The 80/20 Rule Also Applies to the Most Popular Paint Colours

Tasks everyday

The Pareto Principle

It’s called ‘The Pareto Principle’ and it means that in anything a few (20%) are vital and many (80%) are trivial.

Or 20% of the people own 80% of the wealth or 20 percent of the defects cause 80% of the problems.

Project Managers know that 20% of the work (the first 10% and the last 10%) consume 80% of your time and resources.

You can apply the 80/20 rule to almost anything, from the science of management to the physical world.

And you can apply this rule to the world of paint colour in homes.

Ever noticed how, often, when  you are looking for a paint colour, you’re looking for the perfect neutral? Yes, we choose whites (when the room has enough light) and chromatic colours too, for rooms like a powder room, bathrooms, an office or bedrooms or even an enclosed dining room, but neutrals are the paint colours at the top of the list of choices.

And here’s where the Pareto Principle comes into play with colour. When you know the right 20% of all neutral colours, you know the vital ones. 

My nine useful neutral colours — pink beige, orange beige, yellow beige, gold beige, green beige, green grey, blue grey, violet grey and taupe — make up the 20% of useful neutral colours. Familiarize yourself with these and you can stop turning your brain into a pretzel by considering the other 80%.

These neutrals are the reason why so many people attend my Specify Colour with Confidence workshops, because they are much harder to choose than any other colour.

Start by identifying all the neutrals

See this pillow (below)?

If this was the starting point for your room, which neutrals would you eliminate right away?

I’ll wait.

Don’t scroll past this image yet. Just look for a minute.

Okay, so we would eliminate the pinker pink beige because even though it relates well to the very strong pink beige colour in this pillow, you probably wouldn’t want to paint your walls this colour.

So that’s when you’d choose the lighter pink beige (below right).

And the yellow beige because there is no yellow beige in this pillow at all.

You can see that there’s violets and blue greys and perhaps even a taupe.

All these neutrals are found in my curated collection of 50 paint samples in Benjamin Moore or Sherwin Williams.

You can also get the VIP collection, which give you some more pale greige neutrals, the best yellows, pinks, greens and blues and the best darks.

See them all here.

See the colours on the left? Well you can’t see them all that well in the above photo, but mostly they are used for kids room colours or (as I tell my students) those yellows, on pillars in a parkade to signify caution– too screaming bright.

The ones on the right? Way too many pink beige colours and cold blue grays, so there are a few greens, yellows, purples including blues to choose from.

The ones in the middle that I’m sitting in front of? Those are the Designer Classics and the Heritage Colours, these are the ones we use over and over.

Before I sold large paint samples on the site, I painted them myself and this is how I did it.

How to Paint your Own Large Samples

Directly on my glass dining table:

First you need a poster board (above).

This one is already cut in half because I’m going to paint 4 colours on it but if you are painting one for your own testing purposes, better to at least paint the entire half of the board. The bigger the better.

Take some green painters tape and tape it all around. To save on tape I left the 4 outside edges—I’ll cut them off anyway.


Here I am drying them with my blowdryer to speed up the process.

I used to use little rollers, but they only last for maybe four times and then I have to throw them out so now I just use a paint brush.

They dry way quicker.

Wash out the paint and then shake it until you don’t see any more water, then it’s ready for the next colour.


Here’s the finished paint sample with the second coat still drying. I’ve taken the tape off (better to do it before it dries so it doesn’t start taking the paper with it!) and now I’m writing the colour names and number on the bottom of each.

And here they are the next day (below). They need to cure for two weeks before you stack them all up and stick them in my sample bag (otherwise they will surely stick together stored in your hot car).
But once they are cured, you can keep them in your car in any weather.

So relax about knowing every single colour already.

All you really need for colour confidence is my curated collection of best neutrals and whites, click here to find out how you can buy your very own set.

It’s way cheaper and easier than painting them all up individually!

Get them here.

Related posts:

Must-Have Tools for Colour Consulting

Insider Secrets to Testing & Selecting Paint Colours

Happiness is. . . Having the Career that you Love

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  1. Great post, and great tip on the paint boards. A great way to save time and energy on having your favorite colours at your fingertips for next time.

  2. You are so right about the 80/20 rule with paint colors. Only about 20% are the most often used colors and the rest are there for their 'rack appeal'. Nice post and I completely agree that sample boards are the way to go.

  3. Developing Designs

    You nailed it, it's so true, & the colors you selected look so yummy. I just used white dove on some cabinets and they will look dreamy when they get installed.
    Though, sometimes frustrated, I am finding there is a new challenge in picking color, that is the mandatory change of switching to CFL light bulbs. It seems the original 20% is gonna need some tweaking 🙁 Have they changed your decisions on any colors you have selected?

    • Lighting is in transition, and we are on our way to LED. (CFL, you can get warm, and sunlight, and that helps)

      LED is measured in Kelvin, not watts. It comes in a spectrum of colors, so it is indeed going to be a learning curve for us all. Even lighting professionals are still sorting it out, so if you feel bewildered, you are normal.

      Currently, what is out there says we probably want to buy 2,700 Kelvin, which is more like an incandescent.

      And now, Philips is selling a lighting kit of four bulbs, controllable through a smart phone, where people can choose the color of light from a full palette. You can make it cool morning light, warm afternoon light, on and on and on and on, till your head spins.

      Light is important, you are correct. It will be a while before things are at a place where we feel like we ‘get it’, is my bet.

      Back to CFL, just buy the Warm ones. Take the time to select the right bulb, then, KEEP THE PACKAGING so you know what you want next time.

  4. Erika @ BluLabel Bungalow

    Maria, I just learned of your blog recently and absolutely LOVE IT! Your posts are so informative…I've got to take some time to get caught up!

  5. I am new to your blog, but wow you have lots of great info. I need a lot of color help! But if Karena and Ruthie are here, I am in. I am going to take a look around your site now, "color" is not at all easy for most of us non-pros.

  6. I CANNOT miss your blog posts….it would be like cutting class at school…I learn SO MUCH from you and enjoy myself at the same time. You are in my top 5 blogs that I go to without fail. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us over and over and over!

  7. I went to Maria's class in Atlanta last week and can't tell you how much I enjoyed it. I am still absorbing, a week later, with ohs and ahs. Meet wonderful people…..It was worth every minute. I didn't want it to be over. I am looking forward to keeping in touch with everyone especially Maria.

  8. Maria,

    You are the best. I used to live in Toronto and should have know about you when I was there as I could have taken your class. Now I'm near NYC. Come here please!

  9. I have used 11 x 14 cardstock to paint BM samples on, thinking I should try to order tabloid size 11 x 17 instead. It’s pre-cut and I find it does not buckle at all. I put the 8 1/2 x 11 ones in plastic sleeves and soon they are very flat.

  10. Another great post. You keep knocking them out of the ball park.

    I took your advice, and after I painted the guest room, painted a huge sample of that paint on white core foam. I have taken it with me to pick out bedding, and boy did I feel smart. It worked like a charm.

    Today, I needed to pick out upholstery material for a side boudoir chair, so I grabbed the board of wall paint, the chair, and off we drove.

    I was able to find a MOST GLORIOUS color for the chair seat, and could NOT have done it without your sage advice on a big swatch of color. (And knowing which undertones to reject and to look for. You would have been so proud of your student!)

    I also took your advice and made sure i was looking at the colors the way they would be in real life (fabric on the seat cushion, board of wall color vertical. it really DID make a difference).

    I have the chair and new fabric home, and as squealing with delight. If I may say so, I nailed it. Or, WE nailed it.

    ALL Kudos go to you — I have been reading your blog for years, and it is now paying off, as I am choosing colors and a palettes, and see it all come together.

    You are a STAR!