Understanding Paint Color Undertone

Residential Autumn

When choosing a color for your home, what you don’t immediately see about a color is as important as what you notice.

Color is dynamic and energetic. Colors have a more subtle attribute known as an undertone. Unless you are looking for it, you may not see the undertone. This is one thing that makes colors both fascinating and frustrating. Understanding color undertones is one of the most effective techniques for alleviating frustration.

More than Meets the Eye

When you first see a color, it is easy to think you have all the information you need to decide if it is the right one for your project. But slow down because colors, predominantly neutrals or muted tones, have undertones you won’t notice at first glance. When you look closer, you discover what a color is all about.

There is the color you first see and the less obvious undertone. It is often “hidden,” so take a closer look because if you fail to recognize the undertone, it will show up when you least expect it. Choosing a color, mainly a neutral, without considering the undertone can cause a color scheme you thought was perfect to feel amiss.

Seeing Undertones

A color’s undertone is challenging to see when looking at color on its own. Whites, neutrals, and muted colors have undertones that are difficult to see. The undertone becomes more apparent when a swatch is alongside samples of similar colors.

For example, a crisp white may seem pure and neutral until placed next to another, which allows you to see its cool, bluish undertones. It may only give you the desired results if you selected it for trim to use with blue or other cool colors or want a wall color to cool down a space. Otherwise, you will be happier with a different white.

The more complex and less pure the color, the more difficult it can be to determine the undertone. Not recognizing or incorrectly identifying the undertone is why people aren’t pleased with their color. The white with the cool, bluish undertones they didn’t notice looked stark against their warm terra cotta-colored walls. The gray walls with green undertones didn’t look right with the rosy beige carpet.

Residential Tahoe

An example of a well-chosen combination of DaVinci Tahoe Shakes on the roof
to complement the undertones of the white on the body.

Finding the undertone

Selecting the correct color is essential, but choosing a color with the right undertone is even more important on your home’s exterior. Here’s why: if you’ve ever seen or created a scheme that you thought should work but didn’t, it was probably the undertones that threw the palette off rather than the colors. The colors you chose may have had undertones that were fighting each other instead of working together.

Now that you understand the importance of identifying the undertone, the next step is to learn how to detect it. For those just learning, the easiest way to see the undertone is to compare one color to another similar color. Start by looking at your chosen color alongside other colors from the same family. Although the hues belong to the same color family, you will see how their undertones differ. For example, some beiges lean more yellow, while others lean green or even gray.

This technique works for whites as well. If you thought white was exempt from the undertone issue, think again. When looking at a white swatch, distinguishing the undertone may be almost impossible. Look at the same swatch next to pure white, and it will mysteriously turn into a faint yellow, blue, or some other color. That is the magic of the undertone.

Neutral territory

Neutrals are more complex. You can compare neutrals to similar colors but may need help recognizing the undertone. Neutrals are the toughest to get right but don’t keep that from discouraging you.

Here is a little secret that can help you figure out the undertone of most neutrals. These are undertones that are the most common:

  • Beige undertones are green, yellow/gold, red/pink, and occasionally orange.
  • Undertones of colors most people describe as gray are blue, green, or purple.
  • A neutral between beige and gray, often called taupe or greige, usually has purple, brown, pink, or green undertones.

Creating harmonies

Evaluating the color and its undertones is well worth the effort. Expertly choosing colors that harmonize is the foundation for designing a beautiful color palette. It may seem challenging at first but like most things – a little effort now will pay off every time you look at your home.

Ready to know even more about choosing color? Here are two other posts that can help you as you choose your paint or other materials–Gray? Beige? Greige? Which is Best for Creating Curb Appeal? or Color Lesson: Defining Colors

This article was originally published in June 2017.

About the Author

Kate SmithKate Smith Headshot is an internationally recognized color expert, consultant, and designer.  She is a skilled colorist & a color consultant who, for more than a decade, has lent her expertise to DaVinci Roofscapes. Kate helps YOU select colors you will love for many years.