NYC Renovation Q's

NYC Renovation Questions: What are the best paint colors for an apartment?

By Tracy Kaler  | February 13, 2013 - 8:58AM

Q. I want to paint my apartment and I'm overwhelmed by the choices. Any tips?

A.  First things first: Buy a paint color fan deck, available at any paint store for around $10-$15. This color swatch display has hundreds of pre-designed paint chip colors to choose from and is essential when selecting colors.

Look at the existing colors and furnishings in your apartment and, consulting your paint deck, decide which color "stories" (colors in the same family) you’re attracted to and what you think will coordinate with your flooring and furniture. Once you’ve established a direction, you can narrow the many options available.  For example, you may love yellows, so focus on the yellow sections of the deck and find that perfect shade of the color you’ve visualized.

Another useful tool is Benjamin Moore's "Personal Color Viewer" tool. It allows you to virtually paint a room in your apartment using your computer. Load a photo of the space in question and see the color in relationship to your furnishings. "All Benjamin Moore colors are available through the PCV and it's user-friendly," says Kawal Bridgelall of Janovic Painter Center in Long Island City. "It's also free."

Colors will appear differently from monitor to monitor of course, but if you're undecided whether to go red or brown, this application will point you in the right color direction. You'll see what the overall color will look like before you purchase or lift that paint brush.

Stick to a straightforward scheme if you’re not working with a decorating professional. If you happen to finish painting and find yourself less than thrilled with the finished product, at least it’s an inexpensive fix (simply buy more paint and dedicate another weekend to the re-do).

Paint from a chip to a can to a wall can be drastically different, and if you select several colors and paint test patches first, you should have no surprises when the job is done.  I’ve had great success with buying quarts or the small containers called “Color samples” from Benjamin Moore. (It’s worth spending the extra cash to avoid repainting your apartment.) 

My paint brand of choice is Benjamin Moore because the paint is thick, spreads easily, and has great durability, but you can select whichever one you prefer. If you’re a fan of Pratt & Lambert, Behr, or Sherwin Williams, to name a few, you can always find comparable colors, or better yet, ask your paint store to color match from a paint chip.

Paint a 12x12 square or larger (if you have a quart) on a few different spots in your room since light changes from wall to wall. Observe the paint at different times of the day and live with the colors for a few days or even a week. In smaller apartments, selecting one color for ceiling and trim (typically a white) is probably best for the novice. A flat finish is usually recommended for ceilings because it will reflect the least amount of light, hence be the most forgiving. Semi-gloss or satin works nicely on doors and trim.

That's the big picture, painting-wise, but you also need to consider the particular challenges presented by a NYC apartment. They may range from lack of sunlight or character, to well as low ceilings or dimensions barely big enough for a sofa.  

Here are some specific color suggestions:

Low ceilings

For rooms with low ceilings (8 feet or less) you can create the illusion of a taller space by painting both the walls and the ceiling the same color.

If you have little experience selecting colors, start off with a neutral or a creamy white. Something like Benjamin Moore’s Ladyfinger (1045) or White Marigold (2149-60) would be good solutions. You can move to one shade darker on the walls, but to keep the color light, stay on the top three chips of the paint deck.

If you’re a risk taker, feel free to experiment and consider more intense colors or those further down the deck.

Cold, generic spaces

If you have a post-war apartment that lacks character or a very modern apartment with a tendency to feel cold, you might want to warm up the space.

Experiment with darker colors like Iron Gate (1545) or Blue Danube (2062-30) if you have good natural light. Rich colors like these will make even the most sterile room feel cozy.

For apartments with less direct sunlight, go toward the warmer end of the spectrum like Maryville Brown (HC-75) or Greenfield Pumpkin (HC-40).

Dark apartments

The answer to a dark room isn’t only in the right paint color—lighting is just as important—but paint is definitely a step in the right direction.

You’ll probably want to brighten your dingy room, so a brighter color palette makes sense. Not only will it create a more unique backdrop, I guarantee that your guests won’t stop asking you, “What’s this fabulous color?”

Brighter doesn't need to mean garish. Think about the intensity of the color and living with it on a daily basis. Unless you're a fan, you might want to hold the sunflower yellow.

To reflect light and create a bit more drama, use paint with an eggshell finish rather than flat paint.  I recommend colors like Beacon Hill Damask (HC-2), Passion Blue (2053-50) or even an orange like Pumpkin Blush (2156-20).

Tiny spaces

Smaller spaces are my favorite because nooks and tight quarters are an opportunity to be creative. Often these little rooms lack interest too, and picking a fun or dramatic color will give the room personality.

If you like blues, Palladian Blue (HC-144) will lend itself to a tranquil hideaway. If you're feeling bold, consider something red like Geranium (1307) or a muted silver like Cobblestone Path (1606) would be perfect for an elegant room. 

Lighter colors will naturally give the illusion of more space and darker colors will bring coziness to the room. Think about how you want the room to feel before you begin playing with color.


Most flat paints can't be wiped clean without a touch-up, so if you have small children, consider using a washable paint like Benjamin Moore’s Regal Classic. It has a non-absorbent finish and seals porous surfaces, versus standard eggshell paints, which are difficult to touch up.  

If your child is especially arty, consider a chalkboard finish on one wall. And if you’re not longing for a solid black or charcoal colored surface, you can paint the finish in your color of choice. Not only will this save your other perfectly skimmed walls, a chalkboard finish will give your child plenty of space to scribble the day away.


As boring as it may sound, neutral is best. It will let your buyers easily imagine your space becoming theirs.

“I'd recommend painting the walls light tan, and the trim (doors, windows, window frames, baseboards, moldings) a bright white,” says broker Gordon Roberts of Warburg Realty. “This will give it a tailored look.”

Try Windham Cream (HC-6) or if your floors are stained dark, look at Monterey White (HC-27) or White Sand (OC-10) for the walls. Decorator’s White and Mountain Peak White (OC-121) are practical options for the ceilings, doors and trim.

Real estate broker, Shelli Scrimale of Stribling suggests keeping to a neutral palette as well. She recommends “Navajo White (947) or Linen White (912) for the walls.” You won't go wrong with White Dove (OC-17) on the ceilings, doors and trim.


Tracy Kaler was a designer, decorator and renovator in her last life. Before working as a freelance writer, she held several furniture sales jobs in the Big Apple and purchased a new wardrobe. Now she works in her pajamas and commutes two feet to her desk each day. The walls of her prewar apartment are painted Benjamin Moore (Regal Matte Finish) Healing Aloe (1562) in the living, dining and kitchen area, Dune Grass (492) in the master bedroom, White Marigold (2149-60) in the guest nook, Paper White (1590) in the bathroom, with White Dove (OC-17) on the ceilings, doors, and trim throughout. 

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