Property: The joys of watching paint dry

A bad choice of colour could affect more than just your sense of taste. By Rosalind Russell
Every day, up to 600 people ring a paint company helpline to ask somebody else what colour they should paint their sitting room. That's more than 30,000 indecisive DIY-ers a year who would like to escape the steel magnolia trap but haven't quite got the nerve. They're not encouraged by scientists who claim some colours - like red, orange and yellow, the colours of McDonald's burger chain - make you eat more. Who wants to paint the dining room scarlet if you're going to end up a fatty? "People think there is a psychology of colour, but it has never been proved," says Dulux colour counsellor Cathy McGowan. "What has been proved is that there are warm and cool colours which can make a room appear to advance or recede. Red and yellow are stimulating colours which is why children respond to them. They are overpowering colours used together, so you may not feel like staying long in the room."

Most paint or wallpaper firms are happy to offer free interior design advice over the telephone, which is useful if you wouldn't know what a scumble was if it bit you. The Dulux colour counselling advice line has only been open six months but has been red hot with callers who have moved into a new house and haven't a clue where to start with redecorating. Trying to match your existing furniture to someone else's carpet and walls is one of the most common problems.

"Most people just want simple advice," says Cathy. "They may feel overwhelmed by the choice. I would always advise they buy tester pots, paint the colour on a piece of cardboard and stick it to the wall for a few weeks. Even if you are having a colour specially made up you can buy a 250ml tester pot. Weather conditions and time of day or night can change how a colour looks."

The current trend is divided into "heritage" colours (sludgy ones with names like String, Smoked Trout and Pigeon, seen on the walls of National Trust type properties) and eye popping tropical limes and blues.

"If you're really worried, use the lime on one wall and do the rest in lemon," advises Cathy, "then when you feel brave enough, work your way round with more lime."

Farrow and Ball are leaders in the historical paint field.

"People are quite adventurous," says director Tom Helme, "but are careful to do their research first. The important thing is to get your choice of paint right. A high or low sheen makes a huge difference".

F&B produce the full 57 National Trust colours in addition to their own archive colours. Their clients include the Royals (they were involved with the renovation of Windsor Castle after the fire, Highgrove and Buckingham Palace) and the BBC (the firm's paints were used for all the interiors in Middlemarch and Pride & Prejudice. They also make the Jane Churchill range of paint colours.

To customers of Farrow & Ball, anything described as a `hint of pink' or ` bluebell white' is as fashionable as a crocheted toilet roll cover. And hardly anyone these days, says Tom Helme, is using gloss paint indoors. It's eggshell only.

Sanderson's director of design, Jaine McCormack predicts colours like Springtime (a limey yellow green) for bedrooms and Fire Pink for living and dining rooms will strengthen the resolve of the insecure decorator.

"But my advice would be to live with the house for a while. If you rush into colour first thing, it's never right and you'll always regret it. See what its character is, try to enhance something rather than covering it up. When people don't know where to start they generally do something bland and then never get round to changing it. If a room is very ordinary, without detailing like cornicing, it can be very effective to paint the walls and the ceiling the same colour. And watch how colours flow from room to room. It's often best to decorate the hall last."

If you're selling a house, it's a waste of time repainting first, according to most estate agents. The buyers will obliterate your efforts as soon as they get in. Better to wash down what you've got and save your money for moving.

And if you're considering giving up making a decision altogether and painting everything white, just remember, Farrow and Ball have got 20 shades of white.

n If you find you've bought two cans of paint with different batch numbers, mix them together in a large container to even out the colour.

n New plaster will need between six to eight weeks to dry before priming and painting.

n Brown stains seeping through paintwork, from old chimney breasts etc, need an alkali resistant primer before painting with emulsion. Leave primer to dry for 36 hours.

Dulux Advice Centre 01753 550555

Sanderson 0171 584 3344

Farrow & Ball helpline 01202 876141.