Picking the Right Colors For a Room: Tips From an International Color Expert

Before I went out on my own 3 years ago, I worked at large design firms with other designers. We worked on separate projects, but I was constantly learning and growing by hearing their perspectives and ideas.

Now, as a solopreneur (even though I have my amazing “Office Guru,” Tiffany, who is a rock star with tracking orders, helping me out with social media, etc.) I don’t have that regular, daily contact with other designers.

While I usually get to meet up with my design peers and my vendors, and to see all of the latest trends at High Point Market this time of year, I felt like I needed something a little different to fuel my creativity this time.

I realized I needed to get out of my own design practice for a few days and learn from another designer’s perspectives. Believe it or not, I found the inspiration rocket fuel I needed in one of my favorite podcasts, A Well Designed Business, hosted by Luann Nigara.

This podcast has been invaluable to me in my business for quite some time now –  and based on what my peers say about it, anyone who listens tends to get hooked instantly!

Luann had color expert Maria Killam on a recent episode. Apparently, you’d have to be living under a rock to not know about Maria and her Colour Me Happy blog because she is a huge name in our industry (in case you’re wondering, Maria is Canadian, hence the u in “colour”). But I’ve been so busy with my clients and my own blog that I’d never really followed her before.

On the podcast episode, Maria broke down her system for selecting color and the importance of understanding undertones to help dictate your color choices. I instantly knew I was listening to an absolute genius! Color theory is incredibly complex but she somehow simplifies it so anyone can understand.

From that day on, I was hooked! I did a deep-dive into Maria’s blog and purchased her e-books, as well as some of her amazing large paint color sample boards. In addition to helping inform my color selections for my clients, her system gave me a way to explain to my clients why I’m choosing certain colors for their projects.

I’m so fortunate to have the best clients in the world who completely trust me, but sometimes it’s good to be able to help them understand the “WHY” behind the choices I’m making for their homes. Using Maria’s simple explanation of the complex concept of undertones, I can readily explain why the colors I choose will work (and why others won’t).

Fast forward to early April: As a result of my newfound love for Maria and her color systems, I decided to attend her live “Specify Colour with Confidence” workshop in Toronto as a way to break from my usual routine and get in a room with an expert and other designers looking to learn and grow professionally, just like me.

It was just what the design doctor ordered. I learned so much in the 3-day workshop my head hurt (but in a good way)!

We spent the first day learning to understand undertones in neutrals and whites. Getting this concept down is what allows you to see color in a whole new way. Maria kept saying, “Once you see it, you can’t NOT see it,” and it’s so true. I’ll never look at any color without seeing its undertone.

The second day was devoted to building up our confidence. It’s not easy working in the design industry and Maria helps remind both seasoned and brand new designers that they need to “create the look and feel” for their clients by styling their spaces. I completely agree with her assertion that a home will never feel truly finished until and unless it’s styled, which I posted about here.

A room can be completely renovated from top to bottom, but if there are no drapes, pillows or accessories, it simply won’t look warm and inviting. A perfect way to make a room feel finished, sophisticated and beautiful is to use color in the “soft” items. During that second day, Maria took us through some great hands-on exercises that helped demonstrate to us how to use her systems to select a color palette that included those kinds of finishing touch items.

On the third and final day, we worked on “the business of color.” Maria walked us through some tips she uses in her own successful design business to help us build even greater trust with our clients and pack on the value we deliver to them in their design projects.

I could fill a dozen blog posts with what I learned from Maria, but here are the top 3 truly game-changing concepts I walked away with:

Mohindroo Interiors

First, create flow with color.

I’ve always understood the importance of using color to create visual flow from one room to the next in a home and I’ve always applied it to my designs. But I realized in this workshop that I’ve been pretty timid about it, using small doses of color in artwork and accessories throughout a home.

Maria, on the other hand, encouraged the workshop attendees to give ourselves permission to create color flow with major features like a powder room vanity or a kitchen island. In short, if you’ve always loved a particular color (like periwinkle blue, for example) it’s likely you’ll still love that color in 5-10 years. Choosing a periwinkle tile or a cabinet finish may seem like a risky choice, but there’s really no risk if it’s what you love. That said, the biggest key to making a non-neutral color work is to keep the rest of the hard surfaces in the space white or neutral.

Mohindroo Interiors

Second, color is timeless – neutrals go in and out of style quickly.

It sounds totally counterintuitive, but Maria walked us through color trends from the ’90s, the 2000s, the 2010s and now. Interestingly, when she showed us the predominantly used neutral for each of those timeframes, the neutrals were dead giveaways of the time, whereas the colors could have applied to any number of decades.

Using color (plus white and classic elements) in your spaces lends timelessness to your interiors. A perfect example of this is the recently renovated Ritz Carlton. Without a grey or “gallery white” wall in sight, and instead, each room decorated with beautiful, rich color, the style will endure for a good 10-20 years. If you want your home’s design to stand the test of time as well, use color, color, color!

Mohindroo Interiors

Third, put a white background behind your color samples.

This is such a game changer. Even though I’ve always known that colors can be skewed by each other, it never occurred to me that placing a color sample on an already painted wall would affect how the sample looks, and by extension would affect the choice my clients and I make. This trick helps when comparing colors and when trying to match colors.

Maria’s simple but genius solution? Place a white background (a simple white poster board will do) behind the sample to neutralize that skewing effect. That way, we see the color sample for exactly what it is and how it will ultimately look in the space.


What a difference knowing just a few key truths about color selection can make! Maria is a total genius and I’m so grateful I got the opportunity to learn from her. In addition to the thrill of meeting Maria and learning from her, I met some wonderful new designer friends. I feel completely re-energized and am just buzzing with a renewed excitement for helping my clients!

Designers and non-designers alike can learn a lot by following her Colour Me Happy Blog. And if you’d rather have someone else help you pick your home’s colors for you, I’ve got you covered with my Peace of Mind Color Consultation Package.

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