Painting cabinets two different colors can elevate a kitchen to a whole new level, design-wise. While it used to be considered a bit daring or even eccentric, we now see two-tone kitchens quite often. But is there a reason to take this risky-sounding move? Or should you stick to just one tried-and-true color for your kitchen cabinets?
Painting cabinets two different colors has several interior design benefits.
1. It’s the perfect compromise between the other three design options: all white (or neutral), all stained wood, or all a strong color.
For decades, all we saw in most suburban kitchens (outside the high-end “shelter” magazines such as Architectural Digest or Elle Decor) was stained wood cabinets. Ironically, these are now the very same cabinets that residential painters like us are constantly being asked to paint, because in most cases, the stained wood has a very strong warm tone (almost orange) that frankly isn’t very appealing. (Just look at the “before” pictures on our “Kitchen Painting Projects – Before and After” page to see plenty of examples.) Sometimes stained kitchen cabinets are done well, especially in custom homes. Most of the time, however, home builders are constrained by budgets, and cheaper stained cabinets are less attractive.
Hence the resurgence of the all-white kitchen! While you might think it’s just a trend of the moment, painting kitchen cabinets white is actually a timeless look that will never go out of style. Whether traditional or contemporary, in a hundred-year-old farmhouse or a modern high-rise condo, a white kitchen almost always works.
However, not everyone wants an all-white kitchen. And the pendulum constantly swings back and forth in interior design. White is here to stay, but we’re also seeing a return to color, pattern, and the fun of maximalism. If you love strong color, you may be getting your kitchen cabinets painted in a rich blue or muted green, or even black.
· Terrell Hills cabinets in a dark custom blue lacquer, Paper Moon Painting. Photo by Matthew Niemann
· Austin TX cabinets in Sherwin Williams “Porpoise”, Paper Moon Painting
· Alamo Heights kitchen in Benjamin Moore’s BM 2124-10 “Wrought Iron”, Paper Moon Painting
But what if you don’t want an all-white kitchen, but don’t want to go “full color” either?
That’s where painting cabinets two different colors is the perfect compromise.
You can keep the classic sophistication of white on your upper cabinets and probably your backsplash, but inject some color and personality in your lower cabinets and your kitchen island. If you’re worried that an all-white kitchen will look sterile, but a kitchen all in a strong color is just not your dream, then you can literally split the difference by choosing a white or pale neutral for your upper cabinets, and painting your lower cabinets in a rich, or fun, or unexpected color.
· Austin TX kitchen in a custom white and in Benjamin Moore’s “Onyx”, Paper Moon Painting. Photo by Matthew Niemann
2. Painting your cabinets two different colors can make an otherwise bland kitchen more interesting.
There are several ways to liven up a boring kitchen. You can switch out your builder-grade light fixtures for some statement pendant lights. You can install upgraded cabinet door hardware and drawer pulls. If you don’t mind the mess of demolition, you can rip out the old, dated backsplash and install a fabulous patterned tile or luxurious stone. (Just don’t go with anything too trendy . . . pick something that will stand the test of time. It’s a pain to replace backsplash tile.) And don’t forget new countertops! But for sheer impact, there’s nothing like painting your cabinets, which are the largest visible surface in your kitchen.
The nice thing is that you may be able to paint just half of your cabinets. If the uppers are already a white or light neutral, then paint your lowers in a contrasting color. Or if your lower cabinets are in a stained wood that you actually like, paint your upper cabinets white.
· Upper cabinets in Benjamin Moore “Dover White”, Shavano Park TX, Paper Moon Painting
You won’t be able to get away with this if the whole kitchen is unattractive, but if you don’t like an all-neutral kitchen and you’re not going to change the counters or backsplash anytime soon, consider introducing a second color on your cabinets.
3. Painting a dark color on the bottom and a light color on the top half of your kitchen can minimize the visual heaviness of upper cabinets.
If your kitchen tends to be smaller or has a large expanse of upper cabinets, those uppers can feel very prominent and “in your face”. If you need to keep the uppers for storage and don’t want to try open shelving, paint your uppers a light color, and use a dark color on your lower cabinets. You could paint the whole kitchen white, of course, but painting the upper cabinets a light color and the lower cabinets dark gives the lower half of the kitchen more visual “weight”. Your uppers will be less dominant.
· Rollingwood TX kitchen cabinets in Benjamin Moore’s “Stonington Gray” and “Hale Navy”. Photo by Matthew Niemann
4. If you’re an interior design aficionado or have artistic inclinations, using two cabinet colors in your kitchen is more unique and creative.
This won’t apply to everyone, but most homeowners who paint their cabinets two different colors are making a creative choice, rather than defaulting to a more standard neutral or classic white. You can’t enter a two-tone kitchen without instantly knowing that someone had a creative vision for the space, looked at various design options, and made some carefully considered decisions. Two-tone kitchens are, for lack of a better word, “intentional”. Whether an interior designer had a hand in making the design selections, or it was the savvy homeowner, you can see that a creative mind guided the process. Not everyone wants their kitchen to “make a statement”, but if you love the creativity of interior design, a two-tone kitchen might be a great way to express your personality in your home.
· Alamo Heights two-tone cabinets in Sherwin Williams “Pure White” and “Anchors Aweigh”, Paper Moon Painting
· Austin TX two-tone kitchen in Benjamin Moore “Greenwich Village” and Sherwin Williams “Alabaster”, Paper Moon Painting
· Austin TX kitchen cabinets in Sherwin Williams “Ice Cube” and “Indigo Batik”, Paper Moon Painting
At first, we only saw two-tone kitchens using two neutral colors (a white and a gray, for example), but as they grow in popularity, we’re seeing more varied color options for the lower cabinets. And we think it’s a better alternative that a trendy backsplash tile for injecting personality into your space. Back when cabinets were almost always stained wood, or perhaps a pale neutral like white or beige, the only way to make your kitchen stand out was to pick a backsplash with some pizzazz. Now that designers and influencers such as Maria Killam are pointing out the dangers of picking a trendy backsplash tile that’ll date your kitchen ten years from now, homeowners are sticking with more versatile classics for their backsplash, and putting personality into their cabinet color instead. This is a much safer move if you ever change your mind later. Paint is much easier to change than tile!
You’ll notice that in most of our examples, white, off-white, or a very pale grey is the color chosen for the upper cabinets. If you don’t want your kitchen to look like a circus tent, that’s not a bad idea! We’ve yet to paint a kitchen in two intense colors. One is enough. We’ll give you our best advice on how to pick two good colors in an upcoming post.
In short, using two colors on your cabinets is no longer the daring or risky move it used to be. If you don’t want an all-stained wood kitchen, or an all-white painted kitchen, or a kitchen wrapped in a statement color, then painting cabinets two different colors can be a very savvy design choice!