The colours along the trails of the river valley where I live on the East Coast of Canada hit me like a magnificent wave and stopped my mind from its incessant thinking. It was peak season for autumn leaves not even a month ago and the woods were filled with red maples, orange oaks and yellow birches putting on a show unmatched by any other. My eyes were glued to this masterpiece, and it slowed me down and made me feel a part of something larger, something much grander and magnificent than me.
The brilliant display of colour ironically gave me what’s often called ‘white space’ – that elusive sense of connectedness to the whole, of being part of something bigger than myself and my own thoughts and small problems. It’s an innate sense of peace and knowingness. And it’s a feeling I want to be able to access for longer and more frequent periods as an antidote to getting caught up in the anxiety, busyness and self-centeredness of my everyday life.
But when I’ve tried to replicate those colours of natural splendour in my home in the past, it has not given me that same feeling of stillness and awe. In fact, it’s done the opposite. The colours felt overwhelming inside my man-made structure; out of place and not natural at all. They stimulated my mind instead of quieting it, and the last thing I need after a day full of screen time and images and noise and people and constant movement is more stimulation.
I’ve learned that the intentional use of colour in spaces can play an important role in the intentionality of our whole life. And the colour that has become a backdrop to promoting my own best life is white.
White is indeed a colour, a neutral in a class of colours called earth tones. White promotes clarity and is soothing to the eye. In colour theory it’s associated with innocence, purity and safety. In Feng Shui it corresponds to yang energy, meaning it is very expansive and open, thereby boosting creativity and flow.
White is very simple, and yet as a space and lifestyle design coach, I’ve never seen a more divisive and controversial issue as using white on walls. Those who hate it consider it sterile, cold or impersonal; those who love it are constantly in search of the “perfect” shade. White rooms have become a popular minimalist design trend online that can seem to some as striving for unattainable perfection and the newest version of “keeping up with the Jones’.”
I would argue that using white in our built environments is more than just an aesthetic, it can be a key part of living simply.
White walls reflect light, which helps us stay positive and uplifted. They provide a calming, neutral backdrop on which to display meaningful things– the books, artwork, photos and mementos that remind us of our purpose. And they allow actual nature (not the colours that mimic it) to shine through indoors, for example by not interfering with green plants, woodwork, natural fibres and of course, the sunshine and view outside. White is also very practical – it’s easy to clean and retouch, with no paint colour to match up or fade out from scrubbing marks off of walls. It’s timeless, meaning no need to repaint every couple of years and unsustainably consume more paint and supplies.
Best of all, by creating actual white spaces in our homes, we can create white space in our lives. White walls visually remove the clutter and noise, which helps us remove those same things from our minds.
Here are some practical tips to aid in choosing the right white to use on your walls:
1. Pure white is best used in rooms with lots of natural light. If you have low light throughout most of the day, the shadows will make the room feel dingy. In this case, opt for a warm off-white or cream, or go with a light misty gray instead of white.
2. Add interest and depth in a white room with finishes. Ceilings should be a flat sheen, walls an eggshell or satin, and pure white trim a semi-gloss or high-gloss.
3. Layer in warmth with texture, natural elements and colourful accessories (if you want some colour). Wood works really well with white walls, so if you’re lucky enough to have beautiful wood trim and/or flooring, leave them as is. You could also add wood through practical things like cutting boards displayed against the backsplash and a wood stump as a side table to place a cup of coffee on. Green plants or even branches, driftwood, rocks and shells add natural texture and life to a white room and connect us to a feeling of simplicity. And finally, colour artwork, photos, books and accessories add some colour without being too visually stimulating. Just be sure to leave ‘white space’ and not cover up every inch of the walls and surfaces.
As I look outside my window today, those brightly hued leaves have fallen and what remains is a new kind of lovely – a more gray and stark scene in nature that again brings me a sense of peace and stillness, albeit in a different way. As Robert Frost said, “Nothing gold can stay.” If I was to experience those vivid colours of last week all year long, they would become commonplace and perhaps be unable to jolt me into a deeper, simpler existence. Or they might become overwhelming if my eyes took them in on a continual basis.
And so I will keep my (non-trendy) white walls as a calm and neutral backdrop to a life filled with colour at times, gray at others, and simplicity and purpose more often than not.