Ask Maria: When is White Dirty?

Ask Maria

Now that white is the hottest thing smoking, I’m receiving lots of questions from readers who are worried about choosing the wrong white.

So here are four ways to know in advance when your white will look dirty:

1. You have a dark room.

Ask Maria: When is White Dirty?

Walk into any dark room and look up at the white ceiling. See how dingy and dirty it looks?  The same thing will happen if you paint a dark room white.

2. Instead of choosing the right white for your woodwork, you take the wall colour and go a few shades lighter.

This is a common mistake and one I made in the very beginning of my design career. The reason why trim colours are basically WHITE is for this very reason. You need contrast. A few shades lighter just equals dirty looking trim.

3. You have a room decorated in crisp greys, blacks, clean colours and whites and your woodwork is still cream.

Ask Maria: When is White Dirty?

A client once asked if she could install a large white and turquoise sectional in her living room. All her woodwork and the mantle around her fireplace was  painted cream and she had no plans to change it given it was the colour of her kitchen cabinets as well. I told her it would look like she had just moved in and had not painted yet.

4. Your room is white but there is no white furniture anywhere in sight.

Ask Maria: When is White Dirty?

White walls are the same as white carpet. Not neutral at all and you need to treat them like you’ve just painted your walls red. How odd would it look if your walls were red but there was nothing red repeated in the room?

Where does white look dirty in your house?

Related posts:

White is a Snob

Can you have White Kitchen Cabinets in a Dark Room?

Is White Worth the Extra Maintenance? Yay or Nay

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, become a client. On-line or In-person.

If you would like to be able to choose the perfect white every time, download my eBook White is Complicated, A Decorator’s Guide to Choosing the Right White.

Download my eBook, How to Choose Paint Colours – It’s All in the Undertones to get my complete step-by-step system on how to get colour to do what you want.

To make sure the undertones in your home are right, get some large samples!

If you would like to learn how to choose colour with confidence, become a True Colour Expert. 

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  1. Yes, yes, yes to #2! It’s taken me a year to paint all the blue baseboards owner #1 decided to choose twenty years ago. There was a reason we bought this home as a foreclosure. I’m boring and know it because I think woodwork should always be white, but I admit to feeling passionate about that after having had to prime and apply 2-3 coats of BM Simply White to hundreds and hundreds of feet of country blue woodwork.

  2. I am struggling with this right now. My cabinets are a slightly more yellow white than my trim. Most of the time it’s not noticeable but in my kitchen the pantry is surrounded by the cabinets and the trim and door are off. I considered painting just that door and trim since I dont want to do the whole house. I think it makes my cabinets look dingy.

  3. My basement family room was white until a few years ago when I painted it a very light blue. It looked darker and dirtier white than it does blue. Upstairs, that blue chip looked almost white, but in a room with little natural light, it is just the right amount of colour.

  4. In the fourth photo, is the furniture considered white, cream, or yellowish? It looks cram to me and the walls look white? Where white and off-white look good together and off-white and cream are supposed to look pay together, does this room jive or not? It’s hard to tell?

  5. Good timing as I am about to paint my ceiling and crown moulding in my open space kitchen/living room. Saw Maria’s blog a while back where she painted a ceiling Cloverdale 7388 (very pale blue) and loved that look. I have maple kitchen cabinets and maple trim with white crown moulding. Thinking of painting ceiling and moulding same colour (walls are blue/green/grey).
    Do you think that’s enough contrast? I personally think that the colours should blend beautifully:)
    Would welcome comments.

  6. So what do you do about the ceiling in a circumstance like #1. If the rest of the room has white predominantly, can you use a particular white for the ceiling or where would you go for color in that case? Thanks

  7. Best tip: paint whatever color white you choose this way: walls in an eggshell and the trim in a semi-gloss (or high gloss if your baseboards and/or crown molding is really spectacular). I did that at my beach house (BM – Dove White) and at home where i went with Linen White. Two very different colors. In both cases, it looks amazing. Painted ceilings same eggshell as the walls. Makes ceilings higher, rooms look larger, and beauty of the color stand out.

  8. ^^ To clarify: I meant walls and trim are same color, but in 2 different finishes (eggshell for walls/ceiling and semi for doors/trim)

  9. I can understand white needing to be repeated in a room, but the first and last room are sterile. I had always been under the impression that neutral rooms look best when there is high contrast (while keeping the palate neutral). I find the second room most appealing.

    A post on finding the best undertones for white walls that complement your furnishings would be wonderful!

  10. My bedrooms qualify perfectly (a much dimmer version of #1 above) – they and the open vanity area off the master and the bathrooms were not painted when the previous owners did their Dunn Edwards custom-color pale-yellow-to-me- supposed-to-be-beige? walls and Dunn Edwards Swiss Coffee trim. Even with 6′ and 8′ wide windows, the ceilings are only 8′ and trees block much of the sun overhead, so the rooms are always “in the shade”. Rather glad they didn’t take their painting all the way through because it just wouldn’t work in those rooms. The vaulted ceiling in the LR/DR (office) is my other crazy area. I’ll swear on a stack of bibles that there are two different colors up there. I know it doesn’t make sense, but from any angle I view it, including lying on the floor looking up, the DR/office side which faces east and gets a lot of morning and overhead sun looks a green-tinged white while the LR side which faces west and has several trees outside and homes across the greenbelt blocking overhead/evening sun is “white”. Will address the bedrooms one day and maybe the vaulted ceiling one year, but the focus for now will be the kitchen which I hope to make a “white” kitchen next year, so another timely post, Maria.

  11. My trim is BM white dove. I was going to buy an Ikea white sofa. Are you saying I shouldn’t bc my trim is not white-white?

  12. I have a staged home right now that the owners painted in flat creamy white before they called me. With dark floors, wood trim & shutters throughout and not much natural light, buyers just aren’t interested. Everyone wants “bright and airy,” and this is more like a cozy den!

  13. A home I am moving into has Ben Moore Mayonnaise for trim. I am having the very dark cherry kitchen cabinets painted in the same color (with Ben Moore Advanced paint) in order not to mix different whites. Will I be able to use some clear, bright whites for my upholstery and accents? or is Mayonnaise too “creamy’?

    • Yes that’s very creamy. It depends on how visible and in-your-face your woodwork and mantle is in the space. Maria

  14. My kitchen cabinets are painted BM “cloud white”, appliances are stainless steel,
    granite counter top is alaskan white
    my question is as I want to paint the walls white,…..should I paint the “cloud white” also?

  15. My basement room, has rough textured plaster walls (not popcorn texture!) The room has a large window and a french door, but is still a dark”ish” room. The window and door fast east and west. I painted the walls and ceiling white several years ago and it has never looked fresh (the texture doesn’t help). I would still like to keep it light – it is decorated with scrubbed pine, saddle colored leather sofa, and some whitewashed casual accessories. The floor is a rustic warm brown with sisal rug. What color white would you recommend that won’t look dingy – and would update all the warm furniture and accessories?

  16. We just redid our bedroom, recently. It faces north, so low light. We painted it a salmon color, which we love. Our carpet is cream, but the woodwork is white. So we put up white curtains, a white comforter, with burnt orange bedskirt (my husband really likes), shams, then floral throw pillows with that orange and dark teal, and teal throw, with alot of med. oak furniture. Did I mess up with the white? It seems like something’s not right. Are these jewel tones, and do they have to be with cream? Or not enough patterns, too much solid? A dilemma, I can’t take things back, so have tried a taupe coverlet to break up the expanse of white, not sure about that with the med. oak furniture. Trying to love it:(

  17. Maria..would BM White Dove on all walls work with BM Decorator’s White on all trim. My main rooms are very bright with lots of sunlight. (Two decorators have recommended the Decorator’s White for trim; I was going to just do White Dove on everything, with different sheens. Flooring will be a light, wide plank wood..not natural maple but a shade darker with a touch more grey in it (sort of a light butterscotch).

    • There’s nothing wrong with either choice, if you want some contrast with your trim, go with a different one, also compare OC-67 Ice Mist to White Dove and see which one you like better. Maria

  18. I’m always confused about the kitchen cabinets being the same colour as the trim in the kitchen which is usually the same colour as the trim in the rest of the house. If the existing trim in the house and kitchen are Simply White, for example, and the client wants off white cabinets, like White Dove, what do you do?