Colour is Context

Images from House Beautiful
The best explanation of context that I’ve ever heard was this one: Take a stick; in the forest, it actually is a stick, in mathematics however, it’s a 1, and in the alphabet, it’s an l.
Therefore, colour is all about context. That’s why you cannot call a colour cool or warm unless you are comparing it to another colour. Why? Because you can always find a warmer one and you can always find a cooler one, it just depends which way you are going on the colour wheel.

This blue is actually quite grayed on the chip, which is what it has to be because blue get’s very baby blue (remember colour goes up ‘twice as bright’ on the wall) otherwise. Whenever I have a client that wants a pale blue, I always have to show it in context. If I just pull out the blue I think is right, many times they will say – but that’s baby blue!

So then I show them what baby blue really is and that’s when they get that the one I’ve selected is the correct one.

Same goes for greens. If I just pull out a fresh green colour, they will say – “but that’s mint green!!” So then I show a mint green and compare that to the one I’m recommending, then they get it.

How about grays? There are a million of them, some that are warm and sophisticated, and some that are as cold as an icy winter’s day. So, if I am standing in a bathroom (for example) and looking at tiles that I can see have some warm taupy gray tones in it like this one:

I often get the “it’s too gray” response. Until I go to my gray deck and pull out a cold blue gray like this one:

Make sure you compare especially when you are choosing whites! Take the white you are considering and compare it with the whitest, white in the deck, OC-65 Chantilly Lace or Decorator White, or Ultra White. Now you can see what you are doing!

Related posts:

Clean vs. Dirty Colours
Three ways to describe Colour
The Difference Between an Experienced Colourist and a Novice
The best Trim colours – NOT Cloud White
Can White be a lonely Colour?

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  1. Context is indeed everything! I also feel like this is why I have more confidence selecting colour from a manufacturer with a huge paint deck (Benjamin Moore, for instance) – you can see the colour in relation to the vast family of colours around it, instead of viewing the colour in isolation, which is how I always feel when selecting a colour from a highly edited deck like Ralph Lauren’s. Interesting!

  2. Hill Country House Girl

    Maria, I agree with Brett – I use my Benjamin Moore decks a lot to show people the range of colors in one color family. Thanks for another great color lesson!

  3. Thanks for the interesting post. I often reread your older post as you share so much knowledge and information.
    I miss the Benjamin Moore paint store we once had in the area. When in doubt I like to paint a sample and live with it for a bit. It cost me a bit more to buy a sample or pint of paint yet it is well worth it in satisfaction.
    I think blues are the hardest to get right. I lived with a blue for many years that looked great on the paint chip but was too sweet for my tastes.

  4. Great post! You do such a good job illustrating your points with pictures and color samples. Thank you for all the thought you put into your posts, I learn from them all!


    Thanks for the lesson. I often lack confidence when selecting blues and greens. You’ve given me the a very useful tool.


    Great post! It’s always so interesting how context changes everything. You point out how important it is to compare what’s in hand with preconceived ideas on color. You’ve given us a great process to make better color choices.

  7. as always – great tips. I should have those true colors: baby blue, mint green, and gray gray bookmarked on my deck for reference.

  8. Under a Green Roof

    gah, context is so key! And a lesson that I often have to teach myself through errors 🙂 I am thankful for your blog, it teaches me great color lessons without painting my whole room!

  9. A wonderful teacher once told me, you need the low notes to appreciate the high notes and color is like that, like music, you need harmony, and balance in a room. I have always admired those that could be “Monochromatic” and then add one pop of color, gray with a pop of yellow – again it is all about context!

  10. I;m guilty of always saying – thats a cool color or thats a warm color!!! I learn so much from your blog!!!

  11. So true! This is why I give clients a swatch of colours that they can use as a comparison tool when shopping for clothes!

  12. Brillante Home Decor

    While reading your post, informative as always, I was thinking about white…and white you mentioned at the end. How true!
    You are a master of colour.

  13. Thank you, Maria! I love reading your posts. It’s just fun…even though I don’t do much with my house at this stage in my life, and I’m not a designer. I just love what you write, and I do love color. I’ve noticed some of what you’re talking about on the days I get to work at a local floral studio–how the colors change each other, sort of.

    My eyes are “hazel,” but when I wear purple eye-liner, they appear very green.

    xo, sallymandy

  14. There’s a shelter magazine in the USA that includes colour swatch suggestions in every monthly issue, and it has always seemed to me a great waste of words and printer’s ink. Context is never alluded to, and the hard cold truth that all colour is relative, well, that too is overlooked. This post and indeed all your posts address the issues in beautifully clear prose, for which, many many thanks. You do know your stuff.

  15. Great post. I have taupy tile in my bathroom. I realize that now. 🙁 I picked a grey that is not right. So frustrated. I don’t want to paint it TAUPE. Any recommendations.