After five more gallons of paint and way too many hours on the top of an 8-foot ladder for the second time, I’ll never make that color mistake again. If I can, I want to spare you from making the same frustrating mistake. In this post, I’ll share the one thing you must do to ensure you find the right neutral wall paint color.
I’ve made paint color mistakes before, like the kryptonite green bedroom and the chocolate brown walls in a bathroom with no natural light. Both complete disasters, but easily and quickly fixed.
My biggest paint mistake was compounded by the fact that we lived with it for years. It was our all-over paint color. And it was all wrong.
When we were in the heat of the painting moment, we talked it up. After the first few rolls, “it looks great.” Halfway through, “don’t freak, it will look different when it dries.” Almost done, “let’s just keep going.” Then when we finished, we continued telling ourselves lies for a while, because we couldn’t imagine re-painting all the walls.
It would’ve been so much easier to choose a good paint color in the first place.
In our first home, we found a great all-over neutral paint color. It was called Wallstreet. It was light gray with a green undertone. It was love at first roll. It was also dumb luck.
In our second home, we tried the dumb luck method again. Of course we didn’t use Wallstreet, figuring a new home called for a new color. We chose a color called Broom or Broomstick. Either way the name should have been our first clue. I’m sure it was a fine color in other homes, but in ours it was horribly wrong. It was a dumb mistake.
We lived with our color mistake for a couple years until we regained our confidence to choose a new color and get back on top of the 8-foot ladder to paint all the way up to our 12-foot ceilings.
The confidence to re-paint didn’t just come out of nowhere. First, I pinpointed what was wrong with the existing wall color. It was neutral beige, but it looked wrong in our house. One day while sitting at the bar counter looking into the kitchen, I realized our mistake. I was sitting there staring at the light gray grout lines running through the slate mosaic tile backsplash and thinking how much it reminded me of the Wallstreet color from our first home. I thought, “I’ll bet Wallstreet would even look better than what we have now, at least it would go with the tile and counter.”
Eureka! In that moment I realized what was so wrong with the existing color. It didn’t tie into anything in our home. We had white cabinetry and trim, dark gray countertops, slate tile backsplash, dark brown vinyl flooring, and barely beige carpet. Everything at eye level was cool and gray, except those broom colored walls. The walls clashed with the other colors in the space.
Wallstreet would look better, because it coordinated with the other finishes. Turns out, the color we found in our first home by dumb luck, looked even better the second time when we knew it was the perfect fit for the colors already present in our space.
Moral of the story – your fixed finishes will make or break your color choice.
If you are standing in front of thousands of paint chips wondering what color to pick, you already missed the first and most important step.
The first question isn’t what color should I paint the walls or what color rug should I pick.
The first thing you need to figure out is what colors are already present in your space.
Even in a “blank slate”, there are existing colors. They are hiding in the undertone of your fixed finishes (your flooring, counter, cabinetry, tile, carpet). You need to identify what undertones (colors) are already there, so you can choose colors to work with them.
Like them or not, the existing undertones automatically become part of your color palette. You must work with your fixed finishes or change them so the color palette you want will work.
What doesn’t work is ignoring your undertones.
You can’t skip the first step. It sets you up for color success. In my whole house color process, the undertones in your fixed finishes is the key input to your first three color choices; a white, a neutral, and a color. From there all your other color choices flow.
How to Identify the Undertones in Your Fixed Finishes
I spent over 15 hours researching and refining the process I teach in my Creating a Cohesive Home with Color class, available inside my Décorography program. Because I think it is so important to start with your fixed finishes when choosing wall colors, I want to give you the first step.
Let me show you how it works.
For the entire first video in my three-video class, I focus on how to spot the undertones in your fixed finishes and neutral colors. It’s 33% of the entire class, because it’s that important. In the video, I share a lot of visuals to help you see the undertones in wood, carpet, tile/stone, and neutral paint colors from gray to beige to greige.
To show you how it works, let’s just look at one example. Let’s use this wood sample to go through the process:
Step 1. Is the sample cool or warm?
Cool undertones are green, blue, and purple. Warm undertones are red, orange, and yellow.
This sample is definitely warm.
Step 2. Map it to the color wheel. Which hue is it most like?
Choose from the basic hues; red, orange, yellow, green. blue, purple.
This sample looks red, maybe orange.
Step 3. Compare to known undertones.
In this case, we think the undertone is closest to red, but it might be orange. So, we’ll compare it to two other samples; one that does not have a red undertone and one that has an orange undertone.
Now we can say with certainty, after comparison, the undertone in this wood sample is red.
Knowing the undertone gives us color direction, we can apply color theory and know what will work best with this color flooring.
- We could work with the red, choosing a neutral with an analogous undertone. For example, the red wood tone looks good with beige that has a pink undertone.
- We could complement the red, choosing a neutral with a complementary undertone. For example, the red wood tone looks good with gray that has a green undertone, because green is red’s complement.
The same process works for identifying undertones in your cabinets, counters, tile or stone, and carpet. Because all undertones aren’t as easy to spot as this example, I created a whole video in Creating a Cohesive Home with Color dedicated to helping you identify undertones.
You need to identify the undertones in all your fixed finishes, before you can start choosing paint colors.
Once you know your undertones, it’s easier to choose the wall colors that will fit in and look right. In my whole house color process, your fixed finishes are the starting point to develop a palette of five colors which set the stage for cohesive color in your home.
For more help with understanding undertones and creating your whole house color palette, check out Décorography: The Art & Science of Decorating. Décorography includes the Color Confidence course—a comprehensive approach to choosing colors for your home.
Debbie Brinkmann says
I’m curious about the 3 samples of wood you compared above. I see the orange undertone on the left and the red undertone in the middle. But what undertone does the one on the right have? Thanks!
The wood on the right is more of a true brown. It is hard to tell in these images, but when I compare that sample to espresso and other brown wood samples, the one on the right has a very slight green undertone. You can see how it is a more ash-y color than the warm orange and red. In the class, I share the undertones of over 15 different wood samples, plus we cover neutral paint colors, tile, stone, and carpet.
I just had another AhHa moment!! Now I know why I don’t slip into decorating styles let’s say copying your grays and turquoise with pops of yellow. It simply would require a do over everywhere. From outside to inside. Now I know why I can redecorate and update items over the years without totally starting over everywhere! Thank you!
I feel like we had dumb luck go our own way. We painted the kitchen/living room a periwinkle blue color, not realizing how it would bring out the blue tones in our dark gray speckled countertop. I love the wall color more and more every day, and tell my husband so out loud. Thank goodness, because those rooms were a bear to paint!
Anne, Yay, for happy accidents. It’s a beautiful thing when it works out. Now you know what to look for in the next color choice.
What is the homework for the month of November?
I’m drawn to the School of Decorating and think I could learn a lot….but I want to be sure that I’ll have time to apply myself to the homework to get the most out of it…but it would help to know what the project is :)
Hi. The homework varies from class to class. This month’s class is 3-videos (90 minutes total) and a guided worksheet to create your whole house color plan. The plan will then serve as your guide for color choices going forward in your home.
Last month’s class had more hands on homework on styling bookshelves. But students applied the learning in different ways, some making over entire walls of bookcases and others making smaller tweaks.
I’d love to have you in the school!
First, bravo for tackling the tough but important issue of undertones.
Second (if you have not thought of this already), you may want to briefly cover how to color-calibrate your computer screen in your class. Even if 95% of your students already know how to do it, there could be 5% of the class that will not be able to see the colors you see and therefore not get the full benefit of your class materials.
Third, in a color theory class I took (which was THE single most useful art class I ever took), the professor always had us begin statements with “To my eye…” Example: “To my eye, this color is mostly red with a little bit of orange and a little bit of black.” The idea was that everyone’s eyes process color a little differently, and I think that’s important. Everyone has a starting point for how they perceive color, and then it can even change over time. Apparently, in general, the older people get, the more muted colors seem to them (hence they crave brighter colors), and the more they tend to gravitate towards blues and purples. Interesting right? I guess what I’m trying to say is that detecting color undertones is not quite as scientific as the other design elements you’ve covered so far, and because people’s eyes are unique to them, there are sometimes gray areas. Plus, add to that such things as warm greens and cool yellows and I can see why a lot of people can get frustrated by color theory.
Fourth (if you have not thought of it already), you may want to add some simple color blindness tests to your course. I have a relative who did not realize she was blue-yellow colorblind until she was 45 years old! She believed that everyone saw the world the way she did until some simple tests in my textbook showed that the contrary was true. She sees yellow, green, and blue, but what she’s seeing is not the same as what ordinary people see.
Jess, I always live your tips. My favorite here is the “to my eye”, because it is so true that all of our eyes work differently. That is also where the comparison comes in handy, because then at least you can establish if a color is more red than another. Your point about our aging eyes might also be another reason not to fully trust our kids to pick wall colors, because they go for the brightest ones :)
Yippee! Whole-house color choices is what brought me via search to your site, and developing those choices for my home is literally on my to-do list right now. Very very timely!
I attempted to work through the worksheet that is included on your post – and made great progress…but I’m just not SURE…is it safe to assume that the School of Decorating classes/worksheet/homework process for this month is much more specific, and in-depth?
Wow! I really like how you broke down the basics of choosing a color. I, too, have lived with a painting mistake for far too long. We are getting ready to chose a color for our family room and your guide will really help!
Can you give any examples of Greys with green undertones?