Sunshine In a Can

by Donna on May 12, 2012

Sprightly, Debonair Yellow

Yellow, the cheerful color, is upbeat and uplifting. Walls painted intense and sunshiny versions of the color add brightness to rooms. Bright yellows are lively and fresh. Even walls painted deep and subdued versions of this primary hue project optimism. Muted mustard seed or butterscotch yellows become rich neutral background wall colors.

Not surprisingly, we can find an abundance of yellow paint colors for room interiors. Perhaps surprisingly, yellow can be a versatile hue for room schemes.

That said, yellow can be a sensitive color to work with. Designers have been known to talk about the difficulty of “getting it right” with yellow. So, let’s take a look at rooms with walls painted various tones of yellow to get an idea of the ins and outs of working with this timely hue.

One of the issues with yellow has to do with undertones. Yellows can have either cool or warm undertones. Greenish leaning yellows have cool undertones. Warm leaning yellows are ‘golden’ with reddish and orange undertones. Those undertones need to be considered when choosing yellow wall colors.

In a room by designer Martha Angus, the designer selected a warm “mango” yellow to work with the warm undertones of the wood.
 A room with numerous warm wood elements uses a warm yellow wall color

(Room image from HGTV. Photo by Matthew Millman.)

Likewise, in this room by designer Marcy Masterson, the red of the chair and the reddish undertones of the wood floor marry and harmonize with the warm yellow wall color. Using a green-leaning yellow on the walls would be a jarring solution.
A sitting room with warm yellow walls that harmonize with a red chair and wood floors

(Image from Traditional Home. Photo by Bruce Buck.)

We can look at this living room by celebrated designer Celerie Kemble for an example of a wall in a greenish-yellow. The cool undertones in the yellow work with the soft tones of the elements in the room: pale blue in the accent pillows; a hint of pink in the sofa; the muted rustiness of the carpet. The brightness level of the wall color works to enliven the space.
A living room design by Celerie Kemble uses a greenish-yellow wall color to harmonize with muted colors.

(From Kemble Interiors.)

Secondly, it’s important to be aware of the fact that yellow is particularly sensitive to variations in lighting color. Natural light varies with the time of the day and different weather conditions.  Also, the coloration of outdoor foliage can reflect into a room. Seasonal changes can have an impact: the different  seasonal changes in trees — spring green, fall warm colors, and trees bare of leaves — will result in differences in light reflection. The changes that occur on yellow wall color may not be objectionable, but it’s good to be aware.  Depending on your outdoor surroundings, a good plan might be to paint just an accent wall using your chosen yellow wall color, then see how the color varies with the seasons before painting the entire room.

Thirdly: In my experience with yellow paint colors I’ve found that it can be particularly difficult to ‘predict’,  from small paint chips, what a yellow color is going to look like on walls. I always advise trying out samples of paint colors on walls; this is especially important with yellow colors.

The Many Versions of Yellow

Very bright yellow

In this très moderne room in a Paris apartment, rising star and Paris-based designer Sarah Lavoine has used vibrant “sunflower” yellow from her new paint line. Used on just one wall, the color adds interest without overpowering. The wall color is matched in intensity with the bright turquoise of the chair; the chair color needs to measure up to succeed in the space.
A very modern Paris apartment has one bright yellow wall.

(Image from Interiors. The photo is by Jean-Marc Wullschleger.)

A dandelion yellow is used as a background wall color for neutral furnishings in this room. Bold black and white accents serve to mediate between the gray elements and the brightly hued walls. A few green-blue accents keep the yellow from being tiring to the eye.
The bright yellow walls of this sitting room contrast with the neutral elements in the room.

(Image from Martha Stewart magazine. The paint color in the room is Martha Stewart Living Paint, Egg Yolk.)

In this room by designer Thomas Britt, the intense yolk-yellow walls do not overwhelm the space since the walls are broken up by four grand French doors and by wall hangings. The bright walls fittingly amplify the sunniness of the room and are in keeping with the the brightness of the cherry-red Régence chairs. The energetic color scheme of bright yellow, red and charcoal, is anchored by the dark gray.
A Thomas Britt designed room is sunny with bright yellow walls, red chairs, and four French doors.

(From Architectural Digest. Photo by Tony Soluri.)

A caveat regarding very bright yellows: they will typically want to be used judiciously in rooms. The très moderne room above uses bright yellow on just one wall. The Thomas Britt designed room has a limited amount of wall painted brightly. The Martha Stewart example is most likely a staged room; for a real-life room consider wisely whether to use such intensity on all four walls.

Yellow toned down

Still cheerfully yellow, but in a toned down buttery version of the hue, this foyer is warm and welcoming. The warm yellow harmonizes with the warm undertones the wood in the Biedermeier chair and the Chinese stool.
A wellcomming foyer is painted mellow yellow.

(Image from Martha Stewart magazine. Decorator: Kevin Sharkey.)

Designer Kathy Bush designed this bedroom using a custom muted golden yellow paint color. A softened yellow can still work its cheerfulness, but provide a more restful option for a bedroom.
Bedroom with muted golden yellow walls

(From Traditional Home. Photo: Luca Trovato.)

Designer Christopher Drake has this to say about using yellow in an entryway: “It’s one of those spaces that people go through quickly, so you can afford a higher level of drama. Often, there’s not natural light, so you need a heavily saturated color like this warm, yolky yellow.” The paint color is Benjamin Moore Showtime 293.
This entry is painted a saturated yellow paint color.

(From House Beautiful. Designers: Bierly-Drake Inc.)

Brightly golden with an orange cast

In another foyer by Lee Bierly and Christopher Drake, the designers amp up the brightness level. Here they’ve used Benjamin Moore Firefly 299, selecting a high gloss enamel for further impact. Contrasted with the 18th-century stone cherubs, the glossy marble floor, and the white and winding staircase, the dramatic impact is heightened.
Foyer with bright golden yellow walls in Benjamin Moore Firefly

(From Traditional Home. Photo: Robert Brantley.)

In the entrance hall of his 17th-century family villa in Tuscany, Dede Pratesi has used a custom mixed bright marigold yellow for the walls. The golden color repeats (in the second image) in a staircase area that has curtains in Manuel Canovas toile.
The entrance hall of Dede Pratesi's Tuscan villa is painted a custom golden wall color.
Golden yellow wall color repeats in a stairway of the Tuscan villa of Dede Pratesi

(From Architectural Digest. Photo: Pieter Estersohn.)

Warm and mellow yellow

Calmer warm-toned yellow and muted orange-yellow wall colors are mellower, yet still cheerful background colors.

A corner sitting area charms with its daybed and tall case clock and walls painted a softened marigold.
Corner area with daybed and soft golden yellow walls

(From Southern Accents at MyHomeIdeas. Photo: Cheryl Dalton.)

Spicy colors in this dining room play against the soft golden stucco wall color. The golden color of the walls connects the room to the high-desert landscape.
Dining room in the high desert has softly golden colored walls

(From Traditional Home.)

An sunny breakfast nook invites with soft orange-yellow walls. Dark wood tones in the table, chairs and tall case clock add punch. The limited palette of golden yellow and neutral tones provides a calmly cheerful ambiance.
Breakfast nook with golden yellow walls and neutral furnishings

(From Southern Accents at MyHomeIdeas. Photo: Tria Giovan.)

Softly yellow

Benjamin Moore’s Hawthorne Yellow HC-4, a pleasantly pale yellow, is from the paint company’s collections of historical colors. Celebrated designer Jan Showers used the color in this living room with its scheme of yellows and gray-blues.
Living room by Jan Showers with Benjamin Moore Hawthorne yellow walls

(Image from Benjamin Moore.)

A country-style bedroom is warmly cozy with walls painted a pastel yellow.
Country bedroom with sunny pastel yellow walls

(From Country Living. Photo: Robin Stubbert.)

An Anglo-Indian bed sets the British Colonial tone of this bedroom designed by Jennifer Garrigues for a Hampton Designer Showhouse. The softly sunny wall color adds to the island feel of the space with its touch of the exotic.
Bedroom with British colonial and exotic island feel with softly sunny yellow walls

(From Traditional Home. Photo by John Bessler and Squire Fox.)

Deeply rich and spicy yellows

Admittedly more yellow-orange than orange-yellow, the wall in this colorful living room falls in the deeper color range. While the color still has a degree of brightness, the deeper tone becomes more neutral in character and provides a rich backdrop for a smattering of warm accents.
Living room with deep yellow orange walls as a background neutral for colorful accents

(From Traditional Home.)

Deep mustard gold walls, and similarly toned sofa and cushions, are richly neutral in this room.
Deep mustard gold walls and daybed

(From Martha Stewart magazine.)

A Few Yellow Paint Colors

Bright Yellows
Paint company's bright yellow paint colors shown in paint cans
Shown: Benjamin Moore, Bright Yellow. Sherwin-Williams, Daisy. Valspar, Summer Gold. Dunn Edwards and California Paints, Highlighter.

Warm Yellows
Paint company's warm yellow colors shown in paint cans
Top row: Dunn Edwards and California Paints, Rubber Ducky. Benjamin Moore, Amarillo. Valspar, Sunset Glow. Benjamin Moore, Golden Groves. Bottom row: Dunn Edwards, Sun Kissed. Sherwin-Williams, Daffodil. Valspar, Maple Cream. Benjamin Moore, Yellow Lotus.

Soft and Pastel Yellows
Paint company's soft and pastel yellow colors shown in paint cans
Shown: Dunn Edwards and California Paints, Banana Cream and Lemon Gelato. Valspar, Yellow Bliss. Benjamin Moore, Butter.

Green Leaning Yellows
Paint company's greenish-yellow colors shown in paint cans
Shown: Valspar, Lemon Parfait. Sherwin-Williams, Fun Yellow. Dunn Edwards, Shaded Sun. Benjamin Moore, Jasper Yellow.

Deep Yellows
Paint company's deep yellow colors shown in paint cans
Shown: Benjamin Moore, Yellowstone. Sherwin-Williams, Brittlebush and Quilt Gold. Dunn Edwards, Woven Gold.

The Sunshine Factor

Yellow on walls creates a sense of light and sunniness. That’s because, as paint color authority Donald Kaufman says “… we’ve come to read yellow as sunshine.” Yellow, at its highest saturation levels, is the most intense of the basic hues. It’s these factors about yellow that make it one of the best choices for rooms that are dark due to little natural sunlight. You can read more about yellow in this regard, and more about dealing with dark rooms, on my post about brightening dark rooms.

Fun with yellow

Yellow is a fun and interesting color — a color with many possibilities for room décor.

I’ll end with this sprightly appointed living room by designer Jennifer Garrigues. The room uses yellow as a background for brightly colored accents. The intensely hued accents seem even livelier against the yellow wall color.
Living room with sunny yellow walls and brightly hued accents

(From Traditional Home. Photo by Tria Giovan.)

Cheerfully yours,
Donna's signature
Links to publication sources for the images above: Architectural Digest. Country Living. Elle Decor. House Beautiful. Interiors. Martha Stewart. MyHomeIdeas. Traditional Home.

Links to paint company’s websites:
Benjamin Moore. California Paints (through dealers in some eastern United States). Dunn Edwards (with stores in some western states). Sherwin-Williams. Valspar (at Lowe’s stores.) (Dunn Edwards and California Paints both use the Perfect Palette© Color System.)
Note: Always reference paint chips for selecting paint color; the digital image may not match the paint color.

My usual caveat: Computer screens can display colors very differently. Colors in an image displayed on my screen can look different than the colors in the same image displayed on your computer screen.

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