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Understanding Undertones

37 Days of Learning Undertones

By 07/26/2012January 28th, 201737 Comments

I’m starting up a series on my Facebook Fan page. Many of you who have read my eBook have emailed me asking for more lessons on seeing undertones.

That eBook is coming but it’s hard because I can’t use any old image (I have to own it) and I can’t exactly email a designer or homeowner and say “Hey can I use your image as an example of what not to do?” Also, I can’t do that here on my blog either. That would not be fun (for everyone).

If you’ve moved into a house though and have a great image – email it to me ASAP!

Anyway, it’s way harder to create from nothing than it is to criticize and I would never want to have a blog that did that.

I do show images of what doesn’t work in my True Colour Expert Workshops of course, along with hands-on exercises using fabrics, countertops, flooring, etc. !

Pink-beige area rug, blue-gray everything else Pinterest

So every day I’m going to post an image on my Facebook Fan page and simply describe the undertones in the photo (just like this one above). I’m not going to judge them, that’s not what this is about. This is for you to start training your eye so you can start to see what others can’t see when you walk into a room.

One of the reasons this will be so great, is because undertones, especially in neutrals are almost like an illusion. Unless your eye is trained, you can look at a sofa or a piece of tile and not be able to distinguish which undertone it is, however, as soon as I tell you what it is, you can see it immediately.


Have you ever seen this illusion? Look closely, it’s a drawing of a young woman and simultaneously an old woman. Once you see them both, it’s so obvious.

Undertones are the same way. But it doesn’t happen overnight.

If you’ve read my eBook, read it again, it will be a great primer to start! This way, when I say ‘This is taupe or that’s a green-gray’, you will know exactly which colours I’m talking about.

Here’s the bottom line tip: You should have no more than two beige or gray undertones in any space. It’s okay if you have more than that in fixed finishes like tile, granite or fabric for example, but when you repeat the colours from that inspiration piece, using more than two neutral undertones is usually too much.

Not like this rule cannot be broken, it’s just that most of the time, it’s a good guideline to follow.

Green + Blue + Orange Tobi Fairley

It’s kind of like the ‘rule of three’ (example above) that you’ve may have heard when decorating with colour in a room. Three is usually the maximum number of colours you should use before the room starts looking messy or too bohemian.

Here’s an email I received from a reader who recently purchased my eBook:

 “I think your work is the most important missing piece in most design. I’m so delighted to have found you, and truly want to take your seminar in the not too distant future. I love the use of color, and it is an incredibly intricate thing. I thought I had a “good eye” for color, but after redoing my own home, I’ve found some mistakes that bother me.
Your work is the key to understanding why/what is wrong and how I can fix it. It also will help me prevent mistakes with others. It’s invaluable, and thank you for offering it. I’m very excited to learn it, and I want to absorb all of it and be good at it RIGHT NOW – the learning curve that is slowing me down is the part I hate!” Robin Mayfield

And you don’t need to own the book in order to follow along and see if you can start to learn to see what others don’t see! Don’t forget to click here and join me for 37 Days of Learning Undertones! See you on Facebook.

Related posts:

What Everyone Should Know about Beige

What Everyone Should Know about Gray

The Fundamental Key for Colour Specifying (not for everybody)

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  • Beth says:

    This code is not working! Please help! I would like to order and be entered in the giveaway please!

  • This is a terrific idea, Maria. I’m looking forward to this series.

  • Cathy Z says:

    Can I start a rally to have this series be on your blog too? Any other Maria-loving, non-facebook users out there? Who’s with me…Bueller…Bueller…

  • Gretchen says:

    You tell us what some other color designers are afraid to…perhaps it reveals the so called tricks of the trade??? At any rate, you have made good color sense accessible to us all. Thank you!

  • Tara Dillard says:

    How would we know what a movie is like without the movie critic? Symphonies, art installations, & etc.

    You would be an EXCELLENT critic.

    Why would I trust anyone else?

    So happy for you with your move & new home.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  • Lesley Kramer says:

    Maria this is great, more practice! The workshop was invaluable and now the training continues…..a innovative idea and I love it!

  • Pauline says:

    I’m with Cathy Z. above…I am not a Facebook user. Including your information on a blog would be SO excellent for “non-users”. Please give this some consideration.

    Love your newsletter – need more.

  • monica says:

    I tried to buy the book for my ipad. It says the coupon code is not valid.

  • Betty says:

    I cant see the OLD woman! usually I am really quick with these, but try as I might …. she AIN’T there! LOL! Maybe that’s why I have so much trouble with undertones! I AM getting better thiugh, thanks to YOU! 🙂


  • Betty says:

    I JUST FOUND HER – The OLD woman!! WOW! I was getting worried about you for a few moments! Thought maybe the paint fumes got to you! LOL!!!!!! LOVE you and your explanations and descriptions! SO COOL! You are an excellent TEACHER! 🙂

  • Jane says:

    Hi there,

    I’m trying to purchase the ebook for 19.99 with the coupon code “undertones” but the shopping cart says the coupon is not valid 🙁
    Please advise.

    Thanks very much!

    • Maria Killam says:

      Hi Jane,
      So sorry it’s a glitch they are working on, try it again and if it doesn’t work, we’ll send you a rebate no problem, thanks for your patience. Maria

  • paperkite says:

    Hmm. I think this proves something that I’ve always suspected. I am simply no good at design and should throw in the towel. I actually like the wrong, blue-gray room FAR above the colorful one that is doing everything right. I’d put that blue-gray room in my Dad’s beach house in a skinny minute.

    • Maria Killam says:

      Hi Paperkite, remember I’m not saying this room is wrong. This is a lesson in learning undertones. It’s a lovely room. Maria

      • paperkite says:

        What a relief! I misunderstood something. So glad to hear that the grey-blue room is suppose to be lovely, too. 🙂

  • Beth says:

    Well, just tired to buy your e-book but the code is still not working on my I-pad… sad……I would love to own it………?

  • Debra says:

    I have your e book and it has been very valuable to me. I would love to have a chance to win the color samples as well. Is the giveaway for those of us who have already purchased as well?

  • Diane says:

    I recently saw a blog on sisal Was it yours? If not can someone help me find it.

  • Chris says:

    I read through RSS reader and the link fir mon. July 23 will not work. It’s the article on Simply your Decorating. I went online to your website,it is not to be found. Where is it hiding?

  • Joy says:

    Agreeing with Cathy Z and Pauline above-would love to have those images on your blog. Could you place them on both for those non-facebook users.

  • Mary says:

    I keep going back and looking at the picture of the woman & I can’t see the old woman. Short of standing on my head, I don’t know how to view her.
    I’m hopeless. It’s going to take a lot of practice to see undertones.

  • Mary says:

    PS…I should send you pictures of my home. You can use them as examples of what NOT to do. HA!

  • Linda says:

    Count me as another non-facebook user along with Cathy, Pauline and Joy. I really want no part of it but I’m feeling more and more pressure to join so as not to miss out on things like this (and pinterest, etc.). Thinking about creating a new email address under a pseudonym just for this purpose.

  • Rhonda says:

    The chin of the young lady is the nose of the old lady. Maybe that will help you find her!

  • Linda V says:

    Here’s more help for those that can’t see the old lady. The young woman is looking to the side, the old lady is looking down, young woman’s ear is the old lady’s eye. Old lady also has a hooked nose and protruding chin (sorry old lady) and her mouth is the young woman’s necklace. :- )

  • Maggie says:

    I think the rug in the “Green + Blue + Orange” room is pinky-beige and the walls are yellow beige (at least that is how it looks on my computer).

    Thanks to both this blog and the wonderful e-book I am seeing the undertones when I look at photos.

    When I am ready to paint my home I know I will feel confident in picking the colors!

    Thanks Maria!!!

  • Hi Maria. I am with Debra above. I bought your eBook 3 weeks ago…and would love to have the chance to win the samples as well. Would we be eligible? Thanks for this series. Love your work.

  • Adele says:

    I am also a non-facebook user but you can see these posts on Maria’s FB page without being an FB user. What you can’t do, however, is scroll back to see earlier images (the first couple of days) or leave comments.

  • Marilyn says:

    Wait….I’m still confused. Should I match the undertones in my paint to my furniture/fabrics or contrast them?

  • Marilyn says:

    My new bedding in our master bedroom is a dark grey with a soft white geometric print, definitely a charcoal green-grey (Macy’s Transom bedding). It can even look a little greenish khaki at night. My floors are a medium gold toned wood and there’s lost of soft white trim/cabinets in the room. I was “planning” on buying dark espresso colored wood furniture for the room with contemporary lines. I will paint the walls a lighter green-grey…thanks to you ;). Any suggestion for a pop of color to accent this all with?

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