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3 Ways to Make White Walls Work with Your Earthy Finishes

By 06/10/2019May 27th, 202015 Comments

Can you paint your walls white even though you have earthy finishes? Maybe… keep reading for 3 ways to make white walls work with brown.

Last week you saw the before and after photos of this black contemporary exterior makeover! This week I am taking you inside to show you a few bathrooms we also helped my eDesign client with.

Real estate photos

Art Gallery White is the New Real Estate Beige

(well, you know what I mean)

Art gallery white walls are here to stay. And it looks newer and fresher than all the painted walls we’ve been doing for 30-40 years so it’s the new ‘real estate colour’ to sell a house.

Just to be clear. I’m saying art gallery white is anything in the realm of a true white or off-white. If you paint your walls Benjamin Moore Cloud White or Sherwin-Williams Snowbound (for example), trust me, they will look pretty darn white.

Not to be confused with that you SHOULD do that or that off-white is the right colour. For more on which white is right for your house, download my White is Complicated, A Decorators Guide to Choosing the Right White eBook here.

And, not every house can be painted stark white. You’ll notice this is a contemporary home AND the white has been repeated in the decorating. Advice I have given many times on this blog already.

Read More About White: 5 Reasons Why you Cannot Paint Your House Art Gallery White

But first, let’s take a look at this paint colour eDesign consultation.

Paint Colour eDesign Consultation

My eDesign client Tamara wanted to update the bathrooms. The oval sink and shiny granite with a kick backsplash were looking dated and the tile in the shower was looking tired.

But she planned to keep the unique flagstone floor that runs throughout much of this area of the house. So the challenge was to create a current, modern and fresh bathroom while working with the earthy stone.

Here is the colour plan we sent her (below), which included Benjamin Moore Edgecomb Gray and Decorators White.

And because her house is modern in style, I recommended these fun sconces below.

Shop this Sconce Light

A cantilevered vanity with clean lines is ideal for a more contemporary style bathroom. And wall mounted faucets are perfect for creating a high end modern look.

So here is the beautiful after photo below!

How to make white work with earthy finishes


The warm quartz relates perfectly to the floor and balances all the crisp white. I love how she opted for such a wide profile for the vanity top. The shower floor tile is white like the rest with green gray grout, which is just enough to tie it visually to the stone floor.

I’ve always suggested as a guideline that brown and earth tones belong with cream and grays, blacks and fresh colour belong with white. But here is an instance where true white works beautifully with earth tones.


First, the style is modern, white and organic materials like wood and brick are often contrasted and combined in this style of architecture. So the context is right.

Combining white with earth tones doesn’t work if it’s forced or done haphazardly.

The earthy stone here (above) was carefully repeated with the granite and the warmer grout for the hex tile, while the bright white is repeated in the fixtures, tile and vanity. So there is balance. And that is what makes it look intentional.

How to Mix White with Earthy Brown Tones in Bathroom

I’m very impressed with the way she repeated the warm tones of the countertop in the artwork in this bathroom. Her instinct was perfect here.

Such a pretty view of the beautiful surroundings from this bright and sunny classic and timeless shower.

Here is another room in her house (below) where earthy stone walls, wood ceiling and terracotta tile are intended to connect this interior space to the gorgeous landscape outside.

The white surrounding the doors might have looked out of place, except that it has been repeated simply in the bentwood chairs. And it also helps that it makes sense the in context of the rest of her house, which successfully combines crisp white with earthy finishes.

I am so excited to share this with you because Tamara’s house is the perfect example of how to combine art gallery white with earthier finishes. But she’s way ahead here with the thoughtful architecture of this house.

3 Ways to Make White Walls (even art gallery white) Work with Your Earthy Finishes:

1. This house is modern, therefore the white already looks right

Combining white and earth tones in the average transitional house is still a bigger challenge. Often it’s just not a good idea. There is a simplicity of architectural vocabulary in the modernist style that lends itself well to stark contrasts of colours and materials.

In a more transitional or traditional home, the flow generally needs to be softer.

2. Introduce White Furniture or Furnishings

If you decide you still want to paint your walls art gallery white, it’s important that you introduce lots of white furnishings. Add a white or off white slipcover to your beige or gray upholstery for example. Change out your earthy granite and tile floors. Sure, it takes  a bit more effort so that you don’t end up with white walls looking just wrong.

Because, if you don’t introduce more white furnishings, it will look like you haven’t painted yet. Instead, think of white as a colour, repeat it everywhere so that it coordinates and makes sense. Remember, managing the high contrast that white provides does take some skill.

3. Repetition is the Magic Trick

Repeat the white as much as possible. And repeat the earth tones too.

Nate Berkus is a master of combining white with earth tones. One thing to notice in his work is that the pieces are always elegant and interesting in their own right. And that’s an important element in a successful neutral palette. Otherwise, it will just look boring.

The warm tones of the fireplace surround are repeated in the glam cognac velvet sofa, the gold mirror and inside the hutch. He successfully layers in a cool blue gray as well using repetition.

Nate Berkus Source

Since I think we will be seeing a lot more combining of earth tones and art gallery white, I hope this helps. It’s important to know what makes it successful, because it really is the exception to the rule.

Thank you Tamara for sharing your beautiful home with us!

Here’s the note Tamara sent after our consultation:

“I highly recommend Maria’s eDesign consultations! The process is painless, and Maria’s suggestions on paint and other finishes have been the perfect solution every single time. 

I have a pretty good sense of color and design, but still have gained so much from her custom eDesign solutions. She has saved me thousands of dollars in costly mistakes and her solutions have helped me fall in love with my house!

Absolutely the best remodeling dollars I’ve ever spent!!”

If you’d like your home to fill you with happiness when you walk in the door, check out our eDesign services here.

Terreeia and I are off to Paris this afternoon come with me and follow along on my Instastories.

Related posts:

Why are You Obsessed with White Walls?

White and Cream, the New Trend Taking Over Your Neighbourhood

All Grey Home in 2011, and all Black in 2019

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  • Liz says:

    I love this look. I have the earth tones in floors and wooden chairs etc, but creamy walls, BM Liben White. It’s definitely not leading edge, my place, but it’s home, and a neutral but warm palette. I’m so tired of seeing all the monochromatic rooms in magazines and staged houses being sold. 😉

  • Ann J Chapdelaine says:

    I have always recommended that the grout color match the tile for a timeless look. A contrasting darker color with white tile always looks dirty to me. I recently did white 2 inch hex tile with white grout on a bathroom floor of one of my apartments in a Victorian house and the contractor said that he would always do white grout with white tile from then on.

    Colored grout is not timeless. I still see a lot of mauve grout from the 80’s with grey tile. Ugh.

    • Maria Killam says:

      Hi Amy,
      I’m not calling coloured grout is timeless I call it practical. I specify it because it gets dirty anyway and looks worse when it’s only dirty in some spots. . . I have specified MANY a green beige in a white bathroom because the tile is so dirty that it’s the only colour that makes the grout work and not look even worse. . . nothing wrong with white grout, but it’s hard to keep it that way! Thanks for your comment! Maria

  • Sam says:

    Your blog is so very helpful. This one was very insightful. I’m so thankful for it and plan to read it even more carefully as I start my remodel planning journey to take our typical suburban home into the next decade with a more fresh and relaxing vibe. My husband is freaking out over the cost of the potential remodel components, so I’m a) trying to be the contractor for some of it and b) making sure I have a plan to execute every detail so it will be rewarding in the end to both of us. Also, I truly love your sense of color – gray/beige/white…blah, if you don’t pop it with something fun! Thanks!

  • Fran W. says:

    Lovely transformation!

  • sandi says:

    Have fun in Paris!!

  • Lucy says:

    White and modern do seem to go together. Hiring a designer like yourself that knows how to pull it together would be a smart thing to do. Your edesign would be the smartest way to go if your are a novice and want to be on trend! Nicely done as usual Maria.

  • Donna says:

    YES! This is so helpful, and so far advanced of anything I’ve ever read in terms of elucidating how to properly introduce gallery white to earthy finishes. I’ve always admired Nate Berkus mix of neutrals, and he seems to be breaking rules (as if rules applied to him, Ha!), but now I understand better through your explanations and Tamara’s beautiful house why it works. We have been remodeling a transitional house room by room over the past 20 years – not ideal, but what we could afford. I’m an artist with a pretty good sense of style and color, and thus managed to avoid too many trends, but given what was available during the time, most of my fixed finishes (floors – tile and original hardwood) are warm tones, kitchen countertops are black soapstone with barely stained hickory wood shaker cabinets (luckily I avoided the oak and busy granite trend), off white tiles in the bathroom, with creamy walls and trim. We would like to freshen up some rooms (not do it all over again!) and I wanted to update the creamy white walls and introduce some whiter accents where appropriate. I have more confidence now to attempt this, but also know that I can request your edesign services as needed. So glad I found this blog!

  • Jan says:

    Great pointers, Maria!
    Have a great trip! I’m coming along via your pictures?

  • Stacee says:

    Maria, you are so right about the white grout (another way you saved my sanity). In our new build a couple years ago, on the hex tile shower pan, I did use white. My husband and I scraped it all out and replaced it with the green-grey grout I used on the bathroom floors. Not a fun job, to say the least!
    The white grout just looked dingy after a year. There was nothing I could do to make it white. I’m so much happier with the green-grey we replaced it with. Never again!

    • ClaireSN says:

      Recently I researched and discovered using Oxiclean to kill the mold on our outdoor brickwork walkways without killing the plants and that worked great. I then tried it on the white grout in our two upstairs bathrooms and it made a world of difference. The grout is still a little off white compared to the white porcelain tiles, but that might have been the original color anyway. The grout is 20 years old. Am embarrassed I saw all those TV commercials over the years and never tried the product until now.

  • Camille Upson says:

    I am soaking in as much info in your posts as I possibly can.
    We just purchased a winter home in Arizona and I am trying to decorate with a Southwestern hint as apposed to my normal traditional New England style.
    I plan on painting all the walls white next winter when we are out there.
    The first thing I did as soon as the papers where signed was have someone come in and paint the dirty grout. What a difference it made. I tried everything to no avail on my own. There are several rooms of the same tile and it was very obvious where the traffic patterns were.
    This might just be a temporary fix but it is cheaper then redoing the grout or retiling. I am over the moon with the results.

  • Tonya says:

    We are about to have to rent a home with all white walls and modern finishes, and my decor and furniture is all warm earth tones, dark woods, bronze, copper, and vintage pieces. Reading this post for some ideas, because I have no idea how I’m going to make this work!

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