Originally published in STIR®
It's time to give the ceiling some style.

Ceilings are frequently boring and bland – painted white to blend in or disappear. "People think they are making a safe choice by painting a ceiling white. They think that will make it unnoticeable," says color consultant Jill Pilaroscia . "But if you have bold colored walls and a white ceiling, that's usually the first thing you see, because the eye is drawn to contrasts."

Homeowners and designers alike wouldn't dream of ignoring the floor of a room, even though it's partially hidden by furnishings and rugs. Yet the ceiling, which is almost always totally revealed, is often treated as an afterthought, sporting nothing more than a light texture and a coat of white paint. That's a shame because a ceiling can be one of the most definitive elements in a space, adding character, style and individuality.

In fact, in rooms where extensive design work is evident on walls, flooring and other surfaces, a plain ceiling isn't more than a missed opportunity. It's a glaring omission that will detract from an otherwise impressive package.

When white is right

While somewhat cliché, white ceilings are sometimes the best choice for a room. When paired with pale-hued walls, white ceilings do tend to disappear, keeping the attention focused on the room's wall coverings and furnishings. This is important if the ceiling has a lot of visible imperfections or is textured or patterned, which can make a successful paint job quite difficult. Plus, white is the most effective color for reflecting light back into the room, which is vitally important in rooms with few or no sources of natural light.

In a room with white walls, it might seem the only option for the ceiling is also white, but that's just not the case. Instead, consider using soft, nature-inspired colors – such as sky blue, sunset peach, blush pink, pearl gray, grass green and sunlight yellow – to give the room an airy, outdoor feeling. In addition, the light reflecting off such a pastel-hued ceiling will bathe the room in a soft, flattering glow. However, if you want to bring the ceiling down in a white-walled room, consider incorporating a little unexpected flair and drama by painting it a dark color such as navy, chocolate or charcoal. The sharp contrast between the light walls and dark ceiling can give the impression the ceiling – like a night sky – goes on forever.

Good reasons for matching walls with ceilings

Believe it: There are some very good reasons for painting your ceilings the same color as your walls. In a small room, a one-color treatment evokes a restful, soothing mood, which can be perfect for a bedroom or bath. In larger spaces, a one-color treatment can help encapsulate an area, focusing attention on the furnishings and accessories. And if a room is asymmetrical or has a vaulted or angled ceiling, continuing the wall color through the ceiling can simplify the shape and help unify the room.

Of course, you can always use the more standard technique of slightly whitening or diluting the wall paint for the ceilings. Since ceilings often appear in shadow, the resulting lighter shade color relates favorably to the wall color and creates the illusion of higher ceilings. For this technique, dilute the wall paint with white in a ratio of about 80 percent white to 20 percent wall color.

Whether painting the ceiling the same color as the walls or a lighter tint, use the same paint sheen throughout to maintain a sense of cohesiveness.

Grand ceilings of the past

In the 19th century, the design of a home's ceiling was a measure of the homeowner's affluence. The grandest ceilings soared to towering heights and were accented with ornate custom plaster or wooden moldings – with coverings that included gold leaf and even old-world frescos. While some of these ceiling décor options may be unrealistic or prohibitively expensive for today's spaces, they do provide some great inspiration for creating striking and unique looks.

Architect Dennis Wedlick highlights such architectural design ideas for ceilings in his book Good House Parts, which showcases some beautiful examples of coffers, beams and other ceiling treatments.

Hiding while highlighting

If the ceiling has flaws, adding decorative elements can actually help hide them.

  • Use false beams to mask electrical wires or patched cracks.
  • Cover an ugly ceiling with lattice, bead board panels or wainscoting. The panels can be stained or painted depending on the style you want to create.
  • Use tin panels to cover flaws and add reflected light. They come in a variety of colors and finishes including brass, copper, chrome, tin, antique pewter and antique copper. If the real thing is too pricey, consider faux tin ceiling tiles made from recycled paper.
  • Hide ceiling damage with wallpaper. A heavily embossed wallpaper in a small geometric pattern (avoid large floral patterns as they can be overwhelming) can add an old-world flavor to a room.
  • Tented or shirred fabric can also be used to hide flaking or cracking ceiling plaster while giving the room a cozy, intimate feel.

Ceilings don't have to be boring or ignored. By adding a little style to the ceiling, you're not only enhancing the décor of the room, you're giving everyone a reason to look up.