Design Dilemma: Understanding Undertones in Paint Colors
You’d think you couldn’t go wrong choosing a selection of beiges to coordinate throughout your home, right?
But then you get those beiges on the wall, and somehow they manage to clash horribly. Or they clash with your beige couch, or your beige carpet.
Why does this happen? In a word, undertones.
Every paint color, even neutrals like whites, beiges and grays have tones. These include mass tones and undertones. Mass tones are the predominant color you see when you look at a color. So the predominant color you see in a beige might be beige. The predominant color you see in a white might be white. But the undertone is the color that is the hint of another color you may see peeking through that first shade.
In a seafoam green, for example, a mass tone might be the green. The undertone is blue. In an olive green, a mass tone might be green, but the undertone would be yellow.
Can you see the undertones in the gray pictured below?
If we were to take a guess from the picture (undertones can look different depending on the time of day and surrounding colors) we’d say this was a warm gray with yellow/green undertones. That’s why it works so well with the accent colors of ivory and yellow in the room.
Most color schemes work best when the undertone is the same. And when you pair colors in the same family that seem to clash when combined together, what you’ve got is a clash of undertones. That explains why some pinkish beiges just don’t seem to work with yellowish beiges or greenish beiges. It also explains why some warm whites with a hint of yellow look odd when combined with cool whites with a hint of blue. It also explains how you can take a certain gray couch, pair it with a gray wall and feel that the color of each has completely changed. Because when you see different colors in the same family paired together, the undertones tend to come jumping out.
Here’s an example of a room with clashing undertones:
The comforter on the bed is yellow with yellow undertones. The taupe/beige walls have pink undertones. While you’re not likely to go screaming out of the room due to its decor, you may feel that something is “off” if you spend time in the room.
How can you learn to recognize undertones in paints before you make a big mistake?
1) Try spreading paint out very thin on a drop cloth. The undertone becomes more apparent as the color becomes more sheer.
2) Compare the color to other shades. Grab a color chart and compare different reds to each other and to a “true” red. You will quickly see that some reds have undertones of yellow and will appear closer to an orange red, while some reds have undertones of blue and will look more violet.
3) Compare your hue to complementary hues. Complementary hues intensify each other. So a great way to tell if a beige has pinkish, yellowish or greenish undertones is to compare it to other hues, like red, yellow or green. If your beige has pink in it, it will appear brighter next to a green than a red or yellow. If your gray has blue in it, you will see it more clearly when it is compared to an orange.
It may take a little practice, but once you’ve learned how to see undertones in paint you’ll find that you can coordinate fabrics, accents, rugs and paint combinations without fear! One other note about undertones: while maintaining consistent undertones is a great rule of thumb, remember that all rules can be broken at the right time and with the right intention.