I received this question the other day and realized that even though my ebooks covers it in comprehensive detail, I don’t have a single post that answers this question directly.
So here are the 6 best ways to choose one:
1. Start with the living room because that’s where the entire colour scheme for the house is usually determined. Consider the colour of your carpet, sofa and drapery. The biggest pieces in the room will heavily dictate the neutral you end up with.
My ebook comes with a bonus book of neutrals curated by undertone. Take the colour chips and place them on your furniture, tile or drapery until you find the ones that match.
2. If the wall to wall carpet or tile in your house is not cream or white or apple green (in other words, a colour) then it’s a neutral and usually that’s the one that should be on the walls so your space looks pulled together.
3. If you hate your carpet or tile because it’s, for example, pinky beige, and a) it will eventually be replaced or b) you don’t want it to boss your entire colour scheme around, then the solution to that dilemma would be to put an area rug on top of the offending broadloom. Or if your bathroom (below) has pink beige tile and blue gray wainscotting (or cabinets, or countertop), chose blue gray for the walls instead of pink beige.
So if your sofas are a green gray or yellow beige and your carpet is pink beige, get an area rug that pulls your furniture into the scheme and paint your walls green gray or yellow beige.
Sometimes people will ask “Is that enough contrast? Won’t it be bad to paint the walls the same colour as my sofa/carpet/drapery?” So here’s the thing, 9 times out of 10 the client asking this question is still not the exception to this rule. And the neutral I’m suggesting is still the best one that pulls the space together.
4. Here’s the rule about mixing undertones. All undertones can be combined except pink beige with yellow and orange beige. Yellow and orange beige next to pink makes it look dirty.
Don’t combine more than 2 neutral undertones in any colour scheme, it could start to look like you don’t know what you’re doing.
If the tile you have chosen or inherited has 5 neutral undertones (for example), that’s okay – just don’t pull more than two to create your colour scheme.
5. The other day my client had a green beige sofa/carpet and green beige marble around her fireplace mantle. This makes the right neutral for the walls is a green beige, however she emailed me later and said she wished it could be a yellow beige instead. I responded that going with yellow walls would work much better than a yellow beige.
A strong enough colour on the walls would make her green beige undertones read more neutral, however simply choosing a yellow beige would look like the wrong neutral had been selected.
6. Once you’ve found the neutral you think will work, paint it on a poster board and along with white boards behind it, hold it behind your sofa, next to the flooring, behind your drapery or beside your fireplace to make sure it’s the right one.
When your space bugs you and you don’t know why, it’s more upsetting than knowing what the problem is and then choosing to ignore it until you have the money to replace it.
Kind of like life really. Doesn’t it feel better to know why you’re upset about something? Walking around with anxiety and not knowing what it is can make you feel crazy.
Now that I’m a homeowner I’ve noticed that my tolerance for ignoring something old and dated is much lower than it was when I was a renter.
Because now I can do something about it, it’s just a matter of time (and money).
Download my ebooks for How to Choose Paint Colours or White is Complicated here.
What Everyone Should know about Beige
What Everyone Should know about Gray
If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, contact me.
To make sure the undertones in your home are right, get some large samples!
If you would like to learn to how choose the right colours for your home or for your clients, become a True Colour Expert.
What a great, practical post, Maria. Just another reminder that neutrals really aren’t so neutral at all!
loved this post…. thank you for explaining it all so we can understand, I know it is very hard to put it in words…
funny how owning your home changes everything… I am truly very happy for you… looking forward to seeing the finished kitchen
(your pictures are still long and skinny on my computer, is it me? )
Wonderful post Maria, exactly the kind of information everyone needs to know!
Great post for individuals wanting to do something to their space and are limited in funds. This gives them a reason and an action plan. We all feel better now don’t we!
So, I have a question. I have a gray carpet. And I like it. And I know painting the walls gray would be beautiful. BUT, living where we do with rain 9 months of the year…well, I say no to painting my walls gray, even though it would be beautiful. I’d be in the loony bin by February.
Thanks for the post!!!
The difference between a COLD BLUE gray and a WARM PUTTY GREEN GRAY is so big, you might be okay with a gray but only if it works with your existing furniture. Nothing brings a gray carpet to life faster than a colour so I say go for colour!!
Look at your largest items and figure it out from there!
Thanks for this. It sparked some thoughts for talking to my client. Have a great week, Maria!
Great post Maria! You always explain everything so well that everyone can understand. You help take the mystery out of those tricky undertones!
Choosing neutral is a challenge in person let alone explaining it in a blog post – this is very informative Maria!
Pulling a color/neutral from a dominant piece of furniture I find helpful like I have mentioned in this post about an IKEA chair: http://bit.ly/HnPbep
So much to consider when choosing color! Thank goodness everyone has your blog for help 🙂
I can’t WAIT to hire you when we move in July! I have even convinced the husband of the need to hire you, and he is totally with me. Every post that I regurgitate to him in my own (usually insufficient) words is further fodder to my cause! Thanks so much, you are brilliant! Can’t wait to buy your book btw, just waiting for the paycheque…also wondering if it will be hard to get the BM paint deck here in Calgary…searched around but only one true BM store, and I didn’t get the sense they give them out. Do they cost a lot??
Jackie you are so awesome!! This comment made my day! You can find them and here in Vancouver you buy one and then return it, ask if they do that. Maria
What is the difference between a dirty yellow and yellow-beige? Are they on the same continuum?
A yellow beige is like HC-26 Monroe Bisque while a dirty yellow would be like Dijon. A clean yellow would be HC-4 Hawthorne yellow but still far from a yellow beige. Hope this helps. Maria
You need to add yellow to your fabulous e-book (book of colors)!!!
If you can mix green beige with yellow beige, then did you choose a yellow paint (instead of a yellow beige in item 5 of your blog) to add more contrast between the walls and furniture to avoid having 1 yellow beige item in the room of green beige?
I initially specified a green beige to tie it all in but since my client wanted yellow, I told her to go with yellow (as long as that colour is then repeated in the space with pillows, accessories etc) and that would be better than a yellow beige which would simply look like she chose the wrong beige.
Hope that clarifies it, let me know if it does not.
What a timely post, I was just thinking of what color to paint my second floor with the pinky beige carpet. However, me being me, I don’t understand a thing about mixing undertones even when explained by you. So I should paint it blue gray? Which one? The only thing I’m sure of is doing the test on the big poster board 🙂
BTW That’s why I did consults with you for my main floor. I don’t really get it, but I know you get it!
Everything you said was spot on 🙂 Painting the kitchen and fireplace BM Ivory White, matching BM Revere Pewter to my tile for most of the main floor, the hardwood color. I relish how it all looks now :D, but the second floor will need to wait a while.
So what does a color-by-numbers girl paint next to pinky beige carpet in the meantime?
In reading #5 above I got confused. My LR is painted BM Sandy Brown. My entry, looking into the LR is painted BM Lighthouse Landing. I thought they worked together until I read #5. Now I stare at the 2 colors and see green-beige in the LR (especially in lower light) and almost a pinky beige in the entry. I always thought they looked good together until I started analyzing them. Mistake?? Does Lighthouse Landing have pink in it? Thanks, Jan
I don’t have those colours in front of me but there’s nothing wrong with pink beige with green beige, red and green are complimentary colours. Maria
Brilliant and informative post, Maria! I’ve read your e-book too, which helps a lot – you are amazing!
I really enjoyed having you over for a consult some time ago, and have painted our living area BM Natural Linen as you suggested. It has really tied everything together very nicely! I do have a question though. What kind of beige is Natural Linen? By our North facing windows and in the shadows it looks cooler (more grayish or greenish), but over by the South facing windows it’s warmer and almost peachy on a sunny evening.
I find myself taking notes as I read your posts on undertones because it’s so confusing to me. I’m starting to get it though. I would love to sign up for your class down the road because I find color to be so fascinating, yet so complex.
What color is used in the first picture. It is a beautiful gray. I am thinking of using Coventry Gray in our family room but I really like the one in the picture. We have dark hardwood floors and I think it would be a beautiful color. Thanks! Love your blog and website!!
That colour looks similar to BM Stonehearth. Maria
It’s beautiful with the blue what blue is it do you know?
I recently purchased the “grellow” couch from cb2. It’s a muddy bright gold. I have a white and charcoal rug. I am struggling with the right neutral wall color. It is a bright sunny small room. I chose BM China White and it’s blah. Your suggestions would be welcome! Thank-you. I love your blog!!
It’s hard for me to say without seeing your space, maybe BM Collingwood? Maria
My bathroom tiles are a black/gray color. What color do you think would look good on the walls?? I was thinking a pale blue. Currently, the color is a very light gray and I just dont reall like it.
What you need is a stronger pop colour (not a pale shade) to give the gray some contrast. It sounds like you have a good neutral background to work with so I would consider painting your walls whatever accent you already have in your house! Maria
Hi Maria-I’m having fun re-reading your posts at the end of 2012. After reading the comments I have to say that I appreciate that you take the time to comment back and that you give readers suggestions. Sometimes designers will say “You can purchase my…” when I have a question.
Hi Maria! I am so loving this advice, and I am working on it! Grant Beige (BM) works with my carpet and my tile, and my wood laminate floor. 🙂 BUT…it looks so muddy and kind of yuck next to my cabinets, and I’ve also tried Rockport Gray and Revere Pewter, to the same effect, and I feel like Edgecomb Gray is too light. The cabinets are a light yellow-orange stain (maple), sounds awful but the light here is often very dim and dreary. Can you suggest a cleaner version of Grant Beige? Thanks for sharing such great information!!
I too am finding lenox tan, bleeker beige etc too dirty/muddy looking and picking up more grey than beige in my home. They don’t do anything with pine colored ceiling and orange tones of logs. I want something cheery, but not white, and both rooms are north facing in log post&beam home with gyproc walls. I actually am depressed looking at them!!!
I am so bummed Maria did not reply to this post as I am having the EXACT same issue! I have pinky beige slightly orange maple cabinets – yellowy oak floor and a horrid paint situation in the kitchen. I used sweet rosy brown instead of ignoring the pink BUT not Im sick of the barn red….HELP!!!!
Wall colours need to be chosen to pull the room together, it’s impossible to be accurate without seeing photos, etc. Lighter versions of all these colours would be in the realm of Classic Gray or Natural Cream.
I love your blog and have been reading and re-reading your posts for weeks. (Literally, the same 10 or so posts regarding undertones.) Any suggestions you have would be appreciated. I have been dreaming of a white living room! I have an open floor plan that looks like this: oak hardwood floors and crisp white trim and doors throughout with yellow undertoned carpet up the stairs to second floor. Pinky mocha couches (shoot me!) in the living room and honey oak cabinets in the kitchen with a pinky/yellowish travertine backsplash. I took a risk and went with BM White Dove on the living room walls. With my south facing windows, the yellow is very alive. I feel it clashes too much with the couch and am on the hunt for another white. Am I correct in thinking green would work? BM Swiss Coffee, Moonlight White?? (I really don’t want to go pink..) I like the gray the comes out of the White Dove, but when it gets yellow, it gets YELLOW! Any suggestions would be helpful because you rock! Thanks!!
I wouldn’t paint your walls white with a pink beige sofa and yellow beige carpet. You need to repeat the white (A LOT)in your furniture if you have white walls. Paint your walls BM Muslin. Maria
Thanks for taking the time to reply. I actally had a color in my living room not too far off from Muslin. I got a lot of complements on the room, but when the sun sets it was just too warm for me in there. I was hoping to cool off the room and achieve a lighter feel. I think that I read a previous post that said greeny-grays can work with my mocha couch.. I’m investigating BM Natural Cream and Soft Chamois. Thanks again!
This is a great post. I am trying to repaint my living room and looking for a “neutral” color – I was hoping I could ask for help here (disclaimer: I am a guy with what I assume is no color sense – I have been searching for weeks (picking up the project, getting frustrated, moving on, and coming back)). I am trying to use green – here is how I describe it to everyone: “dark green, lightened – not a mint green, or turquoise (maybe the right word is muted?) – but I want the green to be neutral. I want a color that is rich, calming, and is not noticed. I have been to SW & BM and seem to have been drawn to BM colors – I thought Antique Jade was a little too green, Aganthus green a little too dark, and am currently considering Vale Mist. Can someone (1) tell me if what I’m describing makes sense and (2) offer some color suggestions or guidance on how to choose/find the color I’m looking for? I also plan on painting the trim a “very white” color and the ceiling a very light cream (SW – Westhighland White). Also, I am working with a blank slate – no furniture or anything on the windows yet. Thank you!!
The reason you can’t decide is because the colour relates to nothing. Find a piece of art, your sofa, ANYTHING and then choose. Paint your space HC-105 Rockport Gray if you really must do it first. It’s a warm, neutral, gray green. Your trim should be the same colour as the ceiling. Maria
Thank you for the suggestion – also, I actually meant crown molding, not trim – should I keep the ceiling and crown molding the same color?
I have just bought your book, and I am amazed by how much I have learned. I took a two years Interior Decorating program and I was very disappointed with the color training. We can master everything else, but if you do not master color, nothing will work together.
I have so many questions I would like to ask you. Will there be a workshop in Toronto soon?
Could you please answer me the question which are most bothering me? That is:
What are the most conflicting color undertones and the most harmonious ones?
I agree, Anne. Color training in design school is often lacking. We were taught how to correct it in the paint can (which pigment to add to fix), but that is far more complicated than picking the correct undertones first, which I thought I missed, but even great Bev Hills designers don’t get it, trust me, I know. I think Maria has inspired the industry and retraining us old birds. The paint companies may make less many with less corrections. Who knows! “What are the most conflicting color undertones and the most harmonious ones?” Depends on the prevailing color in the room, does it not? One thing I learned from my design teacher a thousand years ago was, “there is no ugly color, just ugly pairings.” Wonder what Maria would say to your question.
Hi Maria I want to paint my living room walls to go with my new black leather sofa and chair, . Halfway down my walls there is a white pvc dado rail I have a white ceiling , coving , skirting board and doors, and a biscuity coloured plain carpet and a beige marble fireplace , My curtains have a bold gold pattern with on a black background. I dont know whether to have two tone walls or just have one colour what do you suggest?
Wondering if you can help me with my paint colors. I’m updating my house from Hunter green/burgundy. Trying to go more neutral this time around. The problem I am having is that I still have the oak cabinets that have a very orange tone to them. I had someone come in and help with paint and they suggested Lenox tan which to me has a very orange undertone to it. I also have a mural with pink/green(flowers etc.) in the dining room that can be seen from the main open concept living/kitchen area. Do you think the lenox tan will work or I am already thinking of just going with shaker beige which seems rather boring. My tiles are now brown toned with very dark hardwood and my short shag rug is called dried moss which has a hint of green to it but you only see that going up the stairs so it’s not in the main area. All my windows face north and I would like to warm up the space with whatever color I choose but I am so used to color that it’s very hard to go neutral/ brown now.
It’s very difficult for me to give you advice without seeing your space. If you have a mural with pink and green flowers it doesn’t sound like either of those colours will work. Maria
I just love white wall paint! Aside from giving your room a fresh and clean ambiance, it also looks so elegant. A neutral set of furniture is not bad for a white paint. You can simply add some brightly-hued pillows to the room for a splash of color. Awesome tips, by the way!
I’m confused about point #4, so perhaps I’m not understanding this correctly.
You stated the following:
“So if your sofas are a green gray or yellow beige and your carpet is pink beige, get an area rug that pulls your furniture into the scheme and paint your walls green gray or yellow beige.”
But then in point #4 you state that these are undertones (pink beige with Yellow or orange beige) that don’t work together because they will look dirty.
I guess the entire point of the area rug is to hide the pinky beige carpet and we are trying to essentially ignore it. Until it can be replaced. In other words, don’t emphasize it.
I think I just answered my own question.
If you have it, it’s possible to find a rug with both those colours. Not a perfect world but looks better than ignoring something that is not going.
So glad you asked and answered this, TOSAGAL! Helped me, too.
Thank you for such a great post. I continue to get so much use out of what I learned from your course and your awesome posts! Thanks for continuing to help educate us all!
How do you know what color to paint the walls if it’s all new, you’re not keeping your current sofas/chairs but haven’t picked out anything new yet (because you’re waiting to move into the house), hardwood throughout … but the painters are saying ‘hey lady, what color do you want in here?”
Then this post might help: https://mariakillam.com/4-best-colours-to-paint-a-rental/
Thanks for the reply. Looking for more color than that, just bought your ebook “How to Choose Paint Colors” and we’re thinking of going with a mix of soft blue/gray/greens with like undertones, perhaps some musliny colors as well. Hey, it’s just paint … if it’s wrong we can always repaint! Thanks again for the reply.
I bought your guide to undertones but would love to purchase a guide to Ben Moore paint undertones. They used to have paint indexes that showed the gradiation of paint colors from light to dark. Now it’s just an index of Historic Colors or Color Stories, etc. When the paint color you are looking at is very light, the undertones are difficult to see. Do you have such a guide? Thank you!!
No, I don’t work for Benjamin Moore, it’s up to them to come up with a system that works for their customers.
You can ask the paint person at the BM store what base colors are used in making the paint color(s) you are interested in. Ask them what the undertone is, they’ll know by what goes into making the color.
Also on their website they have the color gallery. Check to see if their historic (or whatever collection) colors are also carried within their entire color gallery, which is organized by gradation.
My carpeting is a dirty off white. The living room is very dark and now painted a dark gold, with an emerald/black needlepoint look fabric sofa. Lots of collected wood pieces throughout. To match the carpet gives the room a builder blah look. I am thinking of painting the ceiling a semi gloss white for added reflection. The ceiling now appears a dirty white which makes it darker. Any ideas for a color?