiling from Sunset magazine.

Loaded with turquoise – bright turquoise walls and brighter still turquoise upholstery – the eye welcomes some white ceiling relief in this monochromatic room by designer Steven Gambrel. From Elle Decor.
Room painted turquoise with turquoise upholstery. Ceiling is white.

  1. White adds contrast, as seen in many of the examples above. Contrast is an element that can be used for effect in the design of a room.

Ceilings with Color

Continuing the Wall Color to the Ceiling

Painting the ceiling the same color as the walls can be especially effective in modern spaces where crown molding is absent. But, as you’ll see, it can be an effective strategy even when crown molding, and even ceiling molding, is part of the picture.

When the wall color is a very pale or muted color, or as in this room a deep creamy off-white, painting the ceiling the same color makes sense. When the wall color is very light, leaving the ceiling white can result in a ceiling that looks unfinished. The image is from Elle Decor and the room was designed by Kyle Gaffney and Shannon Rankin.
Wall and ceiling continuity in a living room painted a deep creamy off-white.

Pink creates a warm embrace and intimacy in this room painted Benjamin Moore’s Bridal Pink; particularly true since warm colors visually advance. The color continuity is effective in containing the earthy brown and tan tones in the upholstery and carpet. Wood features painted white add crispness. Interior designer: Stephen Shubel. Image from House Beautiful.
Walls and ceiling are pink in this living room with brown and white in the furnishings and accessories.

In this room designed by Vicente Wolf, repeating the pale lavender of the wall color in the ceiling spaces between coffer trim, not only carries the color scheme upward but helps to unify the analogous color scheme.
Lavender walls and ceiling in room by Vicente Wolf.

Enveloping this room in a single color, blue, works to contain the color contrast playing out at ground level. A bit of color intensity was no doubt a design objective in the room. Designer: Michael Wilkinson. From Elle Decor.
Room with blue walls,  blue ceiling, red rug, white upholstery.

The white and black patterned fabric adds crispness to the room below and serves to keeps the orange of the walls, ceiling, and fabric from being overwhelming. Room design: Barbara Howard. Image source: My Home Ideas.
Room designed by Barbara Howard with orange walls and ceiling.

On the subject

When a room gets plenty of natural light, painting the walls and ceiling the same color can work even with darker colors.

However, when there is very limited natural light, be cautious with dark and dull colors. I’ve been in a room that received very little natural light and both the walls and ceiling were painted a muted terracotta color. The result: a cave-like room that felt drab and closed in. In this case a tint of the terracotta paint color on the ceiling would have been a better option. That approach would tie the ceiling color to the wall color and provide the needed reflectance of light into the room.

Bright warm colors on walls and ceiling will work in that room lacking natural light. As color specialist Donald Kaufman has described the phenomenon “warm colors appear to be sources of light” and that they can “seem to send out [their] own light.” Using a color like yellow, orange, fuschia, etc. can brighten up a dark room in a way that white will not. So, in that dark room, if painted a bright color, extend it to the ceiling as well.

Paint the Ceiling Its Own Color

Ceilings, sometimes called the “fifth wall”, can play a role in the scheme of things in a room’s design. A ceiling painted a color other than the wall color can add fun, charm, contrast, or variety to the room.

A different color on the ceiling can be just the right touch, as in the cottage-style room below from Coastal Living. The pale green ceiling adds to the room’s charm. Image source: MyHomeIdeas.
This cottage-style room sports a pale green ceiling that adds to the country charm.

Sometimes a colored ceiling just makes sense. In this softly toned space the ceiling color fits the sherbet color theme and goal of the room design. The designer: Jay Jeffers, a designer known for his masterly, and sometimes bold, use of color.
The sherbet green ceiling in this living room fits with the other sherbet colors used throughout the room.

Ceiling color continues to play an integral part in a room’s color scheme as shown in the next three rooms.

The blue ceiling in this room designed by Frank Roop is a main component in the direct complementary color scheme of orange and blue:
Room in complementary color scheme by Frank Roop. The complementary blue is on the ceiling.

The green ceiling in this room complements the reds in the upholstery, rug, and accent pillows adding a complementary scheme component. Image from Traditional Home.
The green ceiling in this living room is integral to a red and green complementary color scheme.

The green gingham-checked ceiling in this kitchen adds a fun, surprising, and attention getting component. The ceiling color plays a big role in the monochromatic color scheme, picking up the green of the island cabinetry and green accent items like the plate grouping displayed above the range. Designer: Gideon Mendelson. Image from House Beautiful.
Kitchen with green gingham-checked ceiling

Pale blue ceilings play big roles in the three rooms below.

The monochromatic color scheme in this room by Jamie Drake, a designer known for his skillful, at times exuberant, use of color, is carried through in the ceiling color.
Living room in monochromatic blue color scheme with blue ceiling.

In the bedroom below designer Barbara Howard creates a charming Mediterranean ambiance using plenty of white with a blue ceiling painted Ralph Lauren Big Sur Blue IB93. Image source: MyHomeIdeas.
This bedroom gets its Mediterranean ambiance using lots of white and a ceiling of light blue.

The sky blue ceiling in this teen girl’s bedroom balances the fabric and rug colors. From Cottage Living at MyHomeIdeas.
A teen girl's bedroom with a blue ceiling that balances bold colors in the room.

Other Thoughts

Ceiling color is a subject about which there are many ideas and opinions. Most would agree that there are no hard and fast rules. Here are some additional ideas and input:

    • Some designers like to mix white with from 25% to 50% of the wall color for the ceiling color.

Or, let’s say the walls are painted a mid-tone color found on the paint strip of a paint manufacturer, like this:
Paint color strip showing scale from darkest color to lightest color.
…then some designers suggest that the ceiling be painted two steps lighter if the ceiling is lower than 8 feet (for some if it is lower than 9 feet). If the ceiling is higher than either of those measurements, the suggestion is to paint the ceiling two steps darker. A ceiling darker than the walls, it is agreed, will visually lower the ceiling, if that is the objective.

  • If the ceiling is white, then adding at least a bit of the wall color to a white ceiling, or choosing a white that leans in the direction of the wall color, is something most would agree to. With neutral walls that have no color cast — neutrals such as tan, sand, mocha, brown — pick a very neutral white or the lightest color on the strip.
  • Some feel that a white ceiling will appear lower in height; some feel that the opposite is true. So this point is obviously up to individual perception. I’d say decide on white, or any of the color options discussed above, based on the design objectives and what works in the individual space. If you’ve left the ceiling white and it just doesn’t seem right, then try one of the other approaches.
  • One interesting idea: paint the ceiling a light lavender to create the perception of sky when entering from the outside.

Craving Color

If you crave a lot of color and wish to fill nearly every element in your spaces with color, as in the rooms below designed by Jay Jeffers, take a clue from these colorful rooms and don’t leave the ceiling out of the action. You can see how enveloping the rooms in variations on the colors used has the effect of unifying the design of the spaces.

Vibrantly colorful room designed by Jay Jeffers.

Warmly colorful bedroom by designer Jay Jeffers.

I’ll punctuate this post with the following image:

Designer Jeffrey Bilhuber punctuates the room below with a splash of bright, shiny yellow on the ceiling. The color adds a touch of whimsy to an already whimsically inclined room, and takes ceiling color, you might say, to a new level. …Pun most likely intended.

Room with a high ceiling painted bright yellow.

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