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Ask Maria: Do the Undertones in Dark Colours Need to Match?

By 08/04/2016February 21st, 201720 Comments

This latest Ask Maria question is a really good one and here it is:

“Hi Maria, After purchasing your How to Choose Paint Colours It’s all in the Undertones book I sort of live in this undertones world now and have a question:

Ask Maria: Do the Undertones in Dark Colours Need to Match? | Maria Killam

Yellow beige sofa paired with yellow beige/cream walls

Image via How to Decorate

Why do undertones have to match when combining neutrals (ie. example in the book: yellow undertone beige paint will pair best with yellow undertone beige sofa), but when mixing darker colours (ie: strong yellow undertone paint such as BM Cable Knit goes with dark burgundy which has blue and red undertones) this rule doesn’t seem to apply?  And where is the line?  Would a yellow undertone neutral paint (yellow beige or yellow undertone white) go with the darker burgundy?

So I am wondering the following:

When dealing with light colours and neutrals: do I match undertones?

When dealing with darker saturated colours: do undertones need to match?  Because when mixing burgundy and gold tones it doesn’t seem like they need to match.

Can you cross undertones when using one light or neutral colour, and one dark and saturated colour?  So part golden yellow and then a neutral white with pink undertones?  Or part dark burgundy and then a neutral white with yellow undertones.”

Here’s the easiest answer:

Your wall colour should pull your room together.

And if you have not chosen to do that with a colour and are going with a neutral? Then yes the FIRST place to look is at the existing neutral undertones in the room that might exist in your sofa, drapery, or your carpet.

Ask Maria: Do the Undertones in Dark Colours Need to Match? | Maria Killam

Anna Gillar

Burgundy is not a neutral. It’s a colour.  So you’re not looking for clues in the undertone of burgundy to come up with the wall colour in the colour burgundy unless you just want to go many shades lighter to end up with a pink that relates to the burgundy. (above)

The SECOND place to look is consider how fresh or earthy your colours are. Or to use the language I use in my eBook, how clean vs. dirty your palette is.

See my living room below?

By the way, I still love my new black and white zigzag ‘Kelly Wearstler’ inspired pillows that I introduced to this room in the Spring with my post about Barbara Barry.

Ask Maria: Do the Undertones in Dark Colours Need to Match? | Maria Killam

Anyway, if you look closely, you’ll see that I don’t have any neutrals in the furniture and furnishings other than white and black. There’s no beige or any shades of grey anywhere. Since we probably aren’t going to paint this room black, my two options for a neutral are either white or greige.

The reason I did not chose white is because the rest of the walls in the house were painted either a neutral or a colour, so unless the walls in the entire house were white, it would start looking a little like we had not painted this room yet.

Beige would die and look dirty in an interior with this much clean colour (unless it was super pale, which is hard to be offended by unless you’re me and the undertone would drive you nuts no matter how light it was). That’s the reason the grey trend is here, it provides a crisp backdrop to cleaner colours.

And, if this room had been painted anything darker than a mid-tone grey, for this room to really look good, a darker grey should be repeated somewhere in the room.

Ask Maria: Do the Undertones in Dark Colours Need to Match? | Maria Killam

If I was going to choose a colour, my options would have been raspberry or yellow, since I don’t really have enough green in the room to ‘pull the room together’.

Ask Maria: Do the Undertones in Dark Colours Need to Match? | Maria Killam

via pinterest

Here’s a burgundy sofa with lot of white and a burgundy and taupe rug. The white works in this room because there’s lots of white repeated here. And the second possible option for a paint colour would have been?

You guessed it (for the True Colour Experts out there 😉 a colour like BM Pale Oak.

Ask Maria: Do the Undertones in Dark Colours Need to Match? | Maria Killam

{Living source hallway source}

Wouldn’t you like to look at an image and know exactly what the right colour is for the room? Same with hard finishes in kitchens and bathrooms? And even more important specify colour like this online for your clients so you can add this lucrative and valuable service to your list of offerings.

Well you can learn how to do all of this and so much more at one of my Specify Colour with Confidence workshops this Fall. I’ll be in Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Charlotte, NC, Tampa and Upper Montclair, NJ which is 12 miles from Manhattan. Find out what the course includes and see all the dates here.


Pepper Jack Interiors

If you have a question for my Ask Maria column, email me here. 

Related posts:

How I Became a True Expert

The Difference between an experienced Colourist and a Novice

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

36 pins


  • Phyllis E says:

    That was a great “Ask Maria” question! Maria, what is the best way to contact you with an “Ask Maria” question?
    And if I am correct, is the basic guidelines for an appropriate “Ask Maria” question is that it should be general in nature, not specific to your own home so that it would be like asking for a design consultation?

    • Maria Killam says:

      You can absolutely ask a question about your own home, what does not qualify as an ‘ask maria’ question is something that simply requires a consultation, like “I’m stuck on my wall colours”, “What countertop should I install in my kitchen” “Which rug would work in my living room”. I have posted about all those before in ask maria questions so i need new dilemmas 🙂

      • Phyllis E says:

        Thanks, Maria. How should we contact you with our “Ask Maria” questions? Should we email them? If so, to what email address? Thanks.
        (I think I have one you haven’t been asked yet.)

  • TNic says:

    Wow, there is a lot here to chew on (so to speak). Thank you for another super informative post! I didn’t realize there was so much to color and now I realize why my rooms sometimes look pulled together and sometimes don’t. I’m doing it by hit/miss, i.e. intuitively, which often works, but knowing some of these concepts really helps make sure you aren’t missing too much! (As a mother of youngish children, I feel it is particularly important for our rooms to be pulled together. Children come with so much “stuff” and I want the background of that to clean it up, not add to the cluttered mix!)

  • Juli says:

    Maria, I wish you would do a post on the way people test their paint colors. I’ve had so many instances of this over the year, where I go to a customers house or exterior, and there are teeny little patches of color slopped all over each other. They don’t put enough of the color up and they layer them on top of each other, it’s just a nightmare. I’ve even seen this done on commercial structures, where you would think the contractor would know better. I’d love to hear your advice on applying samples – I’ve certainly got my own – but I think this is a topic that would be beneficial to everyone.

  • Chris says:

    What undertone does BM Pale Oak have? On my monitor it looks like a very light soft lavender?

    • Mary-Illinois says:

      I’d like to know that also. Especially since I just read on a popular blog that it “goes with everything!”

      • Mid America Mom says:

        It feels greige to me…

        • Maria Killam says:

          It’s a pale taupe. That’s why it appears to have a violet but greyed undertone. I would also call it a greige because it’s so pale. And it would only look like it ‘goes with everything’ if the person who used it accidentally had the right undertones in the space so that it worked! If you were looking for a greige with green undertones and you put this one up, it would look wrong. Not terribly wrong likely because it’s so light but wrong to discerning eyes like the readers of this blog 🙂

  • Candice says:

    What color are the walls in the Anna Gillar photo? I like it!

  • Carol says:

    Great post!!!! So what would you do for a wall color if you had 2 clashing undertones like say
    pink/beige carpet and gold sofa and furniture and
    woodwork?? What wall color would pull that room
    color scheme together???

  • Cindi says:

    I have all your books and still struggle with identifying undertones. Right now I’m surrounded by BM Elmira White. What is the undertone of that? People say it’s beige/gray. But I feel like I see pink, so is it pink-beige with gray?


    • Maria Killam says:

      It has a violet undertone yes.

      • Cindi says:

        Thanks, I think I can see that now. I compared it to a comforter that really looks pink-beige, and it’s obviously not that. I thought Elmira looked downright yellow compared to that. But if it’s actually violet, then what I’m seeing is more blue compared to the pink-beige, not more yellow?

        I read in your book that violet undertones look good with pink-beige. What else do they or don’t they look good with? (I have blues, browns, grays and it seems to go well with all those.)

  • Amy says:

    I just bought her book after reading your post and the cover is beautiful. Great coffee table book and the undertone coordinates so well with my great room!

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