5 Reasons Your Paint Colour Looks Wrong (It’s NOT the Lighting)



I’ve been specifying paint colours for 20 years. In my experience, the number one reason why a client becomes critical of a paint colour is when it doesn’t relate to anything.

That’s when they start to assume that light may in fact be the culprit.

Designers are notorious for blaming the light. I guess if  you don’t understand undertones, you have to blame it on SOMETHING.

If I had a dollar for every time a designer has confided: “Maria, the light turned the colour pink, or green, or purple (for example), and then after they show me the colour well, in actual fact, it is pink, or green or purple.

There are also countless articles on the web that support this theory.

‘My Robin’s egg blue looks like a cheap hotel room’ screamed one article.

Well I don’t need to read any further to inform you that the blue they chose was obviously too clean (for their taste). Yet the writer went on to talk about all the different coloured light bulbs out there in addition to all the many ways sunlight affects paint colour.

And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with a bright ‘Robins egg blue’ if it relates to what’s happening in the room.

For example, the blue in the first photo below looks lovely because the room is decorated. EVEN though the blue paint colour appears only in the drapery.

The same blue in the room on the right (below) it could be interpreted as a ‘cheap hotel room’ blue by some.

Does this have anything to do with the light?


It simply looks like we’ve moved in and haven’t painted the walls yet.

However, if you don’t understand how to choose paint colours, you might look at the same room and be convinced that the light turned the lovely blue on your paint chip a bright, screaming, WRONG blue.

Image source left | right

I am not saying that lighting is NEVER a factor. Not at all.

But, more often than not, there is a much higher possibility that the following is happening. And happily, these reasons are much easier to control.

These are the 5 most common reasons your paint colour is not working:

You chose the wrong undertone. 

The colour doesn’t relate to anything in the room.

You chose a colour that was too clean (or bright) or too dirty (or muted, or dull, or toned down) so it still doesn’t relate to the furnishings or hard finishes in the interior or exterior. This is rarely due to lighting as well. You just chose the wrong colour, period. 

The colour is simply too dark because current colour trends are pale and light (and you might not even realize that’s WHY it’s bothering you).

The room is missing a look and a feel.

Okay let’s deal with the first one because it’s the most common problem. It’s the wrong undertone.


Here’s the first email I received from a reader:

We have built a brand new cottage, the colour I chose for the cabinets was BM Rocky Road.  The kitchen manufacturer did not provide us with a sample of the cabinets prior to spraying them. I feel that the pantry, in the light, shows up with a pink undertone.

The kitchen guy wants us to see the cabinets in all the lighting throughout the season “Because it’s going to make a difference” – grrrrr.

I would have seen this colour change with a sample but we were not given that opportunity. What do we do now?

Exterior (Rocky Road) | Cabinets (Grant Beige)

Unfortunately I don’t have good news for this dilemma. The cabinets will never look right until they are repainted. And as you can see by the exterior above, and the comparison of the two paint chips in the photos, Rocky Road is in actual fact a quite obvious pink taupe.

I had the cabinets photoshopped so they are closer to Grant Beige which is a green beige. Much better with the slate flooring.

Never and I mean NEVER, approve a cabinet colour without getting a painted sample from your cabinet manufacturer. Even if you have to pay $100 for them to produce a sample, do it.

It’s much cheaper than painting the entire kitchen AGAIN.


Okay so here is the next question:

My kitchen cabinets and walls are Ben Moore Ivory White, so they cannot change. I’ve got a cream and off white thing going on in the kitchen. 

I purchased the artwork first, for color inspiration and then chose the sofa fabric based on the blue gray color in the painting.  I had a very large swatch and moved it around for days before ordering the sofa.

The rug is just there as a placeholder and belongs in another room. Ignore the sage cabinets as they are going to be painted soon. And I know to take off the pillows that came with the sofa but it’s what I have for the moment.

Did I make a huge mistake? 

No, you didn’t make a mistake. There’s nothing wrong with your ivory walls, however you don’t have any cream in your decorating at the moment.

You need to repeat the cream in your pillows, and your area rug and when you do that, it’ll look right again.

If your sage green rug and cabinets were staying it would look a little more like you hadn’t painted your walls yet and in this case I would consider painting the walls blue.


You can see that this room (above) looks great with blue walls but the walls could also be off-white given there’s lots of white repeated in the decorating.

Okay reason number 3 you hate your paint colour:


Here’s the next question:

Here are some pictures of my clean/dirty master bathroom.  When we moved into this house a few months ago, the whole house was painted beige, beige, beige with lots of pink beige tile. 

We hired one of your True Color Experts for a paint consult to help us get started with new paint colors. 

When we discussed this room, we were looking at neutrals to go with the tile and with her help selected Pale Oak for the walls. 

However, after she left and we thought it over for a few days, we decided we’d rather have a color on the wall rather than a neutral.  On our own, my husband and I narrowed our choices down to HC-139 Salisbury Green.  In my mind, we were just going to ignore the pink-beige tile until we renovate (which for this room is probably 5+ years away). 

I think HC-139 is a beautiful color, and from some views of the room I really like it.  However, when I look at the tub wall and see the green right next to the pink-beige tile, I just cringe because of the clean/dirty issue. 

 I would LOVE your advice.

So first, I want to give a shout out to the True Colour Expert who chose Pale Oak. Claudia Josephine, with Claudia Josephine Design from Charlotte, NC. She was spot on.

Both Cedar Key and Pale Oak work are good options to consider to update a pink beige bathroom.

They are both in the pale taupe category and have just enough pink in them to read like a neutral grey once they are up, instead of more green if you chose a colour like BM Edgecomb Grey for example.

And this pale green doesn’t bother me either. Also, I love the way you found a piece of art that picks up the pink beige as well as the green. I would just raise it up about 4 inches.

I would personally add some more greenery to this bathroom and keep it green until you renovate.

And, here it is in Pale Oak for those of you who are curious to see what it would look like:

Which one do you prefer?

Thanks for sending in this dilemma!


So first, dramatic colour is definitely on trend. But NOT as a main, all over, neutral. We might be painting our dining or powder rooms colours, navy blue or emerald green, but most people are still looking for light and fresh for the main rooms in the house.

Therefore, if you have recently repainted and the colour is still bothering you? This might be the reason.


I know I sound like a broken record with this. But this AND painting a room WITHOUT having any kind of decorating plan are the two biggest reasons why you’ll suddenly become your new paint colours biggest critic.

Paint simply cannot do all the heavy lifting all by itself.

Elle Decor

In this photo (above) the wall colour looks like a green beige, and notice how it’s really not repeated in the decorating anywhere except the artwork.

But the room is so pretty that we barely notice that. This is what decorating can do. In most cases, if you’ve made a colour mistake you can’t fix, focus on decorating. Every room looks better with a little bit of love and careful layering.

But with paint, it’s often an easy fix. You can find comfort that in most cases, with a bit of knowledge, choosing the right colour really is something you can control and it’s actually quite unlikely that the light is working against you.  Getting the right undertone and intensity is by far the main thing and light is definitely your friend.

If you have a clean, dirty or lighting problem email me photos here. I like these posts, I think they are super helpful. Let me know if you’d like more of them.

Related posts:

Do’s and Don’ts on Decorating an Empty Room

How Much Heavy Lifting can a Paint Colour Handle?

Are you Waiting for your Paint Colour to Propose?



leave aREPLY

  1. These posts are the best. I’m starting to really see it! …and that in spite of bad monitor color translation. Thanks!

  2. Maria, this is off topic as it’s not about paint color, but I’m wondering if furniture and accessory colors go with white walls, mid-tone wood floors and mixed hardware in black and brushed nickle (fans, lamps, etc.). I’ve seen neutrals in sofas, pillows, chairs, etc., but not seen colors. If color is OK, would it be clean or dirty…or would either work? Maybe a post on this would help others, too….? Thanks much!

  3. I love this post. When I first moved into my home a few years ago, I painted the kitchen what I *thought* was a soft, blue-green. When I got it on the walls, it looked like a 1980s baby-blue nursery. I was certain the issue wasn’t the paint color but the fact that my kitchen/living room has so much bright light. But after reading Maria’s blog and now having her color wheel, today’s post brings home the fact that the paint color was simply too clean and didn’t relate to anything because in the open concept area. This blog has changed how I see color carpet and upholstery, not just paint.

  4. Lighting is absolutely the #2 factor. This is why you can paint walls in an entire home with identical floors/trims the very same color but (with whites/off whites) the paint will change colors in every single room if the lighting/exposure is different – which in 99% of homes of course, the exposures are different. #1 reason why every single powder room will look grey-ish if you just slap up some generic white/light off white. Or even primer. Or even the most ultra white which gives you light bluish grey. Unfortunately the only solution is to go to a deeper “color” or wallpaper! And add super bright lighting.

  5. Maria, I have seen you say not to use a grey undertone as your default neutral. Can you expound on this? I need to paint, now, and my eye seems to always be pleased with the blue-greys! Also, I place your color wheel on my “beige” leather furniture and still cannot determine the undertone 100%! Taupe looks pink next to it…could it be a grey-green? My house walls are a hodgepodge and it is driving me crazy! ) :

    • Hi Val, did you add the colour chips onto the wheel to make it 100% accurate? That URL can be found at the back of the wheel. And if you have photos of your dilemma send them to [email protected]. I would love to write a post with photos of a reader using my colour wheel! There’s nothing wrong with grey as long as your entire home is not grey on grey on grey. Hope that helps, Maria

  6. This is one of the best and most helpful articles I’ve seen on your site. It addresses so many issues and the illustrations are so ah ha. Thanks