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Ask Maria: Which Undertone Should I Choose if I’m Starting from Scratch?

By 01/12/2020January 14th, 202018 Comments

Getting ready to tackle a new build home? You may be asking yourself: which undertone should I choose first if I’m starting from scratch? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. 

Ask Maria Killam True Colour Expert

The beginning of beautiful

I love the sense of elated anticipation at the beginning of creating a new home. Whether it’s a renovation or a new build, the opportunity to create a home with everything you love in it, and nothing you don’t is a dream come true.

Beautiful Exterior by Doyle Herman Design Associates

At the outset, you’ve got inspiration boards crammed with beautiful ideas, and confidence runs high. I’ve got this! I know what I like, and I will trust my instincts and choose finishes I love, and it will turn out beautifully.

Emily Henderson

Most often though, excitement turns to anxiety when the time comes to make all those complicated decisions. Anticipation turns into worry, am I making the right choice? For most of us, a new build or major renovation is one of the most expensive projects we will ever undertake. There is a lot of pressure in that.

Just choose what you like, it’ll all work out

I have blogged about this kind of fluffy advice many times, here and here.

The problem with making choices based on what you like is that all those tiles and finishes you like don’t all look good TOGETHER.

And what about lighting? It’s almost impossible for a novice to accidentally choose the right lighting unless they are literally copying someone else’s well designed house.

R. Cartwright Studio

And, if you’re working with a builder, the design centre will have a limited range of offerings, and many of them will feel like they are going to compromise your style. What now?

Making your selections gets complicated fast

If you are even casually familiar with my system for understanding undertones, you know that choosing colour for finishes is not as simple as it might seem. The realm of choosing colour is where DIY and builder home projects most often go wrong.

I recently received this email from a lovely reader:

My burning question is which undertone should I choose if I’m starting from scratch? I’ve got your understanding undertones books and just like you said everywhere I go I now see clashing undertones!

But all your advice seems to be look at your fixed elements (stone, worktops, carpets that aren’t going to be replaced) and chose whichever undertones will work with the ones you have.

But what if you’re starting from scratch? We are completely renovating our house so I’m choosing everything: carpets, kitchen, wall colour. Is it just a case of personal preference or are some undertones “better” than others (ie easier to work with, look better with more colours, less likely to trip up the amateur?).

Thanks so much for your blog! I truly didn’t know what I didn’t know until I stumbled across you and your undertones!

This is such a great question, my immediate reaction was this:

If you’re renovating, why are you doing this without any professional help? You’re spending thousands and thousands of dollars and you have no idea what you’re doing!!

I recommend my eDesign packages to give you a plan. Otherwise, mistakes are just waiting to happen, given that it’s impossible to accidentally get this right.

How do I know this?

Because most renovations are terrible. All you have to do is start searching for a new house on real estate sites and that becomes painfully evident.

And, there’s no such thing as ‘the perfect undertone’. If I give you a ‘greige’ in the realm of ‘green grey’ which would be BM grey mist or classic grey, which is often found in a marble looking quartz countertops, what if you end up choosing a taupe countertop? There’s lots of finishes, including quartz with taupe undertones too since taupe is cooler than beige and warmer than all three undertones of grey.

That means the ‘undertone’ of your wall colour should, in fact be taupe not green? Not to mention all the other decisions that will snowball from the countertop choice.

Hope that helps! Have a space that fills you with happiness not regret! That’s my best advice. 

My reader responded by explaining she lives in the UK and went on to say interior design is not a licensed profession there. Anyone can do it. She said doing an online search for interior designers in her area gives her two options, either a designer with flashy taste who only seems to work for the very wealthy OR the self-taught amateur who clearly doesn’t understand colour.

How to be Smart in a World Filled with Dumb Colour Advice

The power of knowing that you don’t know

It is very difficult to be sure that any designer you hire locally has a clue about colour. This is why I created my Online Colour Design Services, so I can help my readers, wherever you live, get it just right.

A timeless white bathroom via House Beautiful

Because it is so true, you don’t know what you don’t know. But knowing that you don’t know is actually very empowering. If, like my lovely reader, you realize that you really are not sure where to start, this is when you know you need to find the right help. I’m here!

It’s when you don’t recognize that you don’t know, that you start making decisions that begin to paint you into a corner. And often mistakes aren’t apparent until they are installed and too expensive to fix. Too often THIS  is when the call for help comes, when it’s already a bit too late, you’re caught in a spiral of compromise.


And if you’re working with a limited range of selections offered by a builder, then it’s really important to be clear on what you want and why. Otherwise, you can go seriously off track and end up somewhere you never planned to be.

My spouse thinks I can make all the decisions (for free)

Often, the design decisions fall to one partner in a relationship. And the spouse that is handing over the reigns to the one that cares more about design, or has more time for the project, might say, ‘This is not difficult, it’s your dream house honey, just choose what you like, we can’t afford a designer.’

Because if you don’t care much about aesthetics, it might all be the same to you. And aren’t designers just for the rich and frivolous? How difficult can it be to pick tile?


One mistake avoided, pays for the designer

There is a huge misconception out there that design help is only for the very wealthy. When you’re planning your renovation or build, your eye is carefully trained on the ledger. What’s it all going to cost? Where can we save and still be happy?

I am here to tell you that the mistakes of inexperience are so much more expensive than consulting in the first place. Design help is NOT the place to skimp and save. It is the one investment that will add ease and beauty to your entire project. And, still the least expensive piece of the entire project.

The average new build requires hundreds of selections. Do you know which ones need to be made first? Do you know what the best neutral undertone is for your finishes?

My System for Specifying Colour – Understanding Undertones Colour Wheel. Available here!

If your answer to this question is no, my New Build and Complete Renovation packages are just what you need! For a fraction of the cost of having the wrong countertops or floor installed, you can get the guidance and reassurance you need to take the risk and stress out of your entire project.

So if you know you don’t know, I want to help.

You can find my New Build Online Colour Design package here. And the package for a Complete Renovation here. And if you need help with your new build exterior, you can get help here.

Invest in intelligent colour decisions and fall in love with your new home. Together, we’ve got this!

Related Posts

Ten Steps for Planning Your New Build

Don’t Hire a Designer the Same Way you Buy Oranges

The Real Cost of DIY Advice


Which Undertone Do I choose First in a new build?
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  • Nichole says:

    I believe the white, navy and brass kitchen is actually Emily Henderson. It’s from her first LA house that she owned.

  • Amy says:

    What I didn’t know 7 years ago when we built our house was that the “Alabaster” painted cabinets and doors from our vendors would not at all match the Alabaster trim we painted. So we had to create a custom color and repaint the trim, but it wasn’t the color I planned on. Everything is darker/creamier and it bothers me still every day.

  • Kim says:

    I actually daydream about building a small house from scratch and having it as beautiful as a jewel box. The style and colors that I love, not just the colors my husband thinks will look good but don’t. When is he going to learn I’m right, lol? I would hire your services in a second, Maria!

  • Reagan Poland says:

    So in the last year I replaced my kitchen backsplash. Four trips to our huge local tile store and 4 separate consultations with in-house designers and at least seven trips back and forth with samples and returns. I still stare at the tile sometimes and wonder if it really matches. Repainted the whole house last spring, which used to be all gold beige and Tuscan just like we bought it back in 2010. I hired two different color advice professionals, painted at least 20 test boards and huge swatches in all the rooms (and then we lived with crazy walls for 6 months), and I’m still not sure we didn’t paint the open living area pink beige. So many hours, so much money, and nobody walks into my house and says, ‘wow, your house is amazing, what color is that?’ I don’t know what my time is worth per hour, but I have a lot of other things to do than agonize over how things look. But I still want it to be beautiful — and enduring! As life turns out, now I’m moving into a new, smaller place. It’s important to me I don’t feel like I settled or lost my home — I want a home that makes my favorite furnishings look precious and lovely, that isn’t going to look dated and ex-trend in ten years. So I bought a renovation package from Maria and good Lord, this house is going to be GORGEOUS. Everything I dreamed of. I want to hijack all my friends and make them marvel at my plan, because it is seriously amazing. And I couldn’t have done it myself, not with a million hours of reading and looking at Pintrest and reading articles and design books. It took me a while to build up the nerve to spend the money, but compared to the cost of the actual renovations and the cost of the doubt, it was worth more than I paid.

    • Maria Killam says:

      Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a wonderful comment Reagan! I so appreciate it! Maria

  • Anne says:

    I always meant to say thank you and this is my chance. This post accurately describes my husband and I almost two years ago when we decided to build a home on 10 acres. I began to stress over the details when my sisters recommended Maria’s ebook White is complicated. I read the ebook during a flight from Virginia to California and by the time I landed i knew i needed help. The most difficult part of the entire process was convincing my husband we needed help from a designer. It took several lengthy conversations but eventually he agreed and we purchased Maria’s New Build e consult. I can’t say thank you enough for saving us time, money, sleep, and heated discussions over quartz, paint, flooring, etc. We finished the build and we both love our new home but we could never have done it without help from a true expert, Thank you!!!

  • Sheree L says:

    Beautiful photos! I love that classic white bathroom from House Beautiful. If I were building a new house or renovating mine, I would definitely hire you! I’m so grateful for the things that you keep teaching us.

  • Barb says:

    Hi Maria. This is the first time I have commented although I have been following you for many years :). You really have opened my eyes to the myriad of undertones that exist and the many ways they are misused. I think it would be fun to follow this reader’s reno choices step by step, as she uses the advice you provide for her, if that is the route she takes and as long as you both are in agreement.

  • Wendy McKay says:

    Is there an way way for people to find a True Colour Expert in their area? Having been trained in Florida when we lived in Texas, I am now back living in the UK and would love to have more clients who follow your blog, understand the importance of undertones and would like a little help with their own home. Am finding the UK market quite different to the Houston market!

  • Brenda says:

    How I wish some of the decorating FB groups I occasionally follow could read this post. Decorating by the majority seems to be a thing but mercy me! the “advice” or opinions (100’s of them) can make me nauseous! Though I have tried to share your name at times esp with the friend who is building an expensive home and asked for opinions on fb for his exterior paint and which one best matched the stone he had chosen! (Ok so I might have done a little more than suggest he was being an idiot for polling fb but I believe there are times you need to speak up).???? From now on I’ll come back here and just share this post! And I may be calling soon as we are currently looking for a new place ourselves. Thanks for all you do to keep at least some of us getting it right!

  • Paula says:

    Your advice is so vital to heed, Maria…. ESPECIALLY to a homeowner on a limited budget.
    It makes me think of this: I could possibly go out and purchase all the dental tools I knew to get (which I sure do not know!) and do my own teeth.
    A home is most people’s major and main investment. Is it not logical to consult an professional to protect your major asset?

    Some people buy their car without looking at the ratings either. Whim & emotions rule in both cases. And we all know where that goes.

    Be wise. Get wisdom.
    Hire Maria.

  • Kristin says:

    I started following Maria before I even had my home fully designed. I designed and built my custom home all by myself, thankfully avoiding fighting with my partner about every detail! I used Maria’s books, her boards and her countless blogs full of the best advice ever! What I ended up with is a home that the minute you walk in, you feel at ease and as if this is your home. I had a realtor tell me she goes into $2 million homes and she is not nearly as comfortable as she was when she stepped through my door. I used her advice on choosing hard finishes and the colors to go with those choices. I have added the “trinkets” that are particular to me. But if I picked those up and walked out, anyone could come into my home and add their items without needing to so a thing. It is classically designed and appeals to everyone! I think Maria would be proud. I listened to her and it worked.

  • Julie S says:

    I just haven’t been able to get this post off my mind! You really, really make the case for your skill set here even though I’m truly content with my own best efforts and occasional mistake in my own home because I’ve learned SOOO much from you and a few other marvelous experts. I’m one who has been color sensitive and home design focused from a very young age, so working on my own home and learning to become a better amateur decorator is my daily pleasure. I think from time to time about going to your course just for me, and hope you’re still doing it and reasonably priced e-consults in 5-10 years! I’m currently planning our future classic bathroom renovation with a total DIY budget of about $1500 -thank goodness for my multitalented hubby even if he would rather be working on old cars than houses and argues with me about easy vs pretty!

  • Whitney says:

    I am in the same boat- my husband would like me to choose the decor, and if it’s the wrong choice he says “oh well”.
    But I’m afraid of hiring a designer and not liking what they design and have too much US midwestern in me to tell them I don’t like it.

  • Kelley Oberreit says:

    We bought our house, a builder spec, in 2006. Fast forward 13 years to the day we decided we couldn’t take the Baltic Brown granite anymore. Then it started snowballing. We’ll need a new backsplash, of course, and I’ve wanted to repaint anyway. The carpet desperately needs replacing so we can finally get the wood floors we’ve always wanted. Is our preference classic or trendy? If we do that, should we refinish our kitchen and living room cabinets to match the floor? If we do that, should we refinish the stairs to match? What about the new fireplace mantel and tile? I’ll want to reupholster all the furniture we’ve inherited. If we do that, etc. etc. etc. I spent months frozen in indecision, overwhelmed by Instagram pictures and not wanting to make expensive mistakes. My husband made it worse by getting angry about the delay and often said, “Just pick something! Anything! It doesn’t have to be perfect!” He didn’t understand how one choice affects the next in the chain. One evening he saw how distraught I was and asked, “Why can’t you do this?” I answered, “Because I’m not an interior designer! They have training! I don’t! And they intuitively know how everything is going to look when it’s done.” He asked how much it would cost to hire a designer so I showed him Maria’s packages and he said, “Do it.” He finally understood why the job was overwhelming me. I have to admit that after I submitted everything, I was worried we had just spent money on faith that someone far away could give good advice just from looking at pictures and reading my descriptions. I also wondered if I had chosen the right designer since our tastes are a little different. I held my breath when I opened her email and after a few pages in, I started crying and hugged my husband and thanked him for letting me hire Maria. It was like the scene from “Overboard” when Goldie Hawn thanks Kurt Russell for making her his wife. My worries were for naught. Her advice is personal, taking our preferences into consideration, and she specifically addressed each one of our projects giving 2-3 options for each. We have made our selections and have set start dates for demolition and installs and we are actually enjoying the process now. I am so grateful to you, Maria! I’m still not sleeping well, but that’s because I’m so excited!

    • Maria Killam says:

      Hi Kelley, Wow that just makes me so happy to hear the backstory, thanks so much for your comment 🙂 Hooray! Maria

  • Marina says:

    Hi Maria,

    I really do not know anything yet .. haha. You decribed my situation precisely.. I can only visualise my house, but I have zero practical skills with arranging the one… I guess I will need a designer like you, who sees the inner world of a client and can offer what will be better for them, even if they don’t know it yet ..
    But I know for sure, that I want a house with the dining room similar to the one on the first photo of this post!! Also these grassy towels and tree wallpapers bring so much joy .. ???? ????
    So, of course I say “Yes” to a such a big designer as Maria and I hope to read all your packages soon !! ????

    Sincerely ????

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