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5 Tips to test paint samples the right way

How to use paint testers the right way, so you can find the best shade for your walls

I always recommend that my customers test the paint colors on their walls before committing to the color.  The colors do look different on the swatches vs the walls (and different than they look in a store).  In fact, the colors may look different room to room (and even wall to wall within the same room) pending on the lighting.  And, sometimes when you see the color on a larger area, you may change your mind.

5 tips to properly test paint samples - the right way

Paint testers are inexpensive, usually only cost around $5 to $10 each, and it is so worth this tiny investment before you paint your walls (regardless of whether you are hiring a professional or doing it yourself).  And, do bear in mind that once the paint store gives you the paint, it’s not returnable.


5 tips to test paint samples the right waySo, I thought I’d provide some tips on how to properly test the shades of paint.  This will help you avoid some common mistakes and help you make better choices (and feel more confident in your decisions)

Please note that this article may contain affiliate links.  You can read my full disclosure at the bottom of the page.

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Quick tips for selecting the right testers

Importantly, get the samples in the finish you intend to use on the wall.  The most popular and stylish finish is flat.  Flat looks more up to date and shows imperfections less.  Flat is flattest option, matte is a bit shinier, than eggshell, then satin, then semi-gloss).  The shinier you go, the more dated your room will appear.  90-95% of our customers prefer flat finishes.


Generally, I find that choosing 3 shade samples is best.  That way, you see the subtle undertones that can sometimes make a big difference for setting the tone and mood of the room.  By the way, when you test many more, it actually gets much more difficult to choose.


I highly recommend both Sherwin Williams and Benjamin Moore Paints, and these can be found in many local paint and hardware stores.  I’d recommend that you avoid the Behr paints, or other ones you might find at the Big Box stores.  They tend to be thinner and require an additional coat of paint (and don’t be fooled by some that claim you only need 1 coat…you need 2 coats if you are changing the color).


If you need a paint swatch fan deck here’s one from Benjamin Moore and here’s one from Sherwin Williams.

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5 Tips to test paint samples the right way

1.  Paint the samples on the Wall (not on boards)

testing shades of paint on the wallI see this mistake all the time.  People (or their painters) will test colors on white boards.  This is not a smart way to test colors because the paint looks different on the boards than it does on the walls.  The main reason for this is that the texture is different…so the paint reads differently.  And, it doesn’t seem to saturate the boards in the same way.  Always test your paint on the walls.


optical illusion - be careful when comparing paint samplesTest at least a 1 foot x 1 foot area.  Also, bear in mind that existing color of the wall will impact how the samples appear.  Colors will appear darker when they are against lighter walls; and, they will appear lighter when they are against dark walls.  You can see this in the picture to the right where the gray on the left looks lighter than the one on the right.  To reduce this optical illusion, it helps if you paint your samples closer together.  It also helps if you do a larger area.   Sometimes is helpful to use a white piece of paper to separate the samples (the white is meant to simulate the color of the base molding.


2.  Test on multiple walls

how to properly test paint samples on the wallsYes, the shades of paint will look different on different walls, pending on the lighting.  I advise customers to test on at least 2 walls – one that is well lit and the another wall that gets less light.  I would also look at the samples at different times of the day, especially the time of day where to you tend to spend the most time in that room.  And, it’s usually better to sleep on it and take your time to make a decision. You may want to look at the samples on a sunny day as well as a rainy day.


By the way, you will may also notice that other colors (e.g. the leaves from the trees or the floor colors or the paint in the room next door may influence the way the color looks on the wall.  (Be sure to check out Tip #5 which is one of the most common mistakes customers make).


3.  Always use 2 coats of paint

testing paint testers properly for right shade of paintWhen you change the wall color, you need 2 coats of paint (and do not be mislead by some of the cheaper paints at the Big Box stores which claim that you only need 1 coat of paint).  You will need 2 coats.  Trust me on this (and yes, usually the paint in the Big Box stores is thinner…and you may in fact need 3 coats for those paints to be equivalent to 2 coats of Sherwin Williams or Benjamin more.


When you have 2 coats of paint, you get the proper saturation.  So, be sure to do 2 coats of paint for your testers so that it will be consistent with the final product.


Oh, and if you need a good brush, here’s the one I’d recommend.  You can buy it on Amazon.

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4.  For saturated or bright colors, test with a primer

Tips for using paint testers - saturated colors need a primer

primer - for painting over bright colors or wood panelingFor some saturated or super bright colors, you may need a primer before the 2 coats of paint.  Or, if you currently have a very dark or saturated paint (e.g. red, burgundy, navy, bright orange, etc.), you will need to use a primer first. So, be sure to test you paints samples in the same way.  Here’s a top notch primer if you need one.  It’s a water based product so it doesn’t smell.  And, it bonds to paint as well as most other surfaces, including wood (so it’s great for priming wood paneling).


5.  Choose your stain, floor or carpet color first

tips for using paint testers to choose best shadeMost people don’t realize that they should be selecting the color for the floors first. This is for several reasons:  First, there are way more paint colors than there are stain or carpeting options (and if you start with the walls first, you will find that it severely limits you in your flooring, area rug and other decorating options).  Second, it’s better to have the correct flooring in place when you are testing the paint samples as it will influence the color perception on the paint.


And, lastly, it’s most cost and time efficient if you do the floors first and paint after as the base boards will often get scuffed up and get stain on them, so you’ll need to repaint the base molding after the floors.  Everything works out smoother when you do the floors first.  Check out this article from Bill Gassett  Why you should start with the floors first when decorating.


how to use paint testers the right wayBonus Tip: If you’re going to change your lighting, do that first, too. That way, you’ll be looking at the paint colors in the correct and updated lighting.



It’s super important to make sure you test out the paint shades on your own walls in your own lighting.  It will help you make much smarter decisions so that you find the optimal paint shade for your home.


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color consultation for paint and stain colorsIf you live in Westchester County NY, I offer color consultations to advise customers on paint colors and stain choices. My designer discount at the paint stores usually more than offsets the cost for the hour consultation. Read more here.  I’ve started to do some phone consultations as well.


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5 Tips to properly test paint samples | How to use paint testers the right way

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