Extending color to the ceiling can add visual interest, texture and sophistication to a room, without much effort. Here’s why you should try it, and how to implement it in your own home.
Sophistication on a budget. Although homeowners have many choices when it comes to adding interest to the ceiling, not all of them are equal. Tray, coffered and beamed ceilings, for instance, change the feel of a room, but they come at a cost, says Arianna Cesa, associate manager of color marketing and development at Benjamin Moore. “Painting your ceiling is the most budget-friendly upgrade if you are looking to add a design element to your ceiling,” she says. “It can absolutely change the look and feel of a space.”
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Unlike other ceiling treatments that cost more money and require a firm design commitment, it’s easy to change paint if you don’t like it, says Hannah Galbreath, owner and designer at Hannah Galbreath Design in Salt Lake City. And if your budget does not allow for a professional painter, you can take the job on yourself. “It’s something that anyone can do,” Galbreath says. “It’s low-cost, low-consequence.”
Maximum warmth. Smaller rooms, such as dens and offices, can benefit from deep, saturated ceiling colors, which can add subtle warmth, Cesa says. “Darker paint colors can be comforting and cozy,” she adds. “Bringing that color onto the ceiling allows you to be completely enveloped in that hue.” She advises saving this technique for rooms with plenty of light to avoid a “cavelike” feeling. “If the room doesn’t have natural lighting, consider bringing in additional artificial lighting sources,” she says.
“You are trying to create more intimacy,” says Jesse Hunnefeld, owner of Hunnefeld Painting in Massachusetts. He adds that painting a ceiling — particularly in a smaller room or in one with an unusually shaped ceiling — is a good way to draw the room in, creating boundaries and intimacy without adding artificial architectural elements that may cost money and require more time and materials.
A sense of continuity. In rooms where there is no natural 90-degree line between walls and ceiling, painting the ceiling may be the best choice for a clean, crisp look, Hunnefeld says. “You don’t have a natural break, visually, that you do when you have 90-degree perpendicular angles,” he says. “So you’d have to re-create that line, and re-creating that line is complicated in technique, because you’d basically have to freehand.” Painting that line by hand, he says, can leave you with a less-polished look. Extending the color up the wall to the ceiling mitigates this problem.
“In some homes, where you might have a bullnose, or a rounded wall, rather than creating an artificial line — whether it’s a horizontal line or a vertical line — just continuing the paint doesn’t create visual truncation,” Galbreath says. “It allows you to continue your view upward.” The room, she says, runs in a single visual plane, as opposed to in several disconnected and choppy planes that draw the eye back and forth.
Contrasting sheens. Even in a room where the ceiling is the same color as the walls, you can create contrast with a paint’s sheen. Hunnefeld suggests using a semi-gloss or high-gloss paint on accent points, such as the trim, so the eye picks up different elements in the room. “It’s a juxtaposition, and it can be very subtle,” he says. In a room where the color is all the same, the differences are visible in how the light hits the pigment. That’s where sheen can be important.
Or, Cesa says, lean into sheen in a different way by using it on the ceiling. “If you want to heighten the drama and bring some more texture into the space, you can also opt for a ceiling in a higher gloss, which will mean greater shine and reflection,” she says. But glossier sheens, she notes, can affect how a color casts, and that’s worth keeping in mind. If you use a glossy sheen on the ceiling, consider painting your walls in the same finish, “to keep things simple and unified,” she suggests.
The illusion of space. Although one common fear of painting a ceiling with darker colors lies in closing a room in, the truth is that a deeply saturated ceiling can actually enlarge a space. “It helps to blur the lines and edges of the space,” Cesa says. “It can make small rooms feel larger.”
Galbreath agrees. “It can sort of make the ceiling go away,” she says. When you use different paint colors, she says, you are accentuating the difference between wall and ceiling.
Do a test run. Painting your ceiling with color is not without pitfalls, especially if you choose a highly stylized look. Hunnefeld says a ceiling that is both pigmented and rich in sheen hides nothing, and slight imperfections in drywall are also more apt to leap to the surface. And if your ceiling has a textured finish, it’s best to stick with white paint. “The flatter the surface, the less imperfections show,” Hunnefeld says, noting that one workaround is to reduce the sheen to flat or matte. He adds that color is harder to touch up if the ceiling needs a little bit of work in the years to come.
If you decide that color is the way to go, Galbreath says that testing is important to determine how the color will play out in your space and its lighting. She suggests painting large samples next to one another, marked clearly.
“I don’t think you can talk about paint color without talking about light,” she says. “Paint a lot of swatches. Make them big enough that you get the impact of what the room would feel like if it were to be painted in that color. Do it on every wall, if you can, just so you can see the way the color lives throughout the day.”
Hannah Selinger is a freelance writer in New York.