Painting your home office? Here's how to pick the right color

No more bringing home piles of paint cards. Color-sorting apps and gadgets are here to find your picture-perfect hue.

Molly Price Former Editor
6 min read

Light is one of the biggest factors in how a paint color looks on your wall. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

You're ready to give your home a refresh. Maybe you've been staring at greige office walls for far too long, or you're moving kids into their own rooms or just want a new color for your living room.

Picking the right paint can transform your space. Staring at rows of colors in your local home improvement store, it's easy to feel overwhelmed with choices. It's also easy to love a color in the store, but hate the way it turns out once it's on your wall. If you're trying to match an old color, it can get even more complicated.

Here to help are a handful of smart sensors and mobile apps. With a little help from tech, you can confidently wield a paintbrush and add just the right hue to your home.

What affects paint color

Light is one of the biggest factors affecting how color translates on your wall. In a home improvement store, you're likely looking at a paint chip under a display lit by a strong fluorescent light -- very different from the light in your home. Take that same paint chip home and it could look totally different.

That's because your home's artificial and natural light play a role in how color appears. Intersecting walls might even look like different shades at the same time of day, if each wall receives a different amount of light from the room's windows.

Your paint's finish or sheen also makes a difference in how color is perceived. A flat paint finish (like what you'll find on most paint chips) won't reflect as much light as a high-gloss sheen, so a flat finish tends to look a bit darker. Often, higher gloss finishes are good for bathrooms, kitchens and rooms that see more moisture. Flatter finishes work well in spaces like bedrooms and living rooms.

How technology reads color

Color translates to computer via a series of values. Knowing those values for the shade you need can help you navigate sensors and apps, and match color accurately across brands. The most common values for color are HEX, CMYK and RGB.

Typically electronic screens and monitors that emit light use RGB (red, green, blue) color values, while CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) values are the standard for printed materials like newspapers and magazines, which absorb light. The hex method of valuing color is used to communicate RGB values in computer programming, such as HTML. Once you know you desired color's value, you'll be able to find it in nearly every medium out there.

Virtual painting and color-matching apps

Many major paint manufacturers have websites and apps designed to help you choose a paint color. Sherwin-Williams, Valspar and Behr all have websites with virtual design studios where you can try paint on in an uploaded photo of your space. It's not a perfect system by any means, and the color and light settings on your computer monitor or mobile device will affect how you see the color. Still, virtual painting is a good way to narrow down your choices and help you decide between different looks.

All this color picking is manageable if you're painting a brand new or well-primed wall. Things get trickier when paint matching is your goal. Like clothes, car colors and photos hung in sunlight, paint colors also fade over time. Even if you know a wall's original paint color, a new coat of paint might look off either because of color fading or loss of sheen.

"Paint on walls fade over time and the sheen changes," Angela Kirkpatrick, a residential designer, notes. "Even if you get a chunk of wall beside an outlet, it may not match the color and sheen in the middle of the wall where the TV was mounted. A difference in wall sheen can cause a color to look very different."

If you'd like to match new paint to an old color, you'll likely need the help of more than just a paint chip. Here's where tech can really lend a hand.

Paint manufacturers and third-party app designers alike offer color matching apps that analyze color in photos taken with your phone's camera or images uploaded from your phone's library. With a good photo of your wall, you might be able to come up with the closest possible match from a variety of paint manufacturers.

ColorSnap Match by Sherwin-Williams


ColorSnap by Sherwin-Williams offers color matching from your phone's camera or photo library. 

Screenshot by Molly Price/CNET

Sherwin-Williams offers an app called ColorSnap Match, that allows you to upload an existing photo or take a new photo to find paint colors that match it. There's also a virtual painting tool, and multiple ways to explore all the Sherwin-Williams paint collections. The app includes RGB color values for Sherwin-Williams paints, lists of coordinating colors for each paint, as well as the color strip you'd find them on in a hardware store. The app is free and works on iOS and Android devices. 

ColorSmart by Behr

Behr's ColorSmart app works much the same as the Sherwin-Williams app, with options to take new photos or upload existing ones. You can also view selected colors in generic scenes like kitchens or bathrooms. The free app works with both iOS and Android devices.

Project Color by The Home Depot

The Home Depot offers a color app that pulls from multiple brands sold at Home Depot stores. You can match colors through you phone's camera or photo library and view results on the walls of a room through your phone's camera lens in real time.

Color Grab

Color Grab is a third-party app that identifies color in real time using your camera's viewfinder. Once you've saved the color, you can view its profile, including the hex code, CMYK and RGB values. Color Grab can also match colors from photos in your phone's library. The app is free and works with Android devices.

Unlike the branded apps from paint manufacturers, third-party apps sense color without trying to sell you a specific paint. The downside is that there aren't any branded paint colors to choose from as results. You'll simply be able to identify the color value of the object or wall you're scanning. Once you've got a color value, you can use that to find a matching paint color, likely by using the RGB value, as it is the most commonly used value in the paint industry. There are even online converters that will match color values to multiple paint brands.

Color-sensing devices

When it comes to measuring color, spectrometers have long been the industry standard. With prices in the thousands, complicated processes and bulky designs, these high-tech devices are often out of reach for the average DIYer, but some of the basic ideas behind spectrometers are showing up in color sensing devices you can fit in your pocket for under $100.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Nix Color Sensor Mini

At $100, this color sensor isn't exactly cheap, but it could make life a lot easier for anyone matching multiple paint colors. The pre-calibrated Nix Color Sensor Mini blocks out ambient light and uses a calibrated light source to read a surface's color. The sensor then sends that reading to your phone via Bluetooth and the Nix Paints or Nix Digital app, where you can match colors to a dozen different paint brands in the US and Canada.


The Color Muse color sensor uses a built-in light source to detect color. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

Color Muse

Color muse is a $60 color sensor, and like the Nix Sensor, it reads color by blocking ambient light and shining its own light source on a surface to detect color. The sensor then sends the results to the Color Muse app via Bluetooth, where you can see the closest matches from brands including Sherwin-Williams, Behr, Benjamin Moore and Valspar. The Color Muse does take a little more effort on your part, since you'll need to calibrate the device to make the most of its features.

Picking paint colors and matching old paint isn't as hard as it used to be with apps and devices like these. You can browse through thousands of paints from the comfort of your couch and throw them on your wall with the tap of a finger. Still, if you're wondering how a color is going to look on your wall, the time-tested approach of a paint sample is a surefire way to find out. 


Pico shines controlled amounts of red, green and blue light onto the scanning surface to determine the color value of your wall. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

Palette Pico

Australian company Palette released Pico in 2018. The $80 paint-matching device sequentially bursts red, green and blue light onto the surface you scan. It then shares those results via Bluetooth in your smartphone's Pico app. Pico reports the RGB values and matching branded paint colors.

More home tech advice