What to Know About Paint Color Samples

Paint swatches
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Paint color samples seem like a slam-dunk. Smear on a sample, pronounce it perfect and proceed to buy 30 more gallons.

Not so fast. Even the choice, purchase, and application of paint color samples are not so simple. Here are a few strange facts about paint color samples and some tips, too.

Fact: Paint Color Samples Are Not Real Paint

Surprised? Most people are. One would think that paint samples are drawn from the real paint itself.

Instead, paint samples are temporary coats of paint that should later be top-coated. They are watery and do not behave like real paint during application. After application, they look "streaky," so a second sample coat is recommended.

What Is a Paint Color Sample?

Paint color samples are liquid servings of watered-down paint in sizes ranging from 7.2 ounces to around 30 ounces.

These samples are available from both paint stores (e.g., Sherwin Williams) and big box and hardware stores (e.g., Home Depot and Ace). They are meant to be brushed onto the area that you intend to paint.

How to Request a Color Sample

  1. Go to the store and find the color chip card of the color you like.
  2. Scan nearby colors of varying shades and intensities. Can you find two or three that are close to your first pick? If so, pull them out, too.
  3. Use a pen to checkmark all of your picks and take them to the paint counter.
  4. Tell the customer service associate you would like samples of each color.
  5. It usually takes 15 minutes for samples to be mixed.
  6. Upon receipt, verify that the mixes are correct. Wrong mixes do happen.

Paint Samples Are the Truest Way to Settle on a Color

Forget the online virtual painters. Forget the color chip cards. Short of laying down real paint, applying a paint sample to the exterior of your house is the best way to see what the color will look like.

Samples Cost, but Less Than Real Paint

Expect to pay no less than $5 for a paint sample. Paint manufacturers don't want color samples to cost a lot because they want you to buy the product eventually. The more samples you buy, the better off you will be.

Changing Colors

Keep these additional tips in mind when updating paint colors in your home. 

Colors Look Similar When Viewed Individually

Tans, green, and reds look different when viewed alone.

But what about greens that are close together in the spectrum? Think you can immediately tell the difference? Some people can, and that is one reason we pay designers for their time.

But most homeowners will benefit from placing colors next to each other.

Large Quantity Color Samples Are a Waste of Money

It is like love at first sight. From that first brush-stroke, you know if it is in the right ballpark for you or not. So, then you have 7 ounces of unwanted paint. Now what? Just another can of paint to take to paint recycling.

Yes, Colors Do Change After Time

Paint manufacturers recommend that you wait two hours before judging whether the color is good or not. This is true. Just apply fresh sample paint next to an aged sample, and you will see one shade of difference. It's worth the wait.

Reminder: You Absolutely, Positively Need to Get Exterior Colors Right

Exterior paint is such a monumental undertaking that you absolutely, positively have to get it right.

No messing around here. If you get a bathroom color wrong, repaint. But exterior house painting can take weeks of your time as a DIY-er or thousands of dollars when hiring a pro. It's not a decision to be made lightly.