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Colour Story: White (and why it’s never going on my walls!)

Colour Story: White (and why it’s never going on my walls!)

There is one colour that I cannot bring myself to paint my home with and it's the colour white! I know that this is a very personal approach to design and decor and I completely respect and understand that many of you may love decorating with this 'colour' in your home. I believe that interior design is all about how a room makes you feel and that relies heavily on your personal responses to different colours so I want to go a bit deeper into why I hate decorating with white so much. This personal journey is one that has (and still is) taking me a long time to figure out but I love discovering why I'm drawn to certain pages of the colour card and why certain shades turn me off.

I thought it was time to start a new series as (my blog is one year next week, yippee!) and this is the first in that series. I’m passionate about  using colour it in my own home and wanted to share my own thoughts as well as my experiences with clients with you so that it helps you make your own interiors decisions and help you arrive at knowing what your own style is. So keep your eyes peeled for more colours in the Colour Story series. But first we're starting off with a controversial one but my hope is that it sparks a little conversation...

Subtle pink walls

A little bit of Science...

As someone who was passionate about physics at school (another surprising fact about me!) I thought it might to helpful to kick off with a little bit of science to help our understanding. All visible light, i.e. what we can see and perceive has a specific wavelength. Did you know that black and white are not actually colours because they do not have specific wavelengths? Instead, white light contains all wavelengths of visible light and black, on the other hand, is the absence of visible light. It's also helpful to remember that white reflects light, but is not the absence of light. However,black absorbs light and is the absence of colour. This is helpful when thinking about interiors and the surfaces we use and whether they absorb or reflect light which affects the brightness and atmosphere of our rooms.

Still confused?!

To make it easier let's consider how we make white.  If all three primary colors are mixed, red, green and blue then the result is white. So interestingly white is not without colour or pigment but contains all the colours.


Although white is the last colour I would ever consider using in my home, I have seen lots of  amazingly designed rooms that utilise white walls to great effect and actually I have a friend who craves white walls in her home and totally disagrees with my philosophy!  She is a senior book designer and is surrounded everyday by colour as she looks and makes colourful choices about the children’s books she works on. So in her home she wants white walls to be easy on her eyes and intentionally chooses her walls to be devoid of colour (remember technically white is actually the reflection of EVERY colour on the spectrum). However, she still manages to achieve amazing interior spaces by painting the woodwork quite a dark colour and by adding colourful textiles and furniture to her rooms such as Designer's Guild orange velvet and other colourful accents to stop the space from being too stark, minimalist or cool. I love her approach and really respect how white works well for her.

Orange velvet stool and industrial accessories

wonderful White Rooms

Here are some amazing inspiring rooms that use white as the blank canvas to tell someone's story in their home and it strikes me that white walls can be used to great effect alongside complex patterns or colourful artwork or if it uses rustic or antique furniture in juxtaposition against the pure walls. The three images below are credited to Studio Ashby.

What About Off-Whites?

I had the pleasure of meeting Sophie Ashby whose studio created the incredible spaces above, and loved hearing her discuss her thoughts on individuality in design at London Design Week (you can read my lowdown here). To be honest I can only do a bit of guesswork here but my hunch is that none of these rooms have actually used pure brilliant white on the walls and have probably used an off-white. This, I believe, is the key to successfully using white on your walls. A great example of this is when I visited Mary’s home for my Journey home series. Her living room is a myriad of cosy scandi with deep greens, bright reds and light pinks alongside textural wood. My actual words to Mary were -

“I’m not really a fan of white walls to be honest but it works really well in this space - with all the greens and reds in this room it feels so cosy!”

Mary quickly corrected me that the walls were not actually white but a very, very subtle pink colour, that compliments the tones and natural light in this room. This taught me a massive lesson in the power of an off-white shade. There is no way I could tell that it wasn’t pure brilliant white BUT I could sense the way it made me feel and the atmosphere it gave to the room. 

Almost white wall in this rustic scandi cosy living room

So why am I telling you this story? Well, what I said to Mary in that moment was a huge revelation to me. Sometimes we can perceive or sense how a room makes us feel but often we cannot see it or be able to articulate why. Here is the beauty of using all the subtle off whites on offer to us today. They change the atmosphere in the room but the actual wall still looks white! And since I am no means a colour expert (yet!) I love that when I speak to any of the Farrow and Ball Colour Consultants that I learn more and more about how this works.

The other weekend I was at an interior styling workshop by the Secret Styling Club at Farrow and Ball in Hove and loved hearing how passionately Sam (their own Colour Consultant) talked about colour and I loved how she could predict the colours customers would choose based on what they were wearing. Afterwards we had such an enlightening conversation about how she loves decorating with white and how all the small nuances of off-whites can make a massive difference in a room. In fact in the Farrow and Ball How to Decorate book they have listed which of their own white shades compliment every specially curated hue on their colour card to make it easy to find what works best for your scheme. For this brand that uses pigments in their paint which changes with varying light, I can see why it's worth spending the extra money to have paint that behaves in such a clever way!


Why is white our default paint colour?

I think that one of the reasons I hate painting with white (and more specifically pure brilliant white which is so readily available in all the DIY stores) is that in our day and age it's become a default colour in our homes. We use it without thinking of the other (amazing) alternatives and I myself am guilty of this. When I decorated our first flat all the skirting boards and architrave were white. I didn't even realise that there was an alternative and I guess felt that I had to use it. Again there is absolutely nothing wrong with white woodwork (to hear my true thoughts on this read one of my most popular posts here!) but it's good to consider other ideas first before ignorantly doing what everyone else is doing. Painting room trimmings white is a pretty recent idea since around the 40s and 50s (reasons unclear but read my own thought on on the aforementioned blog post) and since the Georgians and Victorians were not afraid of colour, we don't need to be either. 


In the same way, we can consider the fifth wall in our homes namely the ceiling, and whether we want to paint that pure white or a more subtle shade to compliment our scheme. In my kid's bedrooms I've actually pointed the ceilings the same colours as the walls for a cosier feel and for our new kitchen I didn't want the stark contrast of bight white against the dark walls and opted for a light grey to make the room feel a little more intimate.

But what is the real reason I hate white?

I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a while and whilst talking to some friends in Brighton over brunch I had a complete revelation about my realtionship with white. Let me take you back to my teenage years when I was at Grammar school and exceliing in Sciences and Maths but also studying mandatory art classes. I can now tell that at the time my quirky, grumpy art teacher was clearly a frustrated artist but what he taught me about art is that I was no good at it. I was lucky if my homework pencil drawings got anymore than 3 out of 10 and my replication of the Sunflowers by Van Gogh was an embarassment. I was taught that to be good at art you had to be good at copying and replicating what already existed with a pen or paintbrush. (I know, I can't get my head around that this kind of teaching was allowed in the 90s!) Thankfully I now know that this is not art thanks to my Bachelor of Arts degree but this was my formative experience in creating work. So over my bacon and american pancakes by the sea, I realised that nothing frightens me or paralyses me more than a blank white page. You see when a white canvas is presented to me I have nothing to work with and find that it completely zaps my creativity. This is the same wall I feel when surrounded by white walls! Isn't it interesting that our experiences and memories and their positive or negative associations with certain colours shape our preferences for our own room schemes? This is something that I am realising is the key to creating rooms that we can feel at home in, that when we understand our historical and cultural background of certain colours, then we can start to make decorating decisions with ease. 

Artists tools

Even more than my hatred and fear of white is my love of colour. Yes, I have my favourite hues and my home is full of blues, green and greys but really I adore all colour. I love travelling the world (although this has happened much less since having the boys) and having visited a few countries in Latin America, I immediately fell in love with their zest for life and the role of colour in their lives. For instance, Guatemala is full of the most kind-hearted people and in a culture where the houses are painted various colours and their clothes are full of the rainbow with deep reds and bright yellow, I think it birthed an appreciation of how colour can used as metaphors. Colour is integral to the country’s culture and embodies their philosophy and celebration for life! (Interestingly I had this realisation when watching Coco with my son at the cinema on the same weekend as realising my fear of the white canvas!)

Little Jack and I in Mexico. Photo credit: John Ford

Little Jack and I in Mexico. Photo credit: John Ford

What next?

So please take away with you that Donna is not saying ditch the white walls! If that's the kind of decor that you love then go for it but my top tip is to question WHY you are making certain colour choices and consider if there is a subltle alternative that could give the room even more of the atmosphere you want it to have. The point is that you need to find what you like and then understand why, because then you start to discover your own style and the whole complicated process of choosing colours for your home becomes so much easier. Well that is apart from the plethora of paint brands and shades to choose from! 

As for me, I doubt that I'll ever buy a tin of pure brilliant white ever again, even for ceilings (although maybe it should be my life's challenge to create a white room and create a space inside it that I love). What's your relationship with white? I'd love to hear your thoughts (and disagrements!) in the comments below. And also let me know what colour you'd like me to feature next in my colour story series!

Yours in colour and creativity,

Donna x.jpg

DISCLAIMER: All photography by me unless otherwise stated. This isn't a sponsored post - I'm just writing about what interests me.

What I've learnt in my first year of blogging & running my own business!

What I've learnt in my first year of blogging & running my own business!

London Design Week 2018: Individuality in Interiors

London Design Week 2018: Individuality in Interiors