Embracing the Dark Side

By Kate Riley October 11, 2012

Today is Color Day on the ol’ blog and this morning I posted about my favorite hue which is blue.  This afternoon, contributing writer and interior designer Courtney from Courtney Out Loud is back to share his thoughts on color, specifically the darker shades in the spectrum. 

Having taken the plunge and introduced a dark paint color into our own home (the powder room) earlier this year, I have a new found affection for dark painted walls, especially ones with whites and creams layered in for contrast, burnished metallic sheens, and richly patterned or rustic wood accents.  The combination makes me want to curl up with a good book and a cup of tea in these enveloping spaces. 

Please welcome back Courtney and his interview with a noted color expert on how to embrace the dark side… of paint!

“Nina Simone sang that black is the color of her true love’s hair and for me it is the color that I love most.  Something about this inky hue draws me in, settles my mind, and puts me at ease.  Clients typically come to me craving color which I am happy to deliver in all its rainbow glory but when left to my own devices, a smoky grey, nocturnal purple or saturated brown will always catch my eye.

Historically, these darker hues have been linked to nefarious activities and sinister deeds, but color research shows that the dark hues like their lighter cousins can elicit a range of reactions from relaxation to revitalization. Curious to know more about my infatuation with dark colors and how to best use them in my designs, I turned to Jean Molesworth Kee, noted architectural color consultant based in Washington, D.C. and the author of the highly regarded blog, The Painted Room.

Nate Berkus and Anne Coyle in Elle Decor

Nate Berkus in Elle Decor

Being a designer, I was bit hesitant to ask for help in understanding how to best use dark colors in spaces – let’s be honest, people pay me to help them with their overall design of which color plays a large part.  Fortunately, Jean shared that many designers as well as lay people use her services which begged me to ask…what is that that she exactly does.

“I do have a highly specialized niche, which is a luxury (not having to deal with building codes)!  Most of my work is residential– working with homeowners who want to make a change but are just spinning in the “color vortex”.

Rugo Raff Ltd. Architects

Rugo Raff Architects

That “color vortex” is something I know all too often from my own work with clients. That moment when clients need to make a paint decision many times feel like the longest part of the process.  Creating the proper background from which to anchor the design is essential and how I see paint selection. 

However, I know how difficult it is to deal with coaching design clients through the process, so I asked how it is to work with a second party (aka designers like me) and surprisingly, Jean enjoys that collaborative process.  “My ideal project involves collaboration with architects and designers on the ground floor but I’m usually working with a lot of design elements already in place.”

dark bookcases cochrane design

Cochrane Design

Once onboard but before meeting with a client, Jean will have them take a tour of her Pinterest Boards where she has organized hundreds of images of interiors and exteriors – great for inspiration. “My work is so visual- it’s great to have a tool for clients to communicate what sort of atmosphere they are trying to achieve.”  This initial exploration by the client and their subsequent reactions informs Jean’s process and guides her in how to access her onsite visit.

Like designers often do during their first site visit, color consultants will look at the room(s) in question and assess the givens.  For Molesworth Kee, she factors in things such as “sources of natural and artificial light, floor color, room flow, sight lines, fixed window trim and, of course, furnishings.” All of these factors inform her consultation and guide her in making the best color selections for her client.

DecorPad Edited

via Decorpad

Which leads me back to the initial reason I sought out Molesworth Kee’s expert advice; to understand why people are so “afraid” of dark colors?   She quickly points out that dark colors get a bum rap and are quickly relegated “Addam’s Family territory” mostly on knee jerk reactions.  She states that clients typically need a “calming down” from the shock of the dark color appearing as a large unbroken plane.

Jean notes that “I have to remind clients that the effect is so much less intense after the plane is broken with artwork and furniture.”  She brings up an essential point that clients initially overlook – color rarely is shown in a continuous plane in your home.

Clients fear that that choosing that deep chocolate for their walls will make them feel like they are living in a candy bar (which may not be a bad thing) but once you layer on floor coverings, drapery, lighting, furniture and artwork, very little of that color is actually seen, but what is left is the overall mood that the color evokes.

Fresh Home


Typically client’s bring up the design adage that “you can’t use dark colors in a room with no natural light” which Jean debunks by saying, “Whites and pale colors simply die in a room starved of natural light.  Dark color can work magic in dimly lit rooms. It becomes moody and enveloping in soft lamplight creating a sense of drama.

Dark wall color can be great wrapped onto ceilings – it dissolves ceiling lines and boundaries and can actually make a space feel bigger.”  Ever walked into a dimly light restaurant and felt a little sexier?  Or found yourself smitten with how cozy a dark powder room felt?  Then you are experiencing the exact phenomena that Molesworth Kee is discussing – humans are drawn to warm and cozy nooks and spaces. It is one of the reasons why kitchens are now leaning towards darker paint colors – it reflects our want to gather in environments that feel nested and cocooned.

Karen Soojian

Karen Soojian

And in the interest of being fair and balanced, Molesworth Kee explained there are times when dark colors shouldn’t be used.  “If you have a room with bare windows, painting the walls dark will create very high contrast between the glare of the window and the wall during daylight which actually straining the eye.  Dark color can sometimes detract from a beautiful view though can also enhance it too.“

LDa Architecture & Interiors

LDA Architects

Another thing that can be distracting is the prep work needed to get good coverage with dark colors.  For those of you tempted to skip primer, DON’T. “Without tinted primer, many dark colors, especially reds, require multiple coats.” Informs Jean.  Primer can be a headache, but at over 50% less than the cost of paint, one gallon of tinted primer can save you buying 1-2 gallons of paint.  What can also save you in the end?  Investing in premium paint.  Jean and I both realize that premium paints come with a premium price tag, but they are well worth the cost.

blue walls and bookcases porter design

Porter Design Company

“Premium paints are absolutely worth the money, especially with dark, saturated color. Brands like Farrow & Ball use very high quality pigments and resins that give darker colors depth that can’t be matched in [less expensive] brands. C2Paint uses a 16-­‐colorant European tinting system with simply more pigment in the can.” Another factor she points how when selecting paint is the sheen level.  Premium brands like Farrow and Ball’s Estate Emulsion offer a chalky matte finish that absorbs light but is not dead flat which gives color depth and movement. Big box brands tend to have a higher sheen factor, which can make darker hues, look cheap.

dark walls homedit


Molesworth Kee reminds often reminds her clients “you are largely paying for labor (even your own) when painting, buy the best product you can afford. What is the saying?  Nothing is more expensive than cheap paint.” However, if you do opt to go with a big box brand, Molesworth Kee recommends Benjamin Moore’s Aura brand, which covers in 1 to 2 coats when used with the recommended primer.

House To Home

House to Home

Kay Douglass for Veranda Edited


Having shared my love affair with darkly painted rooms, I asked Jean if she had any favorite dark paints.  Instantly she responded back with three: “Benjamin Moore’s Gentleman’s Gray is an inky blue/green that can be stunning in a low lit library or dining room.  I swear by C2 Paint’s deep reds (‘Hot Tamale’ is a great one – incredible depth that most brands can’t come close to.  I also love Farrow & Balls’ Brinjal, a deep eggplant color that is a knockout when used with warm – toned wood furniture and floors.”

Who says having a dark side is a bad thing?  Matter of fact, I think I may be embracing mine full-force.  My walls best beware!” 

Thank you so much Courtney for your insight and Jean Molesworth Kee for your expertise!  I love how Jean coaches her clients through the color selection process, reminding them not to fear dark color because after all the layers of the room are installed, what is left is not an overpowering hue but the overall mood that the color evokes.  Brilliantly put! 

Catch up with Courtney and read all of his design tips at his personal blog Courtney Out Loud and with Jean Molesworth Kee at her blog The Painted Room.

What about you?  Do you love looking at dark painted walls but fear incorporating them into your home?  Or have you taken the plunge and boldly embraced the dark side with a deep hue on your walls?   Feel free to link to your dark painted spaces in the comments!



  1. As a newbie to the DIY scene I thank you for introducing me to a new blog — Courtney Out Loud. I’m always looking for creative souls (such as yourself to) look up to LOL. I’m a huge fan of the darker colored wall look, but hadn’t dared tried it myself. However, with the right accessories I’m sure ANYONE could pull of this color scheme.

  2. I. just. love. this. post!! I have never been one to shy away from LOTS of color. Every room in my home has some color. Mostly navy blues and browns; teals ad golds. People come into my home and give me all kinds of compliments on my use of color and they always say how they wish they had the nerve to use color in their own homes but are so afraid. Then I always say to them, “It Is Only Color!”. If you don’t like it paintover it. It is so funny because most people dress in their favourte colors but are afraid to put them on the walls. If you love those colors on your body then you will probably love them on your walls. Right? I love reading your blog by the way…absolutely can’t drink my morning coffee without it!!! Thanks!

  3. This is a great post. I love dark paint on walls. After living in a rental apartment for 3 years and not being able to paint the wheat colored walls throughout, I was going crazy. Then we found a rental home but the entire front half of the house was painted sea foam green. The foyer, hallway, laundry room, bathroom, and one of the bedrooms! It gagged me, especially since the rest of the house was the same wheat color as the apartment we were moving out of. I made a deal with our land lord, If you let me paint I will repaint before we move out if you do not like the colors. Now our foyer is my favorite room in the house, a very very deep chocolate brown ceiling also the same color. Our hallway and laundry room is now a beautiful light sky blue, I plan to go dark gray blue with a white bead-board lower half in our bathroom but cannot decide what color our bedroom should be, I really love the chocolate from our foyer but my husband thinks the walls should be light because we have a massive dark mahogany dresser that takes up one entire wall of our room. Too many choices, especially when I love light and dark shades of paint. All shades of brown, green (except seafoam, lol), blue, and gray. I am also ready to add a deep bold navy to the front door of our red brick house.

  4. I am DYING to get my foyer painted high gloss black or deep navy blue… this post makes me even more desperate to make it happen! I have painted all of my interior doors black and I love the depth it has created in my little abode. I think dark walls are great because they really recede and allow art or other wall hangings to really shine. I also love that it makes molding stand out!


  5. I loved this post and all the pics of the dark rooms as I am in the midst of painting my master black!!!

  6. I run through two phases in my decorating life. The first was all yellows and greens and oranges on the walls. Then I got bored and painted my living room brown. I loved it! Now that we moved the living room and dining room are a grey like the one in Homedit picture. It ‘s great, I think dark hues make rooms so elegant and stylish. Don’t be afraid of them.

  7. I’m really torn right now between painting our family room a darker, richer color, or a lighter, more “expected” one. There are two windows in the room, but they are smaller than usual (because the room is almost at basement level). Any suggestions?

  8. I love these dark colors but you need really big rooms to make it work. But when you do, it looks really really elegant!

  9. I have been thinking of doing navy in our living room and it’s making me nervous but excited. These tips were great, especially about using primer and not being a cheapskate when it comes to buying the pain. Hoping to do the paiting soon and will share on my blog!

  10. To Anja – you do not need really big rooms to make dark colors work! Our house is Gothic cottage style built in 1905. We only have 1700 sq feet in the whole house, so we have very small rooms. There isn’t a white wall in the place. Our downstairs 3/4 bath is 6ft by 6ft and we have it painted a deep charcoal, the tile is oversized mid grey with black grout. The fixtures are white and chrome and I have red towels and a rug. It is one of my favorite rooms!

    Our master bedroom is about 14 by 15. One wall is very dark olive, the other three are a medium-dark olive. The ceiling is pale olive. I LOVE IT. It is very comforting to me.

    Don’t be afraid of dark colors in a small space. I find them much more cozy and homelike than light colors.

  11. Personally I have a tough time choosing lighter colors. I am always drawn to darker colors. When it came to my bathrooms, it was like pulling teeth until I finally decided on a pale minty green and lighter greenish grey. My living room is actually a darker “neutral” blue from Sherwin Williams called Tempe Star. My bedroom is Seal Grey from Glidden.
    Have a look here:

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