Interior designer Sharon McCormick has seen clients agonize over scores of paint chips, trying to find a bold or unusual color for the walls. Peacock's Plume, Atomic Tangerine or Iguana Green might be in the running, yet when it's time to paint the ceiling – often called the forgotten fifth wall – these same fearless souls will opt for plain, old white.
With her portfolio and powers of persuasion, McCormick is winning over converts who think a room is unfinished unless the ceiling has character or at least a hint of color.
Conventional wisdom has it that white paint gives the illusion of a higher ceiling and makes a room brighter by reflecting light.
"There are very few occasions when a white ceiling would do anything for a room; so I hardly ever use them," said McCormick, of Sharon McCormick Design, Durham, Conn.
A tough sell
Going bold on the ceiling can be a tough sell. In one of her more imaginative rooms, McCormick painted the ceiling metallic gold and accented it with cove lighting. Around the chandelier, she formed an ellipse with dramatic wallpaper trimmed with molding. The client had urged her to do something spectacular, but first he had to build up trust.
"In the first room I did, I had trouble talking him into even a pale yellow," McCormick recalled.
Out West, in Scotts Valley, Calif., homeowner Donna Maurillo needed no persuading.
"I've always hated white ceilings, unless they're part of an overall color plan," she said. "They're so predictable, and they look like nobody put thought into them."
For a unified look, Maurillo painted her ceilings the same color as the walls.
"I use semi-gloss or pearl because I like the way the light reflects on it," Maurillo said. "It also seems to brighten smaller spaces like hallways, which can be too dark."
"Next on my to-do list is adding ceiling medallions in wood or metal," she said. "They're ideal around light fixtures, and I think they add a touch of elegance while making the ceiling look finished."
Fifth wall as anchor
Although some of McCormick's designs are meant to draw the eye upward in appreciation and perhaps even awe, a nonwhite ceiling can serve to anchor attention to the room itself. A ceiling that's a shade or two lighter than the walls "prevents your eyes from being drawn up to a bright white ceiling and instead casts your attention back down into the room and its decor," said Misty Walker, color manager, Olympic Paints and Stains.
It also enhances the impact of crown molding, particularly if it's white, by providing some color contrast, she added.
Painting a cathedral ceiling a shade darker than the walls "lowers" it for a cozier feeling. Use a warm color, such as Olympic's Glazed Pears, for the most intimate effect, Walker recommended.
A cool color creates the illusion of a taller, airier room.
Metallic ceilings work with a room's lighting to create a soft glow, but applying metallic paint "is typically not DIY," McCormick warned.
"The paint is difficult to work with," she said. "You have to spray it, not roll it. It's hard to get a nice finish."
More involved ceiling treatments include gold leafing, tin ceiling squares, stencils, trays, beams, molding and coffers.
"I've been in one home where they used molding on the ceiling; it was fastened about a foot away from the walls and it followed the shape of the room," Maurillo said. "The ceiling was pale blue and the molding was glossy white. The whole effect was rather like an upper-class Federalist or European home."
With stencils, "You can create something throughout the entire ceiling, around a light fixture or along the ceiling's edge," said New York-based designer Dawn Falcone.
If you must stick with white, consider adding texture. Traditionally used on walls, wainscoting can be applied to the ceiling, as well, according to Falcone.
"Keep them whitewashed or use a high-gloss white to reflect light, and you're instantly adding a cozy beach-cottage feel to your space," Falcone said.