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How Do You Know if a White is Cool or Warm?

By 09/24/2014September 29th, 201728 Comments

I’m almost finished my White is Complicated: A Decorators Guide to Choosing the Right White eBook, we are planning to launch in early November!

I received over 1,200 responses on the survey on whites I conducted a couple months ago and that had me go back to the drawing board to make sure all the critical questions were covered in the eBook.

Readers kept asking the same question in different ways about whites being cool or warm and I’ve written posts about it before, here and here.

Whether a white is cool or warm is mostly about contrast and comparison and also, simply personal opinion.

How do you Know if a White is Cool or Warm? | Maria Killam

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Which white is cool, which is warm? Does it matter? In context, they are both lovely.

How do you Know if a White is Cool or Warm? | Maria Killam

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Here we have creamy tile in both bathrooms, but one has a wood stained vanity. Which one is warmer?

It’s perception isn’t it? Some might say the wood vanity makes it warmer, some might say the large windows make the bathroom on the left feel warmer.

How do you Know if a White is Cool or Warm? | Maria Killam

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Same colour sofas, walls are basically the same white. Which is warmer?

If you say the left, maybe it’s because the colour brings the room to life. But some might prefer the living room on the right.

How do you Know if a White is Cool or Warm? | Maria Killam

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Carrara Marble kitchens, white slab cabinets? Warm or cool?

Too MUCH Carrara (on the left), they just didn’t know when to stop. The warmth of the wood floors, chairs and accessories (on the right) takes the warm factor up.

How do you Know if a White is Cool or Warm? | Maria Killam

{source left & right}

Texture warms up the bed on the left. But warm or cool is still in the eye of the beholder.

What have you decided makes a white feel warm or cool?

I say it has a lot to do with what you include, how you style and decorate the room as well as your personal aesthetic.

If you are looking at a room in your house and you think it feels cold, it probably has more to do with a combination of the wrong whites, rather than strictly the white itself. Here’s a post I wrote that might help fix the problem.

Which room is your favourite? When does white feel cold to you?

Love to hear your opinion! xo Maria

Related posts:

Ask Maria: Will my White Kitchen be Cold?

How to Coordinate White & Cream

Ask Maria: Which Whites go Together

And, if you would like to learn how to choose colour with confidence, become a True Colour Expert.


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  • Scarlett says:

    Interesting post! I also think that is has to do with the time of day – natural daylight in the morning can be cooler than dusk which is warmer – the season, and of course exposure (NSEW). Then there is also the reflection off of the other items in the room.
    Perception is key too.

  • KM says:

    I tend towards liking warm whites.

    Your top shots; one wouldn’t think it would be difficult to match white LED Christmas lights but I’ve learned to open the box and plug them in to make sure they are all the same color of white. I love the warmth of the, well, the warm ones. The cool ones, not so much. If I want cool I’d just as soon buy blue lights.

    • Mary-Illinois says:

      I just changed out the lightbulbs in the can lights in my kitchen. The ones I had were too warm & made my white cabinets look bad. I thought I had picked the wrong shade when I painted them. Changing out the bulbs fixed the problem & now I don’t have to repaint. Thank goodness! Now I have the bright, crisp kitchen I was wanting.

  • tara dillard says:

    Overlap with landscape is hilarious.

    Often times the answer is, “It’s the weather.”

    Of course colors for exteriors depend upon latitude/longitude. Beautiful blue in England will be totally different in Atlanta, GA. Lighting and dust particulates.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  • Liz Palmer says:

    LOVE both bedrooms. I could crawl right in to either bed. I have a white master bedroom in Atlanta. Stays fresh feeling thoughout our nasty Summer heat and humidity. I agree with both Scarlett and Tara. Time of day and location make a big difference in how white looks both inside and outside.

    • KA says:

      Yes and sometimes the photography or photoshopping can influence. I often take quick pics of my jobs with my camera on the phone, since I always have it with me, and shadows can appear that make it look grayer.

  • BZ says:

    I am totally confused! I thought whether a white was warm or cool depended on the paint tint used when mixing the paint. Color IS so complicated!

  • deb says:

    I much prefer warm whites. And to me, the last 6 photos are all cool whites. Warm whites feel softer, friendlier, happier and more inviting. Cool whites remind me of hospitals and institutions.

    Is it just the lighting that makes the last 6 photos seem cool? Or are the whites actually cooler?

  • Kelly says:

    What a great post showing the visual for colors in white. So many of my clients think white is white, I am going to save this to forward to them!

  • carol says:

    Maria, I love reading about your color advice. Can you please give me any suggestions for what colors to paint in a west facing family room with Fruitwood stained woodwork? I have a cream slipcover ed sofa with blues and greens in my furniture. I am at a loss for wall color. Thanks#

    • KJ says:

      Maybe try Sherwin Williams Repose Gray (at 50%). I have it in an office with fruitwood colored furniture I would like to replace. It works with the old furniture, but looks just new enough.

    • carol anne says:

      you get that Maria does colour consults for a living right… designers work for a living… if you want help from one you must ask for our $ not if we could help you…

      • Carol J says:

        People ask Maria for advice all the time. Why are you picking on her?

        • Maria Killam says:

          Okay here’s the answer to Carol’s question 🙂 It would be impossible for me to give you accurate advice without actually seeing a photo of your living room. I need to see your greens and blues before I can give you a colour but I would suggest the green that goes with your furniture, I love green living rooms.

      • carol says:

        Don’t you ever ask for decorating / color advice miss Carol Anne? Mind your own business. I was asking Maria. Not you.

  • Beth says:

    I love that a Scarlett and a Tara commented on this post! lol

  • Kathy says:

    I agree that time of day and location and time of year and orientation and size of windows affect the quality of light and color perception. And as you have discovered in your Photoshop classes, the color balance of the picture can affect color perception, and that cameras do not see in the way our eyes and brains do.

    I too personally prefer warm whites over cool whites, and interpret that to mean a white with a warm color overtone, yellow, red/pink, orange, brown. And a cool white is one with cool color overtones, blue, purple, green (although that depends on the green), black/grey.

    Perception of color also depends on surrounding colors, and reflected light off of colored surfaces can change the adjoining color. So it isn’t a simple answer and why the same color can look so different in different settings, and in different photos.

    Still, I immediately thought the top two photos were both warm whites and the next two photos were cool whites, and the bottom two pictures a mixture of warm and cool whites.

  • Janice says:

    I purchased thousands of new cool white LEDs for outdoor decorating at Christmas. HATED it. We had warm white ones in past seasons. My reasoning was that they would represent cold therefore the color should reflect that. Not even adding color to other elements of the composition helped. I don’t truly understand why I disliked it soo much but after Christmas even the neighbors shared their disdain for our new lighting choice. Indoors cool white feels institutional to me but more so when present with contemporary styles. Everything ‘feels’ very hard.

  • sandyc says:

    Definitely a complicated subject. I agree with Kathy. I also thought both bathrooms were warm white but I was instantly drawn to the one on the left with all the light from the window, the white vanity and the white floor and the wonderful green plant. The floor on the right was obviously warm but I hate dark Expresso furniture and the dark tree instead of something green didn’t grab me either. The same sofa room was cool to me because of the wall color and I wouldn’t be happy in either room ever. (Reminds me of the blue-tinted white walls in the condo I rented where absolutely nothing I had in any room looked right and neither did the dark rust tiled floor and brown carpet.) I’m not a fan of Carrara marble so neither kitchen grabbed me but I agree the wood touches helped the one on the right. As far as the bedrooms, I was drawn to the one on the left, very warm and cozy, but I think I could warm up the one on the right because the wall color didn’t seem to rule the room; rather it seemed as if it were a sort of staged or slightly uninspired designer choice.

    Such another good teaching post, Maria. Maybe a 31 Days of White series after the debut of your ebook? Or maybe a 2015 Summer School seminar?

  • Deborah McKenzie says:

    Personally I like the bathroom on the right and the bedroom on the left. I feel overall they both read warm. I also think they are the best of all the examples of a balance in whites. Both rooms have a simple elegance but they are obviously decorated with a skilled eye. I am really looking forward to your new ebook. My best description of cold white is flat. Not to say that is always bad.

  • I’m not a white fan in general, so most feel cold to me unless they have a wee bit of yellow in them. I simply don’t understand why anyone would want to live in an all white environment.

  • Brooke says:

    Great post, the xmas lights are a perfect example.

    I am already tired of gray so going to a just warm white everywhere. I can’t wait for your book!!

    Favorite room, bath on left and kitchen with black light

  • Mary says:

    What white would you suggest with Manchester tan since it has a green undertone? Warm or cool? It seems like green can go either way and I’m not sure how you handle warm/cool trim color with green beige and grey green (like Manchester tan or edgecomb gray) I absolutely love your blog. Been reading it nonstop since I found it a month or two ago!

    • Maria Killam says:

      The white you choose should go with the fixed white in your house. . . either warm (White Dove) or cool (Chantilly Lace) will work with manchester Tan. Maria

  • Mary says:

    Thanks Maria! If You use a warm white trim, can you use ‘dirty colors’ for the rest of the accesories and upholstery the room? Or should you use a cream trim with ‘dirty color accesories? Is there one you would suggest with the Manchester tan?

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