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Understanding Undertones

Ask Maria: How do I Work with Taupe & Blue Gray?

By 11/24/2013July 25th, 201861 Comments



I’ve been following your blog very closely and I recall your very informative post about how white will never come to life in a dark room.  So although I LOVE white, I decided to choose a wall colour (BM Ranchwood) to blend in my fireplace and sofa instead of going white which is my instinct.  But, now I’m having a hard time “lightening up”  the room.  It seems very dull and dark. I recently spent $$$$ on a custom Ripplefold window treatment hoping to bring life, movement, and texture into the room, but because it has a blackout liner, the room seems even darker!  I even have 2 skylights in the cathedral ceiling.
I really hope you pick my question for your blog since I think it answers a common question of “If I love white, dislike bright colours, but I can’t use white, then what?” Jane W.
Ask Maria
Hi Jane,
First, to answer your question about light colours in dark rooms, it’s true that white in a dark room will most likely appear gray and dingy but this doesn’t mean you need to go directly to a much darker shade.
Having said that, it looks like choosing the Taupe shade was still a good choice because it relates to your fireplace brick which isn’t changing and also you chose drapery fabric to coordinate.
Since you clearly have two bright accent colours in this room, the yellow coffee table and the green toss cushion, it’s not clear to me that you dislike bright colours, however the bigger issue now is that your walls are taupe and your sofa has a blue gray undertone.
Since your room is now taupe, this is one situation where even two undertones is too many. My first recommendation would be to eliminate your sofa but I’m going to assume it’s staying.
Ask Maria
So here’s the issue. We have taupe walls and a blue gray sofa. While you can find a rug that is taupe or blue, it’s much harder to find something with both undertones present.
area rug
Here’s the taupe colour with a taupe and yellow area rug. However, if we bought this rug, it would not look good with the blue gray sofa.
Ask Maria
Here’s a rug with blue gray and green, great with the sofa, but it would again look wrong with the walls.
The only way to marry them both is to find a rug with just a small amount of gray without a strong distinguishable undertone so it works with both the sofa and the walls.
Ask Maria
Here’s one way to pull the room together using bright yellow and orange accents with a hit of black. I like where you’re going with the black and white print above your fireplace, I’d create a wall with similar artwork above the sofa (below). This will also bring more white into the room to freshen it up.
Ask Maria
And you could switch out the yellow and orange with green and turquoise or if you really don’t like bright colours, find a black, white and gray rug using the same guidelines as I mentioned above, however then I would find a way to repeat the blue gray of your sofa in your prints above the sofa for example.
Hope this helps bring your living room to life!
If you have a question for an Ask Maria post, email me here.
Related posts:
6 Ways to Choose the Perfect Neutral Paint Colour
How I Created my System of Understanding Undertones

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  • Kathy says:

    How does the blue floor tile in front of the fireplace fit into the color scheme? Or is it something you just ignore?

    • Maria Killam says:

      It doesn’t bother me, yes I would ignore it, given everything else that cannot be ignored. And as someone else mentioned, it certainly could be painted given it is greener than the sofa.

  • Great question! I like your idea of bringing in a rug with just a little bit of gray in it.

  • Keira says:

    I like hearings the process, Maria.

    What about reprinting the walls away from taupe? Would a gray work?

    • Maria Killam says:

      The drapes are taupe (unless the picture is not accurate) which is why I did not suggest a new colour.

    • janet says:

      I think you’re absolutely right. Repainting the wall is the only way to go (and the least expensive.) I’m visualizing a very light grey to go with the drapes & fireplace or a light blue to blend with the sofa. Greys & blues look great together. Any way, if the colors are accurate I’m not seeing any taupe in this room at all. At any rate, that paint is the problem.
      Another note: I never have closed drapes in a house during the day. I’m sure the room brightens up with them open.

  • Megan says:

    paint the brick.

  • Cathy Z says:

    Great post Maria.
    The biggest “aha” for me was the idea of bringing more white into the room by using a gallery of wide white mats in the artwork – so simple but brilliant. Tucking that nugget away into my designer bag of tricks 🙂

    To my eye it appears that the fireplace does indeed have a bit of blue in it, even if it’s just the shadows from the bricks?? And I too am curious about the answer to the blue floor tile. If you now have a fixed blue element and a fixed taupe element then the area rug with both should be the perfect way to bring the room together.

    Would be great to see the room with the curtains open, maybe the homeowner could post a photo in the comments section.

  • Kristi says:

    Such a helpful post. Learning more every time I read your blog. Thank you!

  • franki says:

    Hmmmm….is there a lesson here….ask Maria first…franki

  • Mary says:

    I think a white slipcover would make the blue-grey of the sofa disappear. It would add more white to the room & it’s cheaper than a new sofa.

  • PRyan says:

    I painted our powder room a “bright” yellow-green about 3ish years ago and have hated it since, the undertone in the tile was warm and the paint was very cool…never knew why it bothered me so much until I understood about the undertones (thanks to your class/blog and paint samples) I finally talked my husband into painting it a warm turquoise blue. I LOVE IT!!! It’s a “darker” color-the green was bright on the chip…but the blue makes the room look brighter because it’s the right undertone. THANKS Maria

  • Karen Hanretty says:

    If the hearth tile is blue, as another commenter mentioned, consider painting it black. I recently painted an ugly blue/green tile surrounding my fireplace and hearth with Rustoleum Satin in a matte black. It took only one coat, about 90 minutes, and completely changed the look of the room. I also painted the light maple mantel with the same paint. Black looks good with everything and brings a degree of sophistication.

    • Patricia Benn says:

      Karen, I just moved into this early 90’s house and I think I have the same maple mantel, and like you I’m not happy with the tiling surrounding my fireplace and hearth (mine has a horrible pink undertone). Because I have some black pieces in that room, I’ve been toying with painting the tiles and mantel black. I was happy to read your post and I’m excited to get started. Thank you!

  • Rochelle says:

    This is such a helpful post. I’ve been following Maria’s work for a year now, but seeing yet another very clear example of how the undertones make or break the room just reinforces the strength of her counsel. She helped me with color for my home, including some very tough rooms.

  • SandyCGC says:

    I agree with Mary – a white slipcover would be the quickest and cheapest solution. Then Jane would have a bigger dose of the white she loves and it would be easier and fun to choose a rug and pillows with pops of color to tie everything together. Love all the rugs and pillows you chose and particularly love the art wall.

    • Maria Killam says:

      A lot of people don’t know that getting a custom slipcover made for a sofa is the same price as re-upholstering or getting a new sofa. Once you buy the fabric and pay for the labour, the price is the same. Unless the sofa was expensive and good quality to begin with.
      I didn’t design the room suggesting the sofa be a different colour because these kinds of dilemmas are common with different undertones that need to be coordinated.

      • Jane W. says:

        I would love to have a white sofa, but I have 2 young kids (3 & 5) and a dog..and a husband, so it would have to be something that hides dirt. Also, I had white slipcovered dining chairs at one point, but I switched out to gray because my guests were uncomfortable sitting on them. They kept worrying that they’ll make them dirty. I think I would have the same issue with a white sofa.

  • Diane says:

    Despite the wood floors…it seems that the fireplace should be painted. (Maybe even paint out the blue tile!) Definitely lose the yelliw and green.
    it will work out, eventually, because you are getting great advice and putting so much thought into it!

  • Deborah McKenzie says:

    What a great solution. Maria you are amazing. I too have followed your blog for years and taking on these very real examples with photos is so helpful.
    I think painting the brass fireplace enclosure would be helpful if you decide to add black accents.
    I really love the idea of adding lightness with more art in black and white with drops of your bright accent colors.

  • Victoria says:

    Love how you always know how to help resolve these color issues, Maria. Brilliant!

  • Jill McDougall says:

    Love seeing this step by step process with photos! Great post. 🙂

  • Teresa says:

    Can you post an after when she’s finished, please? EXCELLENT post Maria. Thank you!

  • Judy says:

    Thank you for the very helpful post. I feel like the fireplace and mantel are done but the area above the sofa looks lost. Therefore, your idea of pictures to bring in the color desired will look great. How about some live green- a plant with just leaves or an orchid if you want to go for a dressier look?

  • June says:

    Hmmm. What NOT paint that wall behind the sofa white? With a window and skylight, the room shouldn’t be all that dark, right??

    • Jane says:

      I would LOVE to paint that entire room white – do you guys think it will work with the fireplace?
      I guess you’re right it does get light, but the window is in the NE side of the home and I have a large 50 y/o linden tree behind my house, so it doesn’t get much light in that sense..what is the rule here?

      What are your thoughts?

      • Maria Killam says:

        Because the drapes and the fireplace are almost solid taupe, the walls cannot suddenly be white. Also you do need to repeat lots of white in the room to pull it off.
        The only way to get more white in this room is to paint the fireplace. Then it splits up the taupe (which does work with the fireplace by the way) and would look balanced. Maria

        • Jane W. says:

          HMMMM……..I can paint the fireplace…… 🙂 but then I’d have to kick myself for having taupey walls and ugh..expensive taupey drapes. Believe me I’m really wishing I contacted you first Maria. I guess with all the waterproofing and roof fixes, I didn’t dare add more cost, so of course against better judgement and many warnings in your many posts (which I’ve read) I went with the advise from the windows treatment designer. Ugh. She definitely chose the right shade of fabric, but I guess she didn’t want to recommend re-painting the walls and firepace when really that would have been better.

  • Carol says:

    I think she should switch the drapes out for white ones
    cause they would reflect the light and balance the
    other wall above the sofa with white matted pictures
    like Maria suggested. Or something white on the wall.
    She could sell the drapes on Craigslist if it was too
    late to return them. The Sofa matches the tile
    so well I think it should be left alone. Just my thoughts.

  • Carol says:

    Oh white candles in silver sconces above the sofa with
    white drapes on the other side …….and open the drapes.
    And she could light the candles at nite….that would be
    so beautiful or get those candles that have the battery
    lights in them.

  • D.Gibbs says:

    Those drapes were very costly….she has to work w them!

  • Pascale says:

    Great Post & even greater ideas! I was just wondering what lighting color should be used with all this blend to make it more appealing to Jane?

  • Janet says:

    Thanks for sharing your thought process, Maria.

    Would you also suggest moving the gray-blue sofa away from the taupe wall?

    Would you keep the brass toned fireplace surround as is?

    I notice the room is decorated for Christmas. I’ve found that when I’m not happy with a room in my house, putting Christmas colors of green and red can make the room feel even worse. Perhaps this was part of the problem that Jane had with the current look of the room. Keeping the draperies open while she’s home could really help, and as you always say, adding more lighting (even during the day) can make all the difference, right?

    Love your blog!!!

    • Jane W. says:

      Janet, you’re right about that. After this post I removed the garland and the stuff birds, and it felt much better.

      • Maria Killam says:

        I liked your garland! It’s Christmas, nothing wrong with garland.

      • Janet says:

        I’m afraid I was projecting my own experience and not considering that this post is about YOU and not me! I totally agree with Maria’s comment. The Christmas decorations should stay. 🙂 Kudos to you, you’re way ahead of most of us with the decorating! Merry Christmas!

  • Janet says:

    Just had anidea, how about putting the sofa opposite the diagonal fireplace, or the large draped window and putting a light colored throw over the sofa back/or arm for a brighter look? Maria, I’m sure I learned that trick from you. :`)

  • BillP says:

    I don’t see a lamp in the photo. I think that Jane needs to pay Maria for a consultation- I’d love to see before and after pics.

    • Jane W. says:

      I do have a lamp behind the chrismas tree, but I’m considering putting up “stick on” sconces behind the couch. If anyone is interested and Maria would like to post them, I can send more pics of the room from different angles.

      I would LOVE to hire Maria! Her suggestions are marvelous. I didn’t even know the sofa was the issue. We recently had foundation waterproofing and our roof done, so it will have to wait, but believe me, first chance I get I’ll be asking for a consultation as a present from my hubby 🙂

  • Kim says:

    Maria, this is exactly what I love to see! An expert like you showing us a step by step process of ‘fixing’ the palette of a room and why.
    I think the blue tile should stay, it’s a beautiful and unique accent, and I like that it’s one beat off. Adding more layers of artificial lighting should help take care of the ‘dark’ problem along with maybe re- painting one or two of the walls in a slightly lighter version of the same taupe color. This would also add a little shadowy interest. I also love the change of accent colors you offered Maria. I enjoy your blog, thank you!

  • Wendy says:

    The rug will change EVERYTHING if chosen properly. The one Maria recommends will brighten the entire space and do all the heavy lifting RE: color. It also validates the modern tone.

    Yes, paint out the blue tile…black would be hip. Matte finish. Two coats.

    The whole problem would be eliminated if the homeowner had painted the walls the same color as the FP bricks but most people can’t get past the idea it would be “boring.” No, it would be beautiful and soothing.

    I spend most of my time as a designer trying to convince people to create neutral shells and then let the furnishings and art shine (except for Powder Rooms and Dining Rooms where I say “Have at it!”)

    • Jane W. says:

      LOL! I thought I DID paint it the same colour as the FP bricks (BM Rachwood)! Looks like I have a lot to learn about colour undertones.

  • Lorrie says:

    My first thought, like “Janet,” was to move the couch. This would separate the wall color and sofa color from fighting each other. Maybe put a throw on the sofa that has the wall color AND your room accent color. This shift would also break up the visual weight that corner seems have with the “look at me” graphic curtains, “focal point” fireplace, “unique” art work and sofa all situated next to each other. I have found that by placing the sofa toward the focal point/fireplace always results in a more pleasing room arrangement.

    • Jane W. says:

      I absolutely agree about moving the sofa. When I first moved in I tried moving the sofa around to avoid putting it right against the wall, but unfortunately it’s a big corner one that I had from my previous home. I would definitely get a smaller sofa when I replace it once the budget allows.

      • BillP says:

        Jane, you are a really good sport about this. It must be hard to get so many differing opinions. I like the colors, the draperies and the brick. I would consider paining out the brass on the fireplace surround and style the mantle after Christmas. I would move the artwork over the sofa- it is a big piece and would help to balance the smallish sofa. I would also consider repainting the coffee table, and add more lamps- you mention a floor lamp but also consider a few table lamps- just make sure that the top of each shade is at about the same height and there will be some continuity. Get a few new pillow covers. Are there chairs? Maybe pull them into the seating arrangement. Thank you again for sharing your room with us.

  • Connie says:

    I also think more (better) lighting is a must in this room. It seems that is the last thing we think of….needs to be more of a priority.

  • joanne says:

    Maria, I love the PowerPoint presentation! It’s what I would love to have. I remember the one you did for your sister and I liked the idea of it. I think Jane should follow your suggestions one step-at-a-time until she feels comfortable in the room, she’ll know when it feels right for her. Maybe first the white matted artwork, then a lamp, next some pillows, etc.. Doing changes as she can afford. Is the coffee table paintable? Jane, I like your room and with the suggestions Maria’s gave you, I’m sure you’ll be happy.

  • Mapleleafgirl says:

    That is not a coffee table. It is an Ikea Mammut children’s table. Probably not worth decorating around. Love the advice Maria, keep it coming! I am learning so much from you.

    • Jane W. says:

      You’re right! I have two small kids so I plopped that table there when we moved in as a place holder. I’ll be getting a grown up table once I recover from the expense of the drapes! Since this post, I’ve substituted the table with two black leather ottomans I had in the house to make a square coffee table. I’ll live with it for a bit to see how it goes.

  • Hi Jane,
    I think that if you just move the painting from above the fireplace to the wall it will actually balance the colors and brightened that taupe wall and hang some different above the fireplace. And just a rug that carries some of those undertones and a hint of white will be nice. The room is nice already just some brightness would be good. Maybe a plant near the fireplace so it make sense with the green pillow, I would’n paint the tile since it’s almost like the sofa so it looks good to me, but I am not a professional I just love decorating.

  • Wengue says:

    Throw in the towel. You will tweak to death but you are never going to fall in love with your room till you paint it all white as your heart dictates…. fireplace, brick surround, walls. Even Maria, after her very good mood board suggestions (which BTW looks great because it is all against a white background…) shows a mostly white room! Paint is not that expensive…roll up your sleeves. Cut your losses and start anew. Good luck.

  • Pepper says:

    Maria, your thoughts on wood look porcelain tile? Building a new home in florida, I really love hardwood but it will not be practical here by the ocean. Do you think it will be out of favor quickly? The tile that is, I have ruled out laminate as I had it installed in my kitchen in my last house was ruined by a water leak only 2 months after installation. Thanks for your help.

  • Marissa says:


    You talk about muted colors looking dirty/dingy next to bright colors, can gray (like taupey/beigey grays) also look dirty/dingy?

    • Maria Killam says:

      Taupes look dirty with clean colours, grays are crisp which is why they work with bright colours. Stick to lighter shades of green or blue grays and they will look great. Even the darker grays start looking dirty with some colours.

  • Jocelyn Wittig says:

    Oh thank you! I’ve just discovered this site and it is the most helpful on the internet! FINALLY, I am understanding why I am happy with some rooms in my home and struggling blindly to get it right in others to no avail! Thank you. Going to buy kitchen paint again for the 5th time in 3 years and this time I know I’ll get it right!

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