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Recently, my sister Elizabeth and I went to the Spaghetti Factory for lunch. Of course it’s always easy to be a critic and I was looking around at the colours (like I always do) and noticed that the yellow was sooooo wrong in this restaurant. There’s the rusty red woodwork and doors, dark green ceilings and stripe in the banquette fabric and then the yellow is this pale, fresh, clean colour (it looks like HC-4, Hawthorne yellow) when it should be a much richer shade of yellow like HC-10 Stuart Gold. It’s a dirtier, more muted yellow so it would work way better with the existing red and green.

I did love the vintage Dr. Pepper artwork though!

Here you can really see the contrast.

 Then we walked outside and I saw this strip mall I’m always driving by and everytime I do, I cringe when I see the dark, muddy, greeny- gray the exterior has been painted. The whole mall seems to be mounted with all these bright, screaming yellow signs (you’re only seeing one side of it) and they really clash with the exterior colour. So a colour consultant must take into consideration the signage going up as well, it’s not something that can be ignored!

This Rona gray works just fine with the yellow, in my opinion. It’s light enough that it doesn’t fight with all the bright yellow signage and other accents on the building in the same colour.


The same goes for this Homesense sign. The gray here is also the right intensity, it’s a colour that has the sign be more important than the colour around it which is the point in this application!

My sisters always wait until their ‘designer sister’ comes to town before they shop for home decor, so whenever I get there, a trip to HomeSense is always a foregone conclusion. It’s such a habit (which then results in purchases that would not be made unless I was in town) that my brother-in-law once said to me “Maria, don’t you know you’re not welcome East of the Port Mann Bridge?” Ha ha 🙂 Well at least your house looks great!

We parked in this lot and as we walked up to the A & W (above) Elizabeth actually was the one that pointed out that the orange could have been just a little bit muddier to work perfectly with the yellow on the building (which is a great colour for an exterior yellow). Good work sis! See the bug sitting in front of the orange and how that orange actually doesn’t look so bad with the clean yellow that the car is. But it is a fast food joint, so maybe that was the point.

I really like the colours of this Milestone’s. I think the ‘Spiced Rum cc-272’ colour of the ‘pillars’ looks terrific with the goldy-yellow and the forest green roof and brackets. I think those colours really give the forest green an updated feel.

I know we are past exterior colour season, but I thought this was a good way of showing the clean/dirty shift in colour and how it’s harder to balance than most people realize!

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, contact us! We would love to help you choose colours, select the right combination of hard finishes or create a plan to pull your room together. You can find our fabulous e-design consultation packages here.

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My bonus book of  colours is worth the price of the ebook alone but you will also get my system of understanding undertones so you can stop making mistakes when sourcing tile, carpet, countertops, etc.

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  • Lauren says:

    I love the terminology you're using here- I've never thought of it like that before & it makes perfect sense!

  • sallymandy says:

    Hi Maria,

    I’d like to understand this. When you say “dirty” or “muddy” colors, do you mean those that have more black added to them, or are kind of more muted? Is muted another word for muddy? That’s what I’m seeing in your photos, but I’m not sure I’m interpreting it right.

    Very interesting. I think these rules for clean/muddy also work in clothes.

  • Colour Me Happy says:

    Sally Mandy,
    Yes that is exactly right. It’s a terminology that people understand sometimes easier than ‘muted or toned down’. Basically how you ‘muddy’ a colour is by adding the compliment to it. So if you have a bright screaming yellow and you want to ‘tone it down’ adding purple achieves that. Adding black to yellow would make it go too green right away. But it does work to tone down some colours. It can actually dull a colour too much also. The best way to acheive colour luminosity is to tone it down like I’ve described above.

    That’s what Donald Kauffman means when he says his colours are ‘full spectrum’. It means he doens’t use black or gray to get to a nice ‘designer, muted’ colour, he achieves those colours like an artist would by using colour.

  • sallymandy says:

    Thanks Maria. This is interesting and helpful. I do love your blog. It’s like visual and mental candy.


  • Beth says:

    I'm so glad your post today showed a link back to this post. This is an issue I'm grappling with right now in reference to some accents I want to add to my decor.

    The colors in my house are mostly muddy; I am a lover of beige and have, by trial and error, found beiges to work in all my main rooms. My colors are SW rather than BM (sorry!) but I'm sure you're familiar with them: Nomadic Desert, Kilim Beige, Softer Tan, Believable Buff. Wood throughout the family areas is oak, upholstery is warm burgundy and a very dark blue Jacobean print with accents of olive green and burgundy. My bedroom walls are Kilim Beige and all bedding is in shades of beige, ecru, and cream with the same undertone as the walls…I also have some soft pink and green accents in artwork and throws.

    I include all that detail just to give you the "full scoop" on my devotion to muddy colors. 🙂 BUT suddenly I am seeing gorgeous bright, clear, floral colors on blogs and wanting them in my house! Here's a link to an example: I LOVE the colors she is using in her "blankies" and pillows!

    Am I right, though, in thinking that combining them with my muted softer decor might be disaster? If I decide to crochet an afghan similar to hers, should I look for toned down, muted versions of the colors?

    I also wonder whether those things look lovely in the UK and would look garish in the (hotter?? yellower??) light of the southeastern USA where I live?

    Reading this post has given me much to think about. If you ever have time to address this further, I would be most grateful!

  • Maria Killam says:

    Hi Beth,
    Well I would need to see photos to be able to give you 'real' advice but without seeing anything I would say that a very bright throw like that would be from 'nowhere' in your more sophisticated house with the muted colours!

  • Beth says:

    Thank you, Maria, for confirming what I was suspecting. I don't know why I'm drawn to those bright colors right now. Maybe I just need to buy a bright floral dress or crochet a bright dish cloth and get it out of my system.

    I can't do pictures right now because we're in the midst of kitchen remodeling. I wouldn't call my house sophisticated, by a long shot…it's just a simple small suburban ranch house and our decor is very child-friendly and casual for the most part. Maybe I just like sophisticated colors? 🙂 To me, those are "calm" colors and I crave calm and peace.

    Thank you for writing this blog; I find it very helpful and enjoy reading it!

  • GreenDigitalist says:

    I've heard that fast food places all use colors from the 'roy' part of 'roy g biv' to induce us to eat more, to make the food look more appetizing. Maybe Spag.Fac. was trying to be 'sophisticated'?

    Nice explanation, yet again.

  • April Force Pardoe says:

    Just found your blog and love it. I do a lot of color work in my design biz. I refer to "muddy" & "clean" in terms of saturation. Clean being more saturated and muddy being less. The two don't mix together well, as you've shown & explained so well. Most folks are drawn to a saturation vs. a specific hue and I enjoy helping clients find their right saturation. I like your posts and look forward to learning a thing or two to make my services even better!

  • The Blasphemous Fiendess says:

    I've just found your blog and have particularly been enjoying reading about colour. I love colour and have a good colour memory. My mother likes to tke me shopping because i can remember the tones and shades of colours so I can help her avoid purchasing a red blouse that clashes with the red in her flowered skirt. I love muted colours and so does my mother, but I would say that the colours she likes are cooler and have a greyish tone whereas I usually fall for warmer colours with a brownish undertone. She would choose a fernwood and I would choose Dill Pickle. People ask me if i had a designer do my house and I am happy to take all of the credit. Thanks for a great blog. I have a blog too but very little time to write and I'm still learning about links and adding photos. I don't want to buy pictures. Anyhow you seem like a lovely, friendly cheerful and chatty person. Take care and keep posting!

  • ForfeitReality says:

    I just found your blog today and I love it! I have been adhering to this same color combination philosophy (except I refer to the "fresh/clean" colors as "silver" and the "muddy/dirty" colors as "gold", along with a third "bronze/wood" color category – I work with jewelry, go figure). I've had a lot of trouble explaining this to friends, but I think your terminology might work 😀

  • Jengi says:

    I love your blog, you are an expert with color and design, I love it! Thanks for the articles explaining color, they're so informative.

    In reference to muddy vs clean colors I have a question: My hardwood has the color of cinnamon, rust orange tones. I painted Powell Buff in my living room, that gets very little light, and to me it was overwhelmingly yellow. I have never liked it and don't know why. In the main hallway I have used Ellen Kennon's, Full Spectrum paint Edgewood Green. My husband loves it and says it's very warm, I think it works with the hardwood but it looks "muddy", exactly as you describe! I don't think Powell Buff works with the Edgewood Green but I don't know why – is Powell Buff clean? Also, Can you suggest a good neutral to go with orange-toned hardwood? Thanks, Jengi

  • Maria Killam says:

    Hi Jengi,
    Unfortunately I can't look at the green you are describing because I don't have that fan deck (and have never heard of her colours). I have written a post on colour and wood flooring and basically it's like jeans, it goes with most colours so it's not a clean/muddy dynamic that is going on (I could be wrong, colour endlessly surprises me). Without knowing what that Edgewood green looks like it's hard for me to give you another neutral. If you are not a yellow person then I would suggest looking at 'green beige's like HC-92 Wheeling Neutral.

    hope this helps,

  • Donna says:

    Maria, This is a very informative post on color! Using the photos from of the exteriors of buildings to demonstrate how to use clean versus muddy colors and how they differ is a great idea! I learned so much! I realize now that I was having that problem in the sewing room. I kept calling it a 'dustier' color of green for lack of a better term. But I think it was the same idea. I wanted to 'tone' down a spring green to match the earth tones in the kitchen green.

  • Sarah {The Student Knitter} says:

    I love your advice and commentary! Colour theory in design school was one of the interesting and captivating classes to me!

    And most of all, I love hearing you talk about home. The Port Mann, Abbotsford… *SIGH!* I grew up in Chilliwack and live in Virginia now and miss it terribly! So thank you for a slice of home, too. 🙂

  • weliveintheforest says:

    That Dr Pepper art at Old Spagetthi Factory always annoys me because they do not serve Dr Pepper! False advertising 😉

  • Noni says:

    Hi Maria,
    Wow -thank you for this blog! I struggle with color. There are moments I feel adventurous and want to go bold but never seem to follow through because I’m always playing it safe which has turned my house in to browns and rusts. I even asked a decorator for help a few years back who wanted to paint my family room a red and somehow I convinced her that beige would be better and I hate it. I don’t think she got the tone right. Anyways the family room is a big box shape and comes with a fireplace that has a beige and rust colored marble front. My sofas are brown leather and the rug is a beige and rust colored (kid friendly oriental – meaning not authentic and no other tones but rust and beige) The flooring is oak. I am thinking to contrast the brown and rust by putting a gray (with blue hint) on the walls to make everything pop. Would that work? I also want to purchase two accent chairs and want color – suggestions? Should I just do color with the pillows or can the chairs be a color? or should they be white because the sofas are brown?
    If you answer I will be so grateful!!!

  • Kim McCabe says:

    This is exactly how I describe the variances in colors with my clients, clean or dirty. Awesome article.

  • Sum says:

    Hi, I have been reading all your posts on clean vs. dirty colours and I am loving them. I haven’t been able to find anything on choosing trim colours though. Most of the rooms in my house are dirty colours but the trim is all white. Is this a mistake? Is there a way to use white trim with dirty wall colour and have it work?

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