HOW TO PAINT A TRAY CEILING (what color goes where)
While some tray ceilings add architectural detail to a space, others are layer upon layer…upon LITERAL LAYER of drywall that needs to be painted. The question is always, ‘What color should each part of the tray ceiling be painted?‘
But what IS a tray ceiling?
A tray ceiling has a higher or recessed center area. This can be a single level or multiple levels. Sometimes, these layers are separated by crown molding; other times, they’re just continuous stacks of narrow walls (wedding cake style). The layers of a tray ceiling are joined by short vertical walls (usually no more than 18″). Tray ceilings can make a room look taller and add an architectural detail.
But tray ceilings aren’t called just that; they’re also referred to as…
- upside-down tray
- reverse tray
What about HIGH, vaulted, or elevated ceilings?
This blog post covers tray ceilings only. If you’re looking for other advice, I have blog posts exclusively for cathedral-style or angled ceilings (where the ceiling is angled – not flat), HIGH ceilings (no tray, just a high ceiling that’s perfectly flat on the top), as well as a post on the best PAINT COLORS to paint your ceiling.
This is a tray ceiling
First, let’s look at the three main types of tray ceilings…
1. ONE-LEVEL TRAY CEILING
In a room with this type of tray ceiling, there are technically two layers of ceiling – the lowest level is directly attached to the wall. Then you have the highest level. In between these, there’s a wall that’s either vertical or angled.
2. TWO+ LEVEL TRAY CEILING
Even if you add peanut butter, these are not my jam and are the BANE of my ceiling color-choosing existence. Multi-level tray ceilings have more than one narrow band of horizontal wall around the perimeter. If it’s hard to picture, think of a multi-tiered wedding cake.
These are a bit easier to manage when there’s no crown molding. However, crown molding does add another level of pain and suffering.
3. STEP-DOWN CEILING
A step-down ceiling is different from a traditional tray ceiling for two reasons…
1. The lowered ceiling level is rarely wider than 8-10 inches.
2. The difference in level is no more than two inches.
A step-down ceiling can have one or two levels, as shown here.
We’ll touch on step-down ceilings later in this blog post. For now, let’s focus on the one-level and multi-level types.
While a one-level tray adds dimension, anything beyond two can look cluttered, leaving you with even more questions about ‘which level should be which color?‘ Deciding which color goes where determines whether your tray ceiling looks more updated or more outdated.
Is a tray ceiling outdated or trendy?
Make no bones about it: a multi-level tray ceiling is outdated. While it looks more appropriate in a traditional home or Tuscan-style space, a multi-level tray ceiling is not trendy – it’s too busy. Of course, you’re welcome to love your tray ceiling – absolutely! But this doesn’t mean it’s a modern look (if that’s what you’re going for).
A tray ceiling will look more modern if all surfaces are smooth with no texture or popcorn. As for crown molding, it’s hit-and-miss. The more modern a home is, the less molding there should be around the ceiling lines. A more transitional or older home can handle a bit of molding, separating the various levels. Really, it all comes down to the style of your space.
This next photo shows a single-level tray ceiling with crown molding between both levels of the ceiling and their attached walls…
A HUGE THANK YOU to my Online Paint Color Consulting clients for sending in your photos – I couldn’t do this without you!
Now, let’s dive deeper into some actual color solutions for treating your tray ceiling. There are three main surfaces we’ll be talking about…
1. The VERY highest ceiling level that’s parallel to your floor.
2. The vertical walls that run between your single or multi-leveled trays. These are usually between 6-14 inches high, but this can vary.
3. The lowest ceiling level that attaches direction to your main walls.
Options change based on how BIG these areas are and whether you have crown molding or not. To get you started, I’ve got three options for you to explore. Not sure what to do? Leave a comment or check out my Online Paint Color packages for personalized advice – 10,000+ happy clients can’t be wrong!
By the way, the examples below only show a single-tray ceiling. I don’t always have the exact photos I need, but a) the info still applies, and b) I’ll make specific points related to ceilings with multi-level trays.
To start, let’s focus on the TOP LEVEL of your ceiling…
1. PAINTING A TRAY CEILING THE SAME COLOR AS THE TRIM
In the average home, painting your ceiling and trim the same is the most popular choice (assuming you have a suitable white trim color). However, it’s your ONLY choice if you have a textured ceiling, as few textured (or popcorn) ceilings look good in any color but white.
What about the short vertical walls? We’ll talk about those shortly.
Because this ceiling is textured, it’s painted to match the trim.
This next transitional-style home looks great with crown molding separating the wall from the ceiling…
See the underside/lowest ceiling level? I would paint this the same as the walls.
This next one is a bit mixed up as it’s more of a vaulted ceiling, but it still has minimally raised angled walls and a larger tray area…
Remember, your lighting will shift how your ceilings look no matter WHAT you do!
WHITE TRAY CEILING TIPS & CONSIDERATIONS
- White reflects more light and makes a space look bigger.
- A white ceiling in most homes and rooms will make a space look more updated – especially on a single-level tray ceiling.
- If your room has a specific personality, purpose, or mood, painting your tray ceiling white could be too boring (in which case, keep reading).
- The ceiling should almost always be painted with a flat finish. Any gloss or sheen highlights imperfections and flaws. The exceptions often include dining rooms, where a bit of sheen and color, combined with the glow of the chandelier, creates ambiance.
2. PAINTING A TRAY (RECESSED CEILING) THE SAME COLOR AS THE WALLS
Painting your tray ceiling the same as your walls works best when your walls are white. Check it out in this open-concept living room with a badass K2 stone fireplace…
You won’t often see tray ceilings painted the same color as the walls when the walls AREN’T white. But while it’s uncommon, it’s not UNHEARD OF, as shown in this beautiful living room…
Remember that depending on how the light hits the ceiling, some areas will look lighter than your walls, whereas others can look much darker – just because you choose the same color doesn’t mean it will LOOK the same!
3. PAINTING A TRAY CEILING A COORDINATING COLOR
Second to white, painting a tray or recessed ceiling a color that coordinates with the walls and trims is a popular choice. Again, because I rely on my Online Color Consulting clients for photos, I don’t always have the exact photo I need!
I do have this one, which shows a dark tray ceiling with off-white walls. It’s a bit blurry, but I take what I can get sometimes…
However, the more I look at the above entryway, the more it seems to be missing something. So, I edited it a bit…
Adding an extra level of the dark accent color makes the tray area look a bit more to-scale with the size of the space. This isn’t always the case, but it’s an idea to consider. In the above space, adding this extra border of accent color works well, as the tray area didn’t look big enough all by its wee self.
Now, the moment you’ve been WAITING for…
WHAT COLOR GOES WHERE ON A TRAY CEILING?
As you’ve seen above, there are a few different ways to treat the very TOP level of the ceiling. Let’s pull it all together with the lower level and attached vertical bits.
Aside from which of the above options YOU like best, your ceiling’s layout might tell you exactly what it needs. The info below can be confusing – tray ceilings aren’t easy. Slow down, take a deep breath (wine helps, too). Take the time to consider which ideas and tips BEST apply to your ceiling and how it relates to the rooms around it.
HOW NARROW IS YOUR LOWEST CEILING LEVEL?
If your lowest ceiling level acts more like a bulkhead (narrow) than a large expanse of the ceiling AND is in a room unto itself (doesn’t flow directly into a larger expanse of ceiling), the more likely it is you should paint it the wall color.
In the living and dining room below, the lowest ceiling and its attached eight-inch vertical walls are painted like the main walls. The very HIGHEST level of the try is painted the same as the trim, as is the angled wall adjoining it…
If the angled part of the ceiling were the same as the walls, it would visually shrink the top level of the recessed area too much. It also wouldn’t look good to paint the entire ceiling area the same color as the walls in a room like this.
If crown molding existed between the top of the angled area and the highest ceiling level, the tray could be painted an accent color. However, as it is, an accent color doesn’t make sense…
If the lowest ceiling level is narrow, it probably belongs to the wall, not the ceiling.
The same goes for this next bedroom. Because the lowest level of the ceiling is narrow, it visually belongs to the wall more than the larger tray ceiling area…
If there were additional tiers, they would be wall color, too.
Could you paint the tray area in the above room a darker color?
If there were crown molding separating the tray ceiling from the small vertical wall AND if the palette suited it, then yes, this tray ceiling could be its own color.
As for this next dining room, I would love to see the narrow, low ceiling and the 12″ vertical wall painted like the walls (Sherwin Williams Agreeable Gray)…
However, unlike the previous room, the above tray ceiling could be an accent color. Why? Because crown molding separates the tray from the walls and the palette is neutral.
What if the lowest ceiling level isn’t narrow?
Remember, deep breath. As it relates to single-tier ceilings, the bigger your horizontal LOWEST ceiling level is, especially if it’s attached to another larger adjoining ceiling area, the more likely it belongs to the MAIN CEILING COLOR of your home – not the wall color.
The previously shown foyer is a good example of this, even though it’s only a single layer…
While the foyer’s lowest ceiling level is narrow (six inches, at best), it’s attached to a larger ceiling area that runs into the open-concept living space. Because of this, it’s painted the primary ceiling color.
Again, if your lowest ceiling is narrow and NOT attached to a larger space, painting it the same as the walls is usually the best choice. If it’s narrow (or not) AND attached to a larger ceiling area, it should be the color of the main ceiling area – NOT the walls.
This next room is a single tray and is a room unto itself. Notice that the lowest level is painted the primary ceiling color, and the overall look is stripey and choppy…
Let’s see how this room might look when the lower level matches the wall color…
From there, COULD you paint the top ceiling level its own color? Maaaaybe, but I wouldn’t, as with the walls being a strong color, it could become overwhelming.
The ‘accent color on the ceiling’ idea works better when the main walls are neutral.
MULTI-LEVEL TRAY CEILINGS
WHEN YOUR LOWEST LEVEL ATTACHES TO A LARGER CEILING AREA
If your tray has multiple levels, these can be painted the ceiling color, although most choose to paint them the wall color. If your wall color is light, this creates a nice, layered wedding cake look. However, if your walls are dark, and crown molding separates the layers, it can look graphic – sometimes, this can’t be avoided (it is what it is).
It’s confusing, I know (insert wine HERE). I do my best to explain EVERY situation, but some are trickier than others! Here’s a good summary…
- The lighter your wall color is, the better it will look on your tiers (crown molding or not).
- The darker your wall color is, the more graphic/stripey it can look if your tiers have crown molding.
By the way, some people choose to cover over their tray ceiling when it isn’t adding decorative value to their room. This next kitchen’s tray ceiling is too small and looks awkward…
Covering up the tray ceiling makes the space look more unified and updated…
Let’s summarize this bad boy…
HOW TO PAINT A TRAY CEILING (SINGLE OR MULTI-LEVEL)
- The narrower your lowest horizontal ceiling level is, the more likely it should be painted the wall color, as should any extra layers. Only the TOP ceiling and its attached, short vertical walls are up for grabs.
- If your lowest level ceiling is narrow and is attached to a larger painted white ceiling space, it should be the main ceiling color. The short vertical wall (and any additional layers) are often painted the same color as the walls.
- If you happen to be cursed with rounded corners separating your lower ceiling and the attached small vertical walls, you’ll wrap whatever ceiling color you choose on both areas – don’t try to cut a line between the two.
WHAT COLOR TO PAINT STEP-DOWN CEILINGS
Step-down ceilings are commonly found in homes from the late 90s and early 2000s. PERSONALLY, I don’t like them. They draw the walls of a room in and aren’t an architectural detail (with exceptions).
Step-down ceilings have a regular ceiling area and a ledge of sorts that’s usually under a foot in width. The rise is no more than a few inches. It often looks best to paint this horizontal ‘ledge’ or ‘step’ the same color as the walls. While this can make a room look smaller and the ceiling lower, it can look awkward to paint it the same as the ceiling. The exception is if this ledge is made from moldings/trims and isn’t drywall. In this case, you’d match it to the trims.
THE FAKE STEP-DOWN CEILING
Suppose you have a ceiling intended to LOOK like a step-down, but there’s only a change in texture, creating a six-inch border (approx) and no actual change in height. In this case, you’ll want to paint this border the same color as the ceiling to blend it. Painting it the same color as the walls will make your room look smaller and the ceiling lower.
The fake ‘step-down’ ceiling
In this next bedroom, the border/detail around the ceiling is too fussy…
Matching this border to the ceiling is a more modern look…
Here’s another room where the fake step-down/non-textured area is painted a dark color…
And here it is after – same fireplace, but fresh new paint and furnishings – you don’t even notice the step-down…which is kind of the point…
And lastly, let’s look at a few ideas to make your tray ceiling look more modern…
IDEAS TO UPDATE & DECORATE YOUR TRAY CEILING
- add faux wood beams to the highest level of your tray
- paint the highest ceiling level a darker color (check out colors HERE)
- add a textured or interesting wallpaper (one with a sheen can be interesting in a dining room)
- install tongue and groove wood on the highest level (natural wood or painted trim color)
- update your central light fixture
- while a more super modern home can handle strip lighting around the perimeter, it can look tacky in the average home
This is a bulkhead, not a tray ceiling, but it’s the right idea.
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