Now that everyone is decorating with black, here’s what you need to know about the undertones of black and how to use black wisely in your home decor or on your home’s exterior.
I find it fascinating that I did not feel compelled to write a post about the undertones of brown. I’m even trying to remember if anyone even asked me about them during the brown trend.
Undertones in dark colours are more forgiving.
I rarely need to discuss the undertones of black and brown because they are so dark they don’t react with other colours as much as choosing the wrong mid-tone or light neutral undertones do.
But for the record, the undertones of brown are either red, green, purple or orange. However, most people don’t care about that right now because it’s black that everyone is interested in at the moment.
Let’s move onto black then shall we? Now that every single new house on the block is either pale creamy, white or black, it’s probably time to dissect this colour further.
The undertones in black are either blue, purple or green.
You can see the undertone shifts slightly better by directly overlapping the colours. Comparison is key.
Some good examples you can look at more closely if you have access to them are:
Blue Black: Farrow and Ball No. 85 Black Blue
Purple Black: Benjamin Moore Carbon Copy 2117-10
Green Black: Sherwin Williams 6994 Green Black
Or, of course just plain black without an undertone.
The blackest black is a pre-mixed black. You’ll find this in lacquers and stains already mixed at the paint store. Well, sort of.
The controversy over the blackest black.
You may have heard about the controversy surrounding artist Anish Kapoor’s claiming exclusive rights to the “blackest black”, Vantablack.
Kapoor has exclusive rights in the art world to this pigment which has created a backlash from other artists.
Vantablack by Anish Kapoor and Surrey Nanosystems
In any case, looking at the dots of the different undertones of black on a high contrast white screen, you can see that the shifts are very subtle. So subtle that you often don’t really need to worry about them in high contrast situations.
However, if you are trying to match a black, it’s good to be aware of these different possible undertones, and intensities, to help you get the best match.
In any case, blacks are fairly closed. They don’t let a lot of light escape and reflect back to your eye. In other words, they hold their cards very close, which makes them pretty forgiving to work with. And that is good to know, because the black trend is going strong for both interiors and exteriors.
Choosing Black – exteriors
In my opinion, as an all over colour, black works best on only the most modern of exteriors.
What about a black fence colour? Click here for my thoughts on that.
On more traditional exteriors, black accents can make a modern statement.
Designer Terry Ryan via House & Home
Most often, we’re seeing black windows and accents on white houses. But are black windows right for your home – click here to find out.
Without a doubt black and white are IT for current or really fresh looking interiors right now.
Decorating with black – interiors
For interiors, black done well is all glamour and elegance. Used as an accent in an airy bright space, it can be much more casual (much like black windows on a white exterior), but if you’re going all in, it needs to be almost theatrical and pushed to an edge.
Read more: How to decorate with black tile.
This is why the black kitchen is so challenging. Kitchens tend to be warm and casual gathering places. A black kitchen can feel like it should only be used to serve martinis.
Glamorous black kitchen by Trevor Ciona and Curtis Elmy
On the other hand, a black kitchen can feel simply elegant.
Or, a black kitchen can be a bit rustic and moody.
Kitchen by Designer Megan Pflug
It’s the details that make black millwork sing.
However, you’ll notice that the success of a black kitchen is in the designer details. Magazine worthy kitchens are not easily copied.
Painting a typical kitchen black can easily feel heavy and dumpy, just like a the dark espresso wood-stained kitchens of the Tuscan trend did. And we’re all so familiar with that, right? So, I don’t recommend it unless there is a fabulous designer on the job. This is not to be elitist, but it really is a next level kind of look that needs careful consideration.
It’s also worth pointing out that glamorous dark kitchens are very pretty to look at in a photo, but I suspect they would be a bit difficult to live with in the long run. Black tends to show every spec of dust.
And yet this black trend can be found everywhere. Even casual spaces like laundry rooms are getting the glamour treatment during the black trend.
Designer Steven Gambrel featured in Elle Decor
Bathrooms are going glam in black too. Look at this black soaker tub lined in brass below.
All black decor is a big commitment.
For most of us, the best places to indulge in the black trend is in dining rooms and bedrooms. These tend to be smaller spaces where you can create a dramatic effect with paint, without committing to all those expensive black fixed elements that are hard to change out when suddenly you’re over it.
Speaking of black fixed elements though, I do think a black marble fireplace mantel (or a black surround) is absolutely classic. It needs to be repeated in the room, but a little is more than enough.
Designer Nicole Hollis in Luxe
Something to notice as you scroll through all these beautiful images is that it would be very difficult to pinpoint the undertone of the blacks in these rooms. And when you’re shopping for a black chair to work with this black marble fireplace, it’s really not going to be necessary to worry about whether the black has the right undertone to work with the marble in most cases.
When will we see the return of the dreaded black leather sofa?
I am taking bets for when we start to see the black leather sofa begin to crop up everywhere again. Simply picking a large piece of upholstery in heavy overbearing black and then trying to build a room around it is not going to work well most of the time.
Ask Maria: Should I buy a black sofa?
Actress Julianne Moore has a black sofa below. I’m not sure the black wing chair in the foreground was the perfect choice, but she and her designers made good use of black sprinkled throughout her pretty home.
Julianne Moore’s home in Architectural Digest
The best way to indulge in the black trend.
Here’s a couple of rooms that make smart use of black. They achieve all the drama with less commitment.
Paint is an easy way to indulge in black. Go ahead and paint the walls of your master bedroom or dining room a velvety matte black, and repeat it like he’s done with the chairs here. Add a bit of glam brass, and voila!
Check out this black bedroom reveal by my Senior Colour Designer.
Here is a cozy master bedroom with a coat of black paint contrasted by lots of white bedding and warmed up with pretty wood tones and antique frames.
If you scroll back through all the images in this post, you will notice that the most important thing to do to make black really sing is to add warmth. The best way to do that is with warm wood tones and brass.
Here is an elegant example below:
Brian Atwood in Architectural Digest
Over to you my lovelies, where are you adding black to your decor?
If you need help choosing the right black for your interior or exterior, check out our eDesign services here.
Also, we have been backordered on my large colour boards for months but I have GOOD NEWS, we finally have them all BACK IN STOCK! Shop all the collections here.
PS. I arrived in Finland last Thursday and spent the past weekend in Helsinki. Tomorrow my Mom and I start our two week tour of visiting friends and relatives, most of whom I have never seen!
My Mom (Hellen) and Maria
Here I am (below) standing beside the fountain in Helsinki called Havis Amanda.
It was constructed in Paris and installed here in 1908. Today it is recognized as one of the most important and beloved pieces of art in Helsinki.
I love that the Finnish flag is waving perfectly in this photo!
Do I look like a Fin? When I got on the plane in Amsterdam there were a lot of women with thin blonde hair just like mine and I felt right at home, haha.
I’ve also done one of those genetic testing kits and my report says I’m 99% Finnish.
Our dear friends of the family, Paivi (below right) and her sweet daughter Emma (below left) toured us all over Helsinki this weekend. My cousin Elara (who lives in Vernon and owns this Yoga Studio) was with us too!
Emma and Paivi
Finland is NOT experiencing the Saharan heat wave the rest of Europe is, but we’re watching the news and if you’re there, I sure hope you’re okay! That kind of heat in countries without air is so scary!!
Stay tuned for more pics and if you’re interested you can follow along on my Instagram stories here.
Thanks for the info on black undertones. I’m in the process of trying to repair a nick on my black table top. Good to know there are three black undertones I need to be aware of. As always I loved your article.
There’s an apartment building close to my sister’s nursing home that they painted gray black and white, and when I went there with a landscape designer friend of mine, I told her I would hate to live in one of the apartments where the black was being beaten by the heat of the sun all day. Plus, the grey undertone and the black undertone don’t look Fab together. Both she and I saw it and commented on it, me many months before.
The other thing about black inside is the Perpetual dusting.
I have a black sofa in leather, that when I consulted with Maria, she wanted me to get rid of it, but I love it, it is not the ugly shape of many black sofas of yore, and I will layer I throw over it to change up the color as the seasons change. (I didn’t like the Tuscan trend and did not love the brown. But I did a lot of homes in that color scheme…)
I’m envious of your trip to Finland, especially now that I discovered my ancestors came from there.
Never did I consider that black had an undertone, so this was very interesting. I am not a fan of a lot of black but used sparingly, it can create a little drama perhaps.
Maria —- glad your enjoying your trip
And getting to spend time with your mom and see family …
Wow some of the pictures you shared are pretty ..
I’m not that brave but enjoyed the blog and the pictures …
I had black garage doors and that lasted for about two months .
Had them matte black always looked dirty …
I was calling painter …
Lol I should say begging painter to paint …
Outside just didn’t work for me …’
“… important to warm up black with wood and brass …” Right on. But, I also see a lot of big windows and mirrors. I think I would need a lighting designer to pull this off. : ) And, getting the edge right between a black wall and white ceiling. Eek! Every mistake would be so misgiving. Recently went to the Hotel Californian in Santa Barbara, CA by Michael Laurence Bullard. Awesome use of black and white. It needs a sign, ” Do not try this at home.” Ha. Ha.
Ha, yes, you do have the Finnish look about you!
I think black is very difficult to get right, too little and it sticks out like a sore thumb, too much and it becomes glum. Black kitchens are all the rage in Norway atm too.
You say black works best on modern houses. How modern are we talking?
I’m not saying it cannot work on a traditional house, my advice is for the person who has no idea and would probably do it wrong without ANY guidelines. Obviously if someone has a lot of taste and style (as I mentioned about black kitchens etc) then it works but it doesn’t mean it works for every house. There are a lot of houses that look really bad painted black because it hasn’t been done right. Generally 70’s homes have a more modern look so it works. Here in Finland I have driven past house after house that is completely modern in black, in fact I have never seen so many modern homes stacked up in a neighbourhood and they all look like a typical square house. Obviously the Finnish Scandinavian look is alive and well here 🙂 Maria
Looks like you are having a fabulous vacation! The white fireplace surround in our living room looked really bland so we painted it black, added a zebra chair, some black toss cushions and a few other accents and the room has now come alive. Only problem with black though is that it needs constant dusting : (
I have to disagree that black is more suited to modern houses. The first traditional house I saw in black, was in 2015 on The Gardener’s Cottage blog, and it looked fantastic. If you look for images of black cottages, you’ll get all kinds of traditional houses painted in black. The secret is that the trim is all white.
If you think about it, it’s not all that different from the traditional dark brown Shingle Style with white or cream trim.
Finland looks wonderful. Enjoy it!
I loved the way The Gardeners Cottage turned out when it was painted black! She has wonderful taste.
Me too! It was a real revelation to black paint used successfully on an exterior. And the white trim just sends it.
TYPO: to SEE black paint used successfully . . .
Painted my kitchen, family room and laundry room cabinets and I love it! Wish I had done it years ago, it’s such a classic look.
I’ve always loved black. Years ago I had some black furniture pieces. But they were a pain to keep dust-free.
I’ve had a bathroom painted black for a while. That was fun.
Black homes are my favorite. The landscaping around them just pops.
And I agree with Lorri. I don’t think a house has to be modern to pull off black. I saw a picture recently of an old Victorian painted black that was stunning.
I’m glad you’re having a good time in Finland. Keep those pictures coming on IG!
I saw a long black tuxedo sofa today!
I’m wondering if black, in addition to white, cream, and blue, might be a good accent choice when decorating around pink beige? I noticed a local gift store that specializes in tribal/global design. One wall is made of a white washed brick that still shows much of the reddish-pink color. The store is decorated with lots of wood, baskets, plants, brass, and black.
While Anish Kapoor might currently own the rights to Vantablack for artistic use, that photo from Hyperallergic of his Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago painted Vantablack is an April Fool’s joke; it was never painted black. Check the link: the date is April 1, 2016, the heading states that it’s satire, & the tags at the bottom say April Fools & LOL!
The accompanying article was likewise written in jest with tongue-in-cheek lines including the one that you quote about Vantablack neutralizing radiation, another about the sculpture, famously nicknamed The Bean, now being called The Black Bean, & a fake quote by Kapoor stating that he wanted his work to reflect that the world has become a darker place–hahaha!
You might prefer to show a photo & link from a different (& serious) Hyperallergic article: the one from Feb 29, 2016 by Clair Voon with the title “Anish Kapoor Gets Exclusive Rights to the World’s Darkest Material.”
Thanks for the laugh! Wishing you well in your travels!
Glad you are having a nice vacation. Safe travels!
Maria, very interesting article or blog on black. However, I am not a fan. Only black in small doses. I have always hated black appliances. My go to is white and always will be. Nothing compares in my humble opinion. Black looks great with white but just a smidgen here and there. I like the airy wide open look that white does and black does not. I do like the black windows on the white house. Very swoof! (not sure that is a word) Black houses are horrible! And what others have mentioned here is the constant dusting needed for anything black. I have two bedrooms in hardwood with a beautiful fairly dark brown stain and they look dusty and dirty all the time. As always I enjoy your expertise on any color subject. I always learn something! Thank you for all the photos to help illustrate things.
Black is a wonderful accent, and I have it in every room of my house, but as the main event it is heavy and depressing. Although the designer rooms you show are beautiful, I couldn’t live in one of them for a single day.
Have a marvelous time in Finland!
My first thoughts on undertone were blue and green…. ode to gray. Just today I liked a black half bath on my instagram feed and no surprise as I like drama in that space and it is probably not used much. Black kitchen absolutely not… i’ve had black appliances before and they were high maintenance. Worse than stainless… lint, dust, you can see water-spots and fingerprints and my recent viewing of kitchen displays confirm it. I dislike dark exteriors (last house was forest green at first not by me) and this new to me home is a painted over cedar .. in brown. Can be too hot in our Chicago summers and the winter is overcast for months. Black furniture can be replaced and on tables it is kid friendly! Paint … well paint over it with a luscious deeper blue toward the green side ? .
For the longest time since you opened my eyes to undertones I have wondered if black or brown also has undertones. Now I know thanks to your post! I like to look at the pictures that you have posted of black rooms but they look too morbid to me. Recently I did spec black doors for a client and they look elegant. I like black in moderation because it always looks classy. Good post!
Have a wonderful time with your newly found family and travels. I will keep following you on IG!
The first time I ever saw black used inside was decades ago in a ski condo, in a master bedroom. With black walls, black printed fabric, white trim, it was such a cozy room and such a rest for the eye against the deep white snow drifts piled outside. it was a restful room and so perfect for the environment.
Black used smartly can be so stunning. I think a whole house of black and white might be a bit stark to live with, and the craze will pass just like all the others, but it is classic.
thanks for sharing the undertones and great helpful article as usual. 🙂
What are your thoughts on “tuxedo kitchens” or kitchens with a darker color on the bottom and white or off white uppers?
No black trend here in quaint Cape Cod. As far as I can see there won’t be much black for a while.
When we moved into our home 5 years ago, the previous owners had painted all of the exterior doors– 3 sets of French doors, a extra tall entrance door and side door–black with white trim.
It was the most complimented aspect of our house. Then we remodel the kitchen with white cabinets and Copacobana granite (almost all black and white grain) and gray walls. It is stunning and echos the doors we love. Now that black is in vogue every one thinks we chose to paint the doors with our remodel. We have to remind them that the doors have been black (and fab) for decades. We painted the entry way surrounding wall black as well. It’s dramatic and beautiful, but I love it more than my husband. And to Maria’s point, it will be easy enough to repaint this area of wall when we want. But our doors will always be black. 🙂
What do you think of having a chocolate brown sofa with black accents scattered throughout the house.
Hi, what about a black dining room with dark brown almost cherry frames in the middle of the wall? Also same color doors? Would it be bad? My landlord allows me to paint the walls but not to touch the wood 🙁
Sounds like it would be too dark yes! Maria
I do love black in a room! My favorite way to use it is as a lacquer on wood furniture – at least 10 coats on top of multiple coats of a deep cinnabar red and gold and hand-rubbed to expose parts of those lower layers. Absolutely nothing compares. It is absolutely spectacular on dining chairs with gilded elements, and dining tables, particularly on the bases and skirts with a lighter color like marble top.
Accent pieces are great, too, from Chinoiserie to English tole to Japanese-inspired Aesthetic Period (or just Japanese).
I am also hopelessly in love with old-fashioned black and white checkerboard floors, ideally in marble. It is such a classic, and goes with just about anything. I’m renting at the moment, and one of the things that sold me on this apartment was the huge entry hall with my beloved black and white floor, although unfortunately in some kind of vinyl, so I obviously can’t change it. It does have a reasonably nice sheen to it though.
I can tell you that black bathroom fixtures are an absolute *nightmare* in black, though. They look glamorous for about 5 seconds, and then they turn completely revolting. If you think that every other part of the house attracting and showing dust looks bad, try soap scum in a black tub or sink, and, uh, what happens to toilets, especially if more than one person is using the room. I was so completely grossed out by the black bathroom in a ski house I was once in (Donna Summers’s house in Tahoe, actually!). Just. Say. No.
Beautiful master bedroom before and after!
Thank you for your post, Maria, and congratulations on your 12 year blogiversary!! I’ve known about you for only a few years, and continue to learn. I agree that black is tricky; a bit can add punch and elegance, but too much can look flat and suck out the life in a space!
l love reading your posts because I learn so much. thank you.
Maria, your advice about the right way to use black has been invaluable! I have owned a black sofa for a number of years, and couldn’t quite figure out why my living room was falling short of my expectations. With your recommendation to add some warm wood tones and other tweaks, I now have a room I love. Thanks so very much.
A very helpful post! I read your posts religiously and think you’re really smart about design. I hope to take a color seminar when you start having them again, but wish you would come to Los Angeles! Thank you for all your information and fun posts!
Never knew black had undertones!!! Mind blown…love your tips as always!
A very helpful post!
Using black outside, on walls and roofs, in Australia, is the height of stupidity. In summer, your house turns into an oven and you have to use your A/C on max setting, just to cool the house a little bit!