White trim can set off a wall colour making everything look fresh and crisp. But picking white paint for trim, it’s not easy to get the white right. The most sophisticated rooms look best when the trim provides crisp but subtle contrast to the wall colour. The magic happens in a room where elegant white trim details stand out but are not harsh and jarring. If you, like me, have driven yourself crazy trying to pick out the right white, read on. I can simplify things.

Get your Whites Right the First Time!

First up, let’s give up the notion that there will be that one perfect white trim that flows seamlessly from room to room and complements everything, because it doesn’t exist. Yes, we ideally want to pick a white that will be your universal trim colour but there’s a problem with that ideal. If off-white or cream is the background of your hard materials, wallpaper, and soft furnishings then the white that suits them best may not work all that well against bright white fixtures in the bathroom.

So you need to either let go of perfection, or to accept that you may need to change trim colours in the bathroom, kitchen, laundry room or other. It’s not ideal, but it’s not awful either. The simple trick is to changing trim colours is to find a seam (often in the door-frame) where you can transition from a cooler white to a warmer white. When you find the right spot, the difference will be almost imperceptible because it will fall into a shadowed area of your trim and just look like a cast shadow.

Reading the Undertones

First off, let’s look at a couple of whites to illustrate what the challenge is.

First up, Benjamin Moore’s “Simply White”. This white, a real pleaser, has been very popular lately.

white paper on hardwood floor

Let’s look at another – Benjamin Moore’s “Pure White”

white paper on hardwood floor

Do you see the problem? Would you know which of these was the perfect white for your home? …and when I say the perfect white, keep in mind that the right white will make the trim look fresh and crisp, the wall colour nicely separated from the floor. The wrong white will look dingy, and make the wall colour look the same. It’s just not as pretty as it could be.

What if I told you the two whites you just looked at were two of Benjamin Moore’s most popular whites? Would one of them work for you?

It is impossible to know from those images. Here’s why. In order to see colour clearly, you need to do two things.

  1. Separate it from any background colour.
  2. Compare it to other similar colours

I wrote about my key tips to picking a paint colour previously where you can read these tips and more, but trust me on this. There is not better way to see the colour clearly than to see it against white and compare it to other colours you are considering.

Here are those two whites again, together, sided by side for comparison, and set against a white background. Now you can clearly see they are not the same at all.

two white paint swatches showing different undertones

The most important thing to learn about whites is that they generally fall into three categories: warm, cool, and neutral or pure white. All white paint colours will have a slight cast to them. If you have ever painted a wall or trim what you thought was white only to see it looked a bit grey, or yellow, or blue etc. you will know what I mean. With white paint especially, the base paint before you put any pigment or colourant into it will have a slight cast from the basic formulation. Each brand will differ slightly.

To make an off-white paint colour, pigments are added to the base. A comination of umber, or yellow, or magenta can be added to produce a creamy white. A hint of blue, green, or black are added to get a cooler white.

Cream is warm, and any whites more greyed or blued are cool.

How to pick the right white for your trim colour

There are a few things you need to take into consideration.

Determine the main or dominant white in your in your room.

Look at your fixtures, hard surfaces like countertops, tiles, backsplash, rugs, fabrics, drapery, etc. If there is a white background in any of the patterned fabrics or rugs, make note of whether they are warm or cool. If you find you have a mix of whites, look for the dominant one which is usually the one that you have the most of.

If you are picking trim for your kitchen, for example, many countertops have either white or off-white in them. Since that is likely the largest piece in many kitchens, it will determine what type of white you will need for the trim.

Decide whether you need a warm white or a cool white

When to use a warm white or cream

Warm whites complement earthy tones. If you have a lot of warm wood, or warm earthy colours, warm white will look best. Warm white or cream are also best if the whites in your room are warm and creamy. In this room below, we used a very creamy white. The same white would have looked yellow in the wrong context, but here it was just right. Likewise, a stark white would look wrong – cheap. I don’t use that word often but here it fits.

Cape Cod style living room with warm honey coloured upholstery
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When to use a cool white

Cool white is a good trim colour for cool wall colours. Grey or blue walls, or even a grayed lavender may suit a cool white (hint: violet can go either way because yellow is the complement of violet). If you are renovating a bathroom or kitchen, many white based marbles that are so poular right now for bathrooms and kitchens suit cool whites

Dresser styled with accessories in a room with gray walls and blue accents
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When to use a neutral white

When neither cool nor warm work best, then look at a neutral white or pure white.

I can hear you already shaking your head and saying, why not always use neutral or pure white? That is a valid question. The reason is that if you choose neutral white and never consider the warm and/or cool whites you may never get as good an outcome. Deciding on the right white should be after you have found the BEST option, not the default. You will never get a great result with a default selection when another, more thoughtfully considered colour would shine. A sales associate once said to me when we were looking for a fabric to complement a sofa fabric, if they don’t “sing together”, keep looking. She was right.

Pros don’t stop at a “good enough” solution. We seek the best solution, in this case, the best white.

Here are some of our favourite whites for trim:

image showing nine white paint swatches

Some basic rules to live by

Although design is more of an art than a science, there are some general guidelines I can offer for picking a white for trim:

  1. If the wall colour is darker, go with a softer, more muted white. Bright white paint will look far too stark. Go for a deeper off-white so the contrast isn’t so stark.
  2. Warm colours need off-white or cream.
  3. Cool colours need cooler white that are more blue based or grayed.
  4. Remember that white is the most chameleon-like colour because it is reflective. Put it next to blue and it will read blue, put it next to read and it may read red. Adjust accordingly.
  5. Aim to stick to one or two trim colours throughout the home if possible.
  6. Cabinetry should match the trim, or be in the same family (warm with warm, cool with cool).
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