Whenever I have introduced the concept of clean and dirty colours, without fail, someone raises an objection to the term “dirty”. They wonder why I don’t use a term that implies less of a value judgement like “muted” or “toned-down” or “complex”.
I’ve been effectively teaching the difference in my Specify Colour with Confidence workshops for years and lately, I have come to the conclusion that my very old post on Clean and Dirty (written within two weeks of starting this blog 9 years ago) needs an update for this very reason.
When is ‘dirty’ the only appropriate word to use when describing colour? When the cleaner colour makes the more muted colour look dirty. First, let’s talk about the most important distinction you need to know anytime you’re choosing a colour:
The only way to know you are moving in the right direction with your colour scheme is if you are comparing one colour to another colour.
It’s why (as I teach in my White is Complicated eBook) to show your spouse or client which white you are selecting or specifying, you compare to a ‘true white’. That’s the only way to see the white accurately. Waving around the paint chip you’re considering with conviction is useless without the comparison.
It’s the same when you are comparing colour to determine if you have created a clean and fresh palette or a muted or dirty palette.
The red in the first image is way muddier than the red in the second image. So if you were choosing colours to work with either colour scheme, you could choose brighter colours to coordinate with the cleaner red sofa than you would with the burgandy walls in the first image.
Source, left | right
When there’s something wrong with the balance of clean and dirty
In the above colour scheme, you can use a less judgemental term like ‘muted’. However, I recently saw a commercial bathroom that illustrated perfectly, when DIRTY is the best way to describe what’s wrong (below).
The most accurate way to describe what’s wrong with this bathroom is that the primary red stalls make the terra cotta tile look dirty.
You simply wouldn’t say “The tile looks muted” in comparison because it just looks dirty.
This is the reason that I’m a fan of classic white bathrooms, because if you have tile similar to this colour in your bathroom, especially if it goes up the wall around a tub, shower or backsplash, basically the only way your bathroom is ever going to look right is if the walls are painted a colour that relates to the tile. There’s nothing wrong with that, however, it would feel limiting after a while.
If you choose white (or off-white or cream) tile you can decorate with cornflower blue if it strikes your fancy (below).
Related post: The Best Cream Bathrooms
The green beige floor tile and pink beige wall tile in this bathroom (below) is solid enough that it doesn’t really clash with the clean blue wallpaper, however, it would have looked much better if the tile was white.
The introduction of blue wallpaper here makes it look like this bathroom has received an update from what it orginally was.
Otherwise, why not choose a wallpaper that actual picks up the colours in the tile? That would have made this bathroom look less like “New wallpaper, old tile”.
Related post: How to Make Earthy Tile Look Expensive
Here’s an example of an “updated” bathroom (below) with the vanity painted pink taupe, deep gold earthy granite, pale taupe tile and a clean turquoise on the walls.
See how the clean turquoise makes the pink taupe on the vanity look like some kind of weird fleshy mud? It doesn’t help that the granite is much too gold and doesn’t relate to the floor tile I’d change the countertop and vanity here to white, the floor looks pale enough to ignore.
Better if the tile had been white (below):
There is nothing wrong with “dirty” colours. It’s just better if you don’t combine them with clean colours.
Here’s a room decorated in more earthy colours with lots of texture and white like this room (below).
A Clean Colour will always Make the Dirty Colour look, well Dirty
It’s important to understand that clean and dirty generally don’t look good in the same room (or exterior). Clean will always trump dirty and will make your “sophisticated muted colours” look awful and simply DIRTY.
Here’s another example with a clean yellow colour scheme. Since yellow is the brightest colour on the wheel, it tends to look too bright by default. In most cases, yellow needs to be muddied down a lot to play well with other colours.
This kitchen (below) has super clean yellow cabinets and pale creamy yellow beige everything else.
The clean lemon yellow cabinets make everything else look a little dingy. White (or black) or other shades of cleaner colours would have created a better colour scheme here. However, the styling is good in this kitchen and the mural backsplash looks like it relates to the more dirty, beige tones in this kitchen.
If all else fails and you can see that you’ve got some fixed clean and dirty elements you have to live with, start styling.
Find a piece of art (or carpet or fabric) that makes the colours work:
This bathroom suddenly looks so much better with just a piece of art that pulls in both colours to make it look intentional.
So, as I love to say in my workshops, “If all else fails and you’ve made a mistake, start styling to make it look like it was what you intended all along”.
The concept of clean and dirty is especially important when choosing colours other than neutrals. In my system, when we’re talking about neutrals, the main goal is to identify the undertone, but when we’re talking about choosing other colours, that is not the conversation. Choosing colours that work well together (if we’re not talking about neutrals) is not about undertones, it’s about clean and dirty.
If you’re choosing accent colours to decorate with, it’s important that they are all similarly clean or dirty. How can you tell? If you lay out your fabrics and colours together, and one jumps out at you while another sits back and looks relatively muted, you have a clean and dirty combination going on, and you’ll need to tweak it.
In my live colour events we do an exercise on this with paint chips and create a palette where all the colours are similar in the relative clean to dirty scale. Because comparing colours is the only way you can see it.
Does this mean that your accent colours need to be as dirty as your neutral finishes? No, but earthier paint and finishes will look better with slightly dirtier accent colours, where as whites, grays and greiges can handle much cleaner accents.
This hot pink and gold vignette would look pretty garish in a sage green room, but with all that white it looks lovely and fresh.
Clean colours in the right context look vibrant and fresh, but in the company of dirtier colours, they can look garish or harsh. Dirty colours in the right context can look muted and sophisticated, but in a room full of clean colours, they will look muddy and dull.
Just like with anything else, there will ALWAYS be exceptions to the rule, but it’s important to learn the rules before you break them.
Clean and dirty is relative, just like warm or cool. So just like you can’t technically look at a colour in isolation and call it ‘warm’ or ‘cool’, clean and dirty is the same. It depends on which colour you’re comparing it to.
Learn to compare your colours to determine how clean or dirty they are because when it comes to colour, context is everything and guess what? I’m sticking to the term “dirty” because it’s the same with words 😉
Which colours do you prefer, clean (fresher and brighter) or dirty (muted or complex)?