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A paint colour by itself is neither warm or cool, clean or dirty. Because the ONLY way to describe colour is by comparing it to another. If you’re trying to help a client with a paint colour (or choose one yourself) you need context. Let me explain.

Light Blue Bedroom Aesthetic

Colour Needs Context

The best explanation of context that I’ve ever heard was this one:

Take a plain old stick.

In the forest, it is actually a stick.

In mathematics, however, it’s a number 1.

And in the alphabet, it’s a lowercase letter l.

Therefore, colour needs context. That’s why you cannot call a colour cool or warm unless you are comparing it to another colour. Why? Because you can always find a warmer colour and you can always find a cooler colour, it just depends which direction you are going on the colour wheel.

Here’s an excellent example:

Benjamin Moore Harbor Haze Paint Colour

This blue is actually quite grayed on the chip, which is what it has to be because otherwise blue gets very baby blue on the wall. Remember colour painted on the wall is usually twice as bright as your 2×2 paint chip. Whenever I have a client that wants a pale blue, I always have to show it in context.

Benjamin Moore Harbor Haze Grey Blue Cabinet Colour

If I just show them the blue colour I think is right, many times they will say – but that’s baby blue!

Read more: Help! My light gray walls look baby blue

So that’s then I show them what baby blue really is. And then they can actually see the difference and they understand that the blue colour I’ve selected is the correct one.

BM Harbor Haze vs. Skylark

Comparing Paint Colours

The same goes for greens. If I just pull out a fresh green colour like Benjamin Moore Van Alen Green, which is in my VIP Collection, they will say – “but that’s mint green!!” So then I show them a true mint green. When you compare that to Van Alen Green, then they get it. Because they can see the difference.

Benjamin Moore Van Alen Green

How about greys? There are a million of them! Some greys are warm and sophisticated and some are as cold as an icy winter’s day. So, if I am standing in a bathroom (for example) and looking at tiles that I can see have some warm taupe-y gray tones in it like this colour:

Benjamin Moore Smokey TaupeRead more: What everyone should know about taupe

I often get the “it’s too gray” response. Until I go to my gray deck and pull out a cold blue gray like this one:

Benjamin Moore Bunny Gray

Always compare your white paint colour with the whitest white.

Make sure you compare especially when you are choosing white paint colours! Take the white you are considering and compare it with the whitest, white in the deck – say Benjamin Moore OC-65 Chantilly Lace or Decorator White, or Ultra White.

Now you can see what you are doing since you have the truest white to compare it with. The gradations of white in my System for Specifying Colour are also super helpful for nailing down the right white.

Read more: 4 Reasons Your White Walls Look Bad

While you’re here, subscribe to this feed so you don’t miss out and grab my free paint colour guides!

xo, Maria

Related posts:

Clean vs. Dirty Colours
Three ways to describe Colour
The best Trim colours – NOT Cloud White

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  • Brett Walther says:

    Context is indeed everything! I also feel like this is why I have more confidence selecting colour from a manufacturer with a huge paint deck (Benjamin Moore, for instance) – you can see the colour in relation to the vast family of colours around it, instead of viewing the colour in isolation, which is how I always feel when selecting a colour from a highly edited deck like Ralph Lauren’s. Interesting!

  • Hill Country House Girl says:

    Maria, I agree with Brett – I use my Benjamin Moore decks a lot to show people the range of colors in one color family. Thanks for another great color lesson!

  • Rebecca says:

    Thanks for the interesting post. I often reread your older post as you share so much knowledge and information.
    I miss the Benjamin Moore paint store we once had in the area. When in doubt I like to paint a sample and live with it for a bit. It cost me a bit more to buy a sample or pint of paint yet it is well worth it in satisfaction.
    I think blues are the hardest to get right. I lived with a blue for many years that looked great on the paint chip but was too sweet for my tastes.

  • Christine says:

    Great post! You do such a good job illustrating your points with pictures and color samples. Thank you for all the thought you put into your posts, I learn from them all!

  • Kelee Katillac says:

    Blues are very difficult. Especially the lovely spa blues we love…can appear green or gray.

  • says:

    Thanks for the lesson. I often lack confidence when selecting blues and greens. You’ve given me the a very useful tool.

  • Haven and Home says:

    Your blog is so helpful, I feel like I learn something new every time I come here. I love it!

  • says:

    Great post! It’s always so interesting how context changes everything. You point out how important it is to compare what’s in hand with preconceived ideas on color. You’ve given us a great process to make better color choices.

  • Bethany says:

    as always – great tips. I should have those true colors: baby blue, mint green, and gray gray bookmarked on my deck for reference.

  • Pam Kersting says:

    Love those colors, Maria!

  • Under a Green Roof says:

    gah, context is so key! And a lesson that I often have to teach myself through errors 🙂 I am thankful for your blog, it teaches me great color lessons without painting my whole room!

  • pve design says:

    A wonderful teacher once told me, you need the low notes to appreciate the high notes and color is like that, like music, you need harmony, and balance in a room. I have always admired those that could be “Monochromatic” and then add one pop of color, gray with a pop of yellow – again it is all about context!

  • Cote de Texas says:

    I;m guilty of always saying – thats a cool color or thats a warm color!!! I learn so much from your blog!!!

  • DesignTies says:

    Great post! I can’t wait to take your colour theory course next fall!!
    Victoria @ DesignTies

  • Imogen Lamport says:

    So true! This is why I give clients a swatch of colours that they can use as a comparison tool when shopping for clothes!

  • Brillante Home Decor says:

    While reading your post, informative as always, I was thinking about white…and white you mentioned at the end. How true!
    You are a master of colour.

  • unique unique design says:

    Very informative. You always make such valid points and they are so helpful. Thanks!

  • sallymandy says:

    Thank you, Maria! I love reading your posts. It’s just fun…even though I don’t do much with my house at this stage in my life, and I’m not a designer. I just love what you write, and I do love color. I’ve noticed some of what you’re talking about on the days I get to work at a local floral studio–how the colors change each other, sort of.

    My eyes are “hazel,” but when I wear purple eye-liner, they appear very green.

    xo, sallymandy

  • Meade Design Group says:

    As always you always provide the best tips!

  • My Notting Hill says:

    Very helpful post. Love the idea of comparing whites to the ones you mentioned. Thanks!

  • Lauren says:

    Couldn’t agree more!!! I always have to compare!!

  • Toby Worthington says:

    There’s a shelter magazine in the USA that includes colour swatch suggestions in every monthly issue, and it has always seemed to me a great waste of words and printer’s ink. Context is never alluded to, and the hard cold truth that all colour is relative, well, that too is overlooked. This post and indeed all your posts address the issues in beautifully clear prose, for which, many many thanks. You do know your stuff.

  • Cheryl says:

    Great post. I have taupy tile in my bathroom. I realize that now. 🙁 I picked a grey that is not right. So frustrated. I don’t want to paint it TAUPE. Any recommendations.

  • Lia says:

    What color is the blue on the wall of the bedroom in the first photo? Thanks!

  • What color is the bedroom pained in the very first picture?

  • Kaley Barkman says:

    What is the paint colour on the walls of the bedroom in the first picture?

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