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Advice for DesignersColour in FashionUnderstanding Undertones

Vancouver Colour Expert; The Difference between an Experienced Colourist and a Novice

By 08/16/2009March 24th, 202220 Comments

The difference between an experienced colourist and a novice is not that we can see the subtleties [of colour] without comparing; it’s that we know we can’t [see them without comparing].  Janice Lindsay

Clean or Dirty
Images courtesy of  Couture Carrie

I’ve made this point a couple different ways already, here and here.  But when I read this [above] paragraph in Janice Lindsay’s book last night I decided to dedicate yet another post to this conversation because it is so huge for anyone in the business of specifying colour or doing it yourself!

See the carpet above? It’s a gold/beige colour and [technically] it looks dirty compared to the fresh yellow of the dress. These two colours do not belong in the same room (unless that is your plan, every rule gets broken in design)  in the same house (unless the yellow in the room is a bunch of tulips).

What does this mean?  That you cannot call a colour clean or dirty, fresh or muted, bright or dull, unless you are comparing one colour to another.

Light or Dark

This image is about a lighter or darker comparison. Sometimes you can’t call a colour clean or dirty, warm or cool, its simply darker or lighter.

Cool or Warm

Both of these colours are exactly the same in intensity (neither one is darker or lighter), we can’t say one is cleaner or one is muddier than the other so here it’s simply that the purple dress is cooler than the hot pink sheets!

This image is here because I love pink and orange together!

So next time you find yourself saying “that’s a cold colour” or “that’s too dark” or “that colour looks dirty” take another look at the colours surrounding the one you are considering and ask yourself again if that statement is really true, or if it simply means you don’t have the colour in the right context!

You don’t want to sound like a novice do you?
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  • Kelee Katillac says:


    SOOO many rules….Maria I am glad you can keep us straight.

    Thanks for the tips!!!

  • jane says:

    This one makes GREAT sense! Sometimes we see things that just "don't agree" with us. Now we have you to let us know why!

    Another lesson filed away by the Colour Rookie!

    Thanks, Maria!

  • jane says:

    Oooops! Up there… it's jane from Thunder-Moon.

    Thanks! 🙂

  • lizawiza says:

    So would that rule work for lavender? My mom always insists that she hates lavender because it looks grey at night!

  • Libby Murphy says:

    Wouldn't it be sad to be color blind. Such an insightful post. That yellow dress is really twirling!
    Happy Twirls

  • Imogen Lamport says:

    Great post – as I tell my clients when I give them their colour swatch – that has a range of colours with similar colour properties (like muted and cooler, or deeper and brighter), that it's a COMPARISON tool.

  • Design Esquire says:

    Great post! Thanks for drilling this point home periodically, I can use the reminder every now and again. And as always, you always find the perfect images to reinforce your point.

  • Ann says:

    Enlightening … most of the time we just get lost in colors.

    THanks for such a wonderful post.

  • Between you, me and the Fencepost says:

    A novice I am . . . . until I use your colour 'lingo'.

  • Haven and Home says:

    Well said as always!

  • Couture Carrie says:

    Gorgeous and informative post, darling!
    And thanks for the shout-out!


  • Bethany says:

    SO true! I made this mistake in my own home – dirty couch – clean walls. I knew instantly what the trouble was thanks to your previous post about this. Now I am not sure which will be better fix new couch or new paint (probably new couch). You are the best!

  • jane says:


    Thanks so much for passing along your favorite blogs! You're right! They're terrific!

    ~jane from

  • Roberta says:

    I always learn something new looking at your blog Maria and am using the knowledge gained! Thanks!
    xo Roberta

  • Renae says:

    I love your little nuggets of wisdon! Well done friend.

  • DesignTies says:

    There's so much to learn about colour…. it's pretty overwhelming, but reading your posts helps me understand it all a bit better. Thanks 🙂


  • Anonymous says:

    love your posts, don't care for the skanky pictures.

  • Donna @ dh designs says:

    Thanks for the reminder from my Colour in Decor course. Context, context, context.

    Love your blog – and I love that you use pictures from all areas of life – not just home decor!

  • Rachel says:

    yup. yup. yup. I couldn't agree with you more!

  • Karena says:

    Great examples Maria!

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