Best Paint Colors for a Kitchen That Doesn’t Get a Lot of Light

updated Jan 8, 2021
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Woman painting colour swatches on wall.
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Choosing the right paint color is one of the toughest calls of a renovation in the best of circumstances. When you have to factor in any other challenges — say, poor natural light — it becomes that much trickier. Do you go with a light color to try to brighten the space? (Does that actually work?) Do you embrace it and go darker? Do you go neutral and call it a day?

As someone who went all in with black walls and trim in a kitchen reno two years ago (and still loves it), I realize I might not be the best person to make that decision in the Victorian that my best friend and I are renovating to flip. Don’t worry — it’s not going to be that kind of flip (meaning, we’re not going to throw a coat of Realtor Gray on the walls and call it a day). Nope, I’m going way down the rabbit hole of kitchen colors, and have turned up some surprising tricks! I want this house to have style. Personality!

But first, what about this kitchen? It’s a smallish room, most likely an addition from some point, at the back of the house, with only two not-very-big windows, each facing the house right (and I mean right) next door, which is north. All in all it’s a pretty poor light situation. The ceilings are low (relative to the rest of the 11-foot ceilings on the first floor!) at only eight feet. When we first walked in it had dark red vinyl floors, dingey white-ish paint, and similar cabinets. That color scheme wasn’t doing anything for the place, I can tell you. 

To try to brighten it up, my friend and I have sought professional help from interior designer Laura McGarity, who consulted with me when I renovated my own kitchen a couple of years ago. Laura’s also an interior design professor at the University of Louisville, specializing in color theory, and we can geek out for hours about the difference in shades of white. I also reached out to Patrick O’Donnell, the international brand ambassador for Farrow & Ball, because I’ve had a crush on one of their colors (Pointing) since staying at a vacation rental apartment in Paris beautifully painted in that creamy white. Also, as a brand based in England, which seems to have more than their share of cloudy days and low light situations, I figured they’d be experts on the topic. 

It was like the two of them conferred before I talked with them because they echoed each other exactly with their advice. Here’s what I found.

Credit: Cathy Pyle

5 Tips for Painting a Dark Kitchen

1. The challenge isn’t necessarily making it brighter.

My first inclination is to try to brighten the room using color. Makes sense, right? But both experts kept talking about adding a sense of space. Rooms without great light feel smaller, they said. And look, no paint can magically make a room have more natural light. “What color will do, rather than create physical light,” Patrick says, “is create softness, which can give you a sense of more space.” 

2. Don’t be afraid of the dark.

I promise this isn’t just because I love my own black kitchen. Patrick urges us to embrace the dark “because it is really hard to create light through paint,” he says. So you may as well go the other direction with a color that really envelopes you, sort of wraps around you. “There’s a really nice security to it,” he says, and “dark will always be successful.” If you’re nervous about a bold color, experiment first in a powder room, he suggests (knowing you’ll probably love it, but if not, at least it was a small room!).  

3. If you want white, consider the temperature.

If you’re not ready for the dark side and want to go with white walls, steer away from cool shades, Patrick says. “Although you’re creating a lighter space you’re not necessarily creating a warm and inviting space — go too cool and it can feel just too clinical.”

4. Paint the ceiling the same color as the rest of the room.

A really easy trick for creating a greater sense of height, Patrick says, is to paint your ceiling the same color as your walls, “because you haven’t got that sharp line delineating between wall and ceiling. It’s just quite soft and it’s really beautiful.” Laura compares a drastically different ceiling and wall color to rolling up your pant legs and breaking the visual line. The same idea makes your legs look shorter … and your room smaller. 

Take it a step further, both experts say, and paint everything the same, from walls and ceilings to trim and cabinets. Play with varying sheens, instead of different colors, Patrick says. 

“It all becomes seamless, says Laura. “It’s going to read as being a much larger space for sure.” 

And if you’re opting for the popular two-tone, dark-meets-light look, with dark lower cabinets and light upper ones, consider your countertop choice, she says. Keeping the counter in the same color family as the light upper cabinets will open things up. 

5. Know that your light fixtures matter just as much as your paint.

Especially in natural light-challenged spaces, the lighting you choose “is going to make all the difference in the world,” Laura says. “Your wall color and your lighting choices are best buddies … you can’t discuss or think about wall color without also discussing your lighting, and vice versa because they influence each other so much,” she says.  

And while paint might not be able to work miracles, there’s a lot the right lighting can do. “Technology in lighting has come on leaps and leaps and bounds,” Patrick says. By the time you have great lighting for your cooking area, prep zone, and maybe add under-cabinet lighting as Laura suggests, the color paint you choose might not have to be so driven by the natural light situation. 

The Best Paint Colors for Dark Kitchens

So, what are the best colors? Without further ado, here are the picks from our experts. Patrick suggests these from Farrow & Ball.

From Laura, here are picks (and notes) from Benjamin Moore (BM; HC is historical color), Sherwin Williams (SW), and PPG (formerly Porter paint). 

Do you have a dark kitchen? What have you done to brighten it up?