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Colour lessonUnderstanding Undertones

An Open Letter to all Paint Companies

By 02/15/2013February 21st, 201747 Comments

Alright my lovelies, it’s time to literally shake things up in the paint world!

Sleeping Beauty

Wake Up!

It’s 2013!

Most of you are so behind with your colours it’s totally painful.

I conduct on-line colour consultations all over the world and I use your fan decks.

Before I can even look up a colour on some decks, I have to read the instructions first.


Kids picking colour


A small child should be able to find a colour in your deck. Keep it simple. Colour is complicated enough.

Don’t even get me started on architectural kits that are not on rings? Those are not even remotely designed for colour consultants. Individual chips in a box are designed for architects to pull out and stick on boards. If you ever want your paint specified by colour consultants, stick them on a ring.

Or do yourself a favour and shadow a designer who has to use your loose-leaf paint chips and let’s see at the end of the call, if you would use that kit yourself? Who has the time to start filing them away? Not me.

Your colours should be organized by undertone so that your customers never pick a pink beige again by accident. How do I know this happens by accident? Because I spent four years working in a paint store. There are many hundreds upon thousands of homes that have been accidentally painted pink beige.

You should at least have a fantastic selection of neutrals. But most of you do not.

I don’t get paid to use Benjamin Moore Paints in my colour system. I use it because my system works inside it.

My system works like this: Once you know the colours that fall into the undertone categories, everywhere you go in the world, you can look at any building or walk into any room and once determining the undertones, choose one of the neutrals in my system for the space. Or you can easily put together finishes, stone, tile with coordinating tones.


And it’s totally transferrable to any paint deck. If you had the enough neutrals. But sadly, most of you do not.

Your brochures are mostly not useful. Four paint chips in a combination does not help anyone. What about the fixed and furnished elements in any given space? The minute you take those into consideration, and you must if you are going to have a harmonious and cohesive colour scheme, it renders your brochures, completely useless.

And stop putting peach and pink beige (we don’t all live in California) into exterior colour palette brochures. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

fan deck

If you have a collection of colours that do not go from light to dark, you should let people know. Every designer in my workshop breathes a sigh of relief when I tell them that if they see a colour right beside another one on the same strip that doesn’t look like it’s the lighter or darker version, it probably isn’t.

Hire colour consultants to help you with your fan decks. You should never work with anyone that hasn’t conducted a minimum of at least 500 consultations. Work with a designer who understands the colour business. It’s clear by looking at your materials right now that either you don’t hire these people or you don’t listen to them.

Beautiful neutrals

Mostly, you don’t listen because I’m in the industry and I know some of you do hire designers that are in the colour business. But it’s expensive to change colours, it means every single colourizer even in the tiniest paint store in a one horse town has to be replaced. I get it.

But the colour world has changed. You are limping along and way, way behind.

Related posts:

What Everyone Should Know About Fan Decks

Why Pink Beige Should be Banished Forever

A Perfect Example of How Complex Colour Works

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, become a client

Download my eBook, How to Choose Paint Colours – It’s All in the Undertones to get my complete step-by-step system on how to get colour to do what you want.

To make sure the undertones in your home are right, get some large samples!

If you would like to learn how to choose colour with confidence, become a True Colour Expert. April in Toronto and Vancouver in May.

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  • Hannah Dee says:

    And please, please make rings that stand up to repeated use. Most of the rings stop locking after 1 or 2 uses. Oh, and drill the holes a smidge bigger please? So I don’t have to force the sheets over the hinge?

  • YES! Thank you for saying what all good Color Specialists are thinking every time we pull out those “tools” provided to us by the paint companies. They could be so much better if they got feedback/help from consultants in the field. Several paint companies often send me surveys about their paints/products, but they are obviously targeted to paint contractors, not Color Consultants.

  • Hannah Dee says:

    OH AND…design the kit so that they don’t just pop open at inopportune moments and all the chips spill out everywhere, because the rings don’t hold. Like when you are trying to leave a client’s home after a 3 hour consult. Almost all of my fasteners have broken!

    OK I’m done. 🙂

  • Teresa says:

    Right on Sister! I love when you get fired up. Is anyone that can make changes listening?

  • Julie says:

    Oh my gosh Maria, I totally agree! When and why did the paint manufacturers stop making the light to dark paint strips? I’m not any kind of decorator or designer and it kills me to make sense of the “organization” of colors. Organizing by undertone would be a huge help!

  • Ahhhhh, (she breathes a sign of relief)!
    Perfect article!
    And may I add, don’t make the fandeck casing out of hard plastic where you have to shove and force the strips back into the casing, as it’s sooo tight. I’m talking to you Sherwin Williams.

  • Design & Decor says:

    Amen Maria!
    Thank you..

  • Scarlett B says:


    That’s all I am gonna say!

    As a ‘retiree’ from the paint business, I can tell you that this was a daily, monthly, yearly struggle.

    And that’s why I retired (and I was under 40!) from this business.

  • And how about a carrying strap for all those fan decks I carry into each color consultation? It is difficult to carry the 3 Ben Moore Fan Decks at once with the other things that I need for a color consult.

  • Victoria says:

    another amen right here!
    I was in the process of choosing paint colors
    before I took a break to read today’s post.

  • I so agree!!! My Ben Moore rings keep popping open too. I asked my rep for replacements but never heard anything. The S-W plastic case is ridiculous. What if it gets knocked over and they all fall on the floor? What a mess. I’ve picked the best colors, put holes in them, and have them on rings. I also order the big sheets and put them in a binder. Sometimes people want to use Behr or Valspar, and I try to talk them out of it. How can I work with fandecks that have little tiny paint chips? Maria, I think you should add working with a paint company to your vision list, and create the kind of fandeck and support materials we need. You’re well-known, and you can do it. It’s not so much coming up with new colors, it’s about deleting the crappy ones, and organizing what’s left into categories that make sense. And then making them easy to tote from house to house.

  • Let me add a vote for setting up the kits in a way that protects those samples on the improved rings. Benjamin Moore’s portable kits stand them up on end, and eventually, everything on the whole ring warps and curls so that they all become unusable. Which of course makes it even harder than ever to get them back on the rings when they’re removed.

  • Karen Dyck says:

    What a great rant! I hope you send it as a letter (with the comments) to the major paint companies.

  • Kate says:

    Yikes! I couldn’t read this whole post. I found the tone too harsh and a disservice to the image I have of the talented person behind this blog. Often times honey is better choice than vinegar.

    • samantha says:

      Maria is making valid points in a clear and concise tone. Sometimes you have to be direct if you want something to change. Plus, she is offering solutions to the problems she is citing based on actual long-term, hands-on experience.

    • Sylvia says:

      I have a feeling Maria has asked nicely in the past. Without results. Based on the comments, others have asked nicely. Without results. From the comments, I sense utter exasperation and an overall sense of futility that the decision makers will actually make the necessary changes. At some point, asking nicely is no longer adequate, and one must become more blunt and assertive. I can understand why you might feel this post sounds harsh. I’m not advocating this be anyone’s initial approach. Unfortunately, it is too often required in order to get another human to do the right thing, especially when that human works in a corporate environment far removed from those on the front lines who must work daily with their tools. It speaks to the indifference of an industry toward those who utilize their products and which is devoid of any interest except the actual sale.

  • Great post – couldn’t agree more. We are supposed to have useful tools to specify product but they aren’t made that way. Seriously though … a plastic case to try to jam your fan deck into? Makes me look incompetent in front of clients!

  • Jennifer says:

    Mmmm, not sure Maria. I agree that some of the paint collateral is poor but then we really don’t want children to be able to find colours, do we? Isn’t that OUR job? That’s why we are in business because the lay person can’t work it out. I get what you’re saying but then we don’t want to do ourselves out of work.

    • Karen says:

      I was thinking the same thing. I often feel like you send mixed messages, which goes along with the comment just below this one. Also, why do you make statements and then put the word maybe in parentheses? This reads as mixed message for sure.I actually wonder why others don’t comment on this fact too. As for the packaging and organization of colors; the deck I work with is a deck that I know intimately and have no issues with finding colors. Professionals know their products and how to spec them and that’s why we have a job. Perhaps this is just you trying to market yourself for new job?

      • Hannah Dee says:

        The trouble is not in finding the appropriate color, or that the kits are hard to navigate for me, but how the kits are actually manufactured. The quality of the materials often does not stand up under repeated use. I treat my kits very carefully, in fact, I’m a bit obsessive about them, however even with careful use they are not easy to pack and unpack, put back together, none of my latches work any more nor do the rings.

  • Mari says:

    Sometimes i get confused and don’t understand what you’re saying for ex: you say something is wrong with pink beige and then show a pic and i don’t know if you’re saying something is wrong in the pic or something is right. I can see the vase is a yellow beige and it’s sitting on a …..yellow beige cloth?….so is this pic ok or not; is the wall colour wrong or right? Many of your posts leave me in the dark, i just wish you’d say which pic is good and which ones are wrong so i can see the diff. Oh, just so you know i like the pic.

    • Maria Killam says:

      I posted that pic of the vase because I thought it was pretty, not because there’s something wrong. I don’t analyze every picture down to the minutia because unless I have permission, like in this post: I don’t want designers to be worried that they’ll hit my blog and I’ll be trashing their work. Also colour is highly subjective. Whats wrong to one person is beautiful to someone else.

      Pink beige is mostly chosen as a go-to neutral when it’s soooo not. It’s not bad, but it is when it’s chosen blindly and under the misconception that it’s the most neutral colour when it’s the least neutral. Maria

      • Squeak says:

        Hi Maria!

        I understand what Mari’s saying and agree with her. Sometimes you post pictures that have no apparent relationship to your commentary. So the reader doesn’t know if the picture is supposed to illustrate a point or you just included it because it’s a pretty picture. Because we’re not privy to your thought process at the time, we don’t know what you were thinking when you posted the picture. Perhaps you could write a little something directly under each picture that would make it easier to understand why the picture was included. For example, you could say “This tablecloth is yellow-beige.” or “I’m including this picture because I love the flower arrangement.”


  • Donna Frasca says:

    You may be shooting yourself in the foot with this one Maria. If paint companies made it easy for people to find the right colors and have them organized so perfectly, we’d be out of business. As professional Color Expert myself I do agree that some paint companies have a HORRIBLE color palette and most of those brochures of “color combos” are a waste of a tree. But it’s our job to find the beautiful color palettes out in ANY paint fan deck. Be careful what you wish for 🙂

    • Megan says:

      Hi Donna- part of me agrees with you but a larger part does not. Lets face it 98% of the people out there don’t have a sweet clue about colour. They live in homes that have colours that are mismatched because a.they have NO clue or b. they don’t really care. Even if the paint companies made it easier for us professionals I truly believe it wouldn’t have much of an impact on the average person. The average person cannot recognize an undertone even when you point it out. It may help some but the majority would still be clueless. This is not a slam by any means but fact. Because lets face it, if they understood colour- undertones, value, saturation etc… they wouldn’t need us!

  • Eva says:

    Welldone Maria. Say it!

  • Margo says:

    Hi Maria,
    I loved your post. I especially liked your suggestion of putting the undertone colors together in order to get a comprehensive color scheme. You are totally amazing and gracious to share your wonderful advice.
    Thank you sooooooo much!!!!!!!

  • mairi says:

    Maria, I so agree with you and I really hope for the day when you would have a paint line of your own- you could set the industry standard! When you see a gap in the market as in this case…
    I get so frustrated in paint stores and with non-user friendly fan decks that I have for the last few years mixed my own paints until I get it just right. In the end it takes up less of my time and the results are beautiful.

  • Sharon @ Elizabeth & Co. says:

    They sure don’t make it easy! I worked so hard to avoid pink beige and still ended up having to repaint my bedroom! I read your eBook and made a much better choice the second time around!

  • teresa says:

    I don’t think helping customers find colours in a paint fan will do anyone out of a job. One still has to coordinate them. Plus, most people don’t use a colour consultant. Maria’s blog is for the layperson as well as the professional and I’m happy she’s willing to help the homeowner go it alone if that’s one’s choice. I’ve seen some designers make some awful choices so it’s nice to be able to double check them. (Although if I ever have to repaint, I’ll definitely seek Maria’s help!)
    I think the ease of coordinating colours is what made Martha Stewart’s colour palette so popular. I believe the samples and upkeep were time-consuming so now SW doesn’t stock them anymore.
    As mentioned prior, it’s not so much the colours as their organization. CTD

  • Carol Anne says:

    So well said, if anyone can literally shake things up in the paint world it’s you…

  • SandyCGC says:

    I agree with Teresa that no designer is going to be out of a job because choosing the right color is easier for anyone to do. A lot of laymen don’t use designers because there is a mystique about them and/or they can’t afford them, and “color consultants” are a sort of new breed and not available everywhere. And just because they have “credentials”, not all designers or color consultants are good at it.

    I think your post is right on, Maria, in identifying problems with choosing paint color (the vinegar). The honey could be you offering your expertise in color to one paint company to start with (maybe Benjamin Moore) to work with them in making choosing paint color profitable, easy and fun for paint companies, designers and their clients/customers and, YES, in the end, even changing industry standards. PURSUE IT, Maria!

    And, designers, get out there and work with your local paint companies to offer your color expertise to them. My local Sherwin Williams has a self-trained color consultant who unfortunately does a disservice to their clients, I think. However, my local Dunn Edwards has a trained designer on staff and I’ve gotten good feedback from several people who’ve worked with her. Important for me because my new home has a recently painted CUSTOM Dunn Edwards “neutral” everywhere except the bedrooms/baths and I need to make some decisions. If I like her and feel comfortable and satisfied with her suggestions and help, I may very well share what I’m planning to do later and end up contracting with her for other projects, which could be a double whammy for her.

    • Your comment about bad color consultants made me laugh 😉 Made me think of the joke “What do you call a person who graduated last in his/her class in medical school?” Answer: A doctor. Credentials don’t make an expert. Some people have it, other’s don’t in any industry/field.

  • Wendy says:


  • Joy Schumann says:

    Right on, Maria! I hate the SW fan deck…who designed that??? And BM Historical Colors are great but so are a bunch of their “ordinary” ones that sometimes have just the right “undertone” so grouping them all by undertone could be so helpful Thanks so much for this post…now if only the paint companies see it!

  • Susan S says:

    Whoa, you stirred up the nest. Now we’ll have to wait and see if anyone is listening. If they want to sell paint they will! I’m hoisting one for you, Maria!

  • Roz Kavander says:

    Thank you Maria. I am so fed up with paint companies in general. They could use some help from those of us specifying colours. I love Dunn Edwards because they have a book of paint chips where the neutrals are shown by their undertones. Easy to spec. My NCS colour atlas and the Dunn Edwards paint chip book and my Farrow and Ball paint deck are what I use for colour selection plus your 50 large paint boards. I started making my own large Farrow and Ball paint boards when I have a left over paint sample tin. Clients love them and it is so simple to pick the right colour. And having good tools will never put us out of a job because it is too hard for the untrained eye to see all the colours in a room. The colour of the paint is just the beginning.

  • Debbiecz says:

    Wow, never knew you decorators had it so tough! Just kidding, every professional who cares about their work habits will seek improved tools. My husband, a plumbing contractor, has been in a rant because Kohler has changed their online site. Keep it up Maria and for those who worry about losing clients, have no fear. As a non-decorator I’d consider myself somewhat educated due to Maria’s blog but I think of it as having knowledge to understand what a decorator means. I know the mechanics of changing a tire but I’d rather call the fix-it guy to do it. Easier, faster and the job is done right. I’ll be calling Maria or a local decorator when the time is right.

  • Meger Anski says:

    You have just about convinced me to just use a Pantone fan deck, and just let the computer scan it.

    Graphic artists would never tolerate such balderdash.


  • I have a Behr paint fan with colors divided into undertones. It’s still difficult to find just the right color sometimes anyway. But it is helpful to get into the right area at least.

    Some paint fan company’s fan are very hard to use. And the salespeople in the stores aren’t very helpful to customers either when choosing a color…sometimes just the opposite, sad to say. I hate to hear “This is one of our most popular colors.” How do they know what I’m doing for a client? They haven’t been working with my client. Ugh! And we all have been to a person’s home to ‘fix’ a color the store employee messed up….because they never went to the customer’s house to see it in their light.

    I do have something to say about pinky beige. No, it’s not the best neutral for a lot of applications. However, it does occur in nature quite frequently. I wish I could get a true color photo of the Missouri River that we cross every day. It has so many different neutrals together during our winter months. A color consultant would scoff if they saw them all used in a room! And yet, hmmmm…..God put them all together and made them beautiful! Every day is a perfect study in neutrals for me seeing the River and the surrounding area. Pinky beige, yellow beige, green beige, gray blue sky, darker blue water, whites and off whites, etc. It never ceases to amaze me how it all works together.

    Could all these colors work simultaneously in a home setting? Maybe, maybe not. It would definitely depend on the lighting both natural and artificial…and of course all the other aspects in the room like furniture, accessories, etc.

    Paint fans from any company, in my opinion, are only a starting point. Paint/decorating is like any other art form: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As a decorator and a musician, I find what’s beautiful for one person is annoying/awful/stressful, etc. to another.

    Art is subjective…and color (being part of art) is no different.

    Lest you think I’m admonishing you, I’m not. I loved your article! Hopefully paint companies will take note and we’ll all have an easier time finding just the right color first time out 🙂

  • Kay Perret says:

    Rah rah! I’m completely with you on this. And the SW deck drives me CRAZY!!! I got so mad at my Ben Moore deck that I ripped out a whole bunch of pieces trying to make the dang thing go back together. It didn’t help so I pried out the metal peg that held it together and put in string. But the most annoying thing is the lack of logical organization of the colors. Bleah.

  • Mariko says:

    Oh my goodness ! I totally agree with this. Maria, you are spot on ! Knowledge is power, and the paint companies don’t help us to understand color in any way whatsoever with their lack of organization of color shades. There will still be plenty of room for talented color consultants and designers. The layman having some knowledge and understanding of undertones and being able to know more about paint colors will never take away the need for hiring a great professional.

  • Linda says:


    I agree with you. I feel paint companies need to take more interest into the organization of their fan decks and to how many decks they have. As for our trade secrets being given away. No worries! Some will get it but most still need help with how to work color correctly. As you show and talk about, color does go beyond the wall and other fixed elements. It takes a trained eye to bring a whole room or house together. Your home is a perfect example of how it should be done.

  • Brooke says:

    I am not a pro but paint a lot and I agree with Maria in regards to the darker lighter point. I finally got why I couldn’t find a darker version of Ben Revere Pewter after reading that some cards in decks have chips that are not related in her blog. Very frustrating.

    I love the way Maria says what she thinks and I send lots of people to her blog.

  • Laura Neuman says:

    Wonderful letter Maria! I’d also add that paint companies need to work harder to bring together the design and contractor communities. I work in a high-income community outside of Sacramento with minimal architectural rep support, lots of cranky paint stores — filled with cranky employees — and stubborn painters. All this makes my job difficult — and none of these things even has to do with color!

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