How NOT to Use the Understanding Undertones® Colour Wheel

Understanding Undertones® – The Colour System

Since launching my brand-new-to-the-world, Understanding Undertones colour wheel (above), I have received some good questions.

Here is the first question:

Maria, I’m sure I’m simply misinterpreting the wheel.

I was looking at the fact that greige on the outer ring overlapped green-gray on the inner ring next to it. So I concluded that these colors would mesh well because they “live” in the same zone of the wheel.

On the other hand, I was reading your posts about pink beige (I have a bit of this in my home) and you indicate that blues, red and creams go well. None of those live in the same zone as pink beige in the wheel, so clearly I’m not quite following the concept being illustrated by the wheel.

Perhaps the wheel isn’t meant to indicate “good” or “bad” color pairings. Rather, does the wheel illustrate how colors can be broken down into various undertones, therefore making it easier to determine how many undertones a color palette would involve?

From reading elsewhere on your site, I think I’ve picked up the notion that you don’t want too many undertones in one space, so the wheel would assist in determining how many undertones you’re dealing with when looking at various paints and fabrics.

Please forgive my ignorance. I’ve never thought much about color concepts, but I’m very interested to learn.

And here’s the second one:

When I look at your color wheel, I don’t understand it. What is the relationship between the colors? How do you use the wheel?

Here’s was my answer to the last question today:

My colour wheel shows what the neutral undertones of each of the primary colours look like and where they land.

I would recommend that YOU DO NOT use the colour wheel in general when decorating your house. I don’t use a colour wheel when I start choosing colours for anyone. I start with the rug, the art, the countertop, the tile, there’s no colour wheel in sight in my offices except tucked away in the colour theory binder where I first learned colour theory.

Tricia my artist/ design assistant added this comment to our conversation about this today:

I think you need to be clear that this is not a tool for figuring out how to combine colours, it is a tool for classifying the neutral undertones in your system and relating them to the classical colour wheel. For organizing them, not applying them or creating palettes.


How NOT to Use the Understanding Undertones® Colour Wheel | Maria Killam

Image source

If you are asking how the colour wheel can help you choose a colour, you are most likely looking at a room with pink beige carpet (above) thinking “If I can just choose the right colour for the walls, then I’ll be halfway there”. HINT: That will just make it even harder to decorate the room.

How NOT to Use the Understanding Undertones® Colour Wheel | Maria Killam

image source

Or you might be looking at a greige (above) and thinking, “If I choose greige, then where do I go next?” HINT: It’s not introducing MORE GREY.

No colour wheel including mine, will help you if you are trying to choose the correct neutral for your house.

And I created this colour wheel because neutral undertones have always been missing from the primary colour wheel and 80% of the time that’s where the colours we choose live.

Pinterest is full of neutral rooms in one way shape or form.

Actually choosing a colour over a neutral is way easier. You simply pull out your fan deck and match an existing colour in a duvet for example.

When looking at the classic primary colour wheel, did that ever help you choose a colour scheme?


In fact, trying to strictly use the colour wheel to help you choose a colour will mostly leave you with the wrong colour, like in this example:

For example: A designer who confessed that prior to attending my Specify Colour with Confidence™ training she chose pink-beige for an exterior and it was not pretty, she said.

But, how did she get to pink-beige? Well, she said, The brick was a green-beige, so she concluded that because red is the complement to green, specifying a pink-beige was the answer.

I have covered exactly how to choose the right neutral in this post (below).

Related post: 6 Ways to Choose the Perfect, Neutral Paint Colour

Where you will learn how to correctly work with neutral undertones over, and over and over, is in my Specify Colour with Confidence™ workshops coming up this Fall and Melissa Bollinger a designer in Seattle said it like this:

How NOT to Use the Understanding Undertones® Colour Wheel | Maria Killam

Melissa Bollinger in her very current setting with a BLACK background 🙂

I attended Maria Killam’s Specifying Colour With Confidence workshop after years of turning down color consulting work. I long ago wrote color consults off because they were difficult and frustrating for me.

In the past, it wasn’t so uncommon to face resistance from a decorating client or family member who would defend (with pride) their not so great color choice. They would say something like, “my eye sees this as the perfect paint color”, with a beauty is in the eye of the beholder attitude.

I could see that the color was wrong and could choose the correct color, but didn’t have language to explain why one color was better than another. As a result, I threw a lot of business away by avoiding color consults.

Maria’s training not only gave me a new vocabulary for color, but I also acquired a deeper understanding of undertones and how they affect each other. In addition, I benefited from a list of surefire color solutions that took Maria nearly a lifetime to compile.

The projects in class are fun and interesting, but the full value is not understood until they are utilized in real life. One of the workshop projects was to create color sheets, which illustrate and define undertone categories. I have since used those sheets as my undertone guide hundreds of times. My eye continues to sharpen as I practice my skills.

How NOT to Use the Understanding Undertones® Colour Wheel | Maria Killam

Kitchen by Melissa Bolinger

During the workshop, I ordered all of Maria’s Colour Boards because I could see how vital they would be. The board colors were cherry picked by Maria, based on well-rounded, tried and true hues for the majority of paint applications. The boards are huge time savers and a must for anyone who is serious about color making decisions.

In my training, there were attendees from the U.S., Canada, Europe, South America, and Asia. Most of us were decorators and designers, but there were several homeowners who were serious about making good decisions on their own home renovations. There were also a few who were in the beginning stages of creating color-consulting businesses.

I recently met a woman shopping for tile in a tile showroom. I could hear her sighs of stress as she contemplated her choices. I eventually gave her my business card and told her I could help her as I was “certified in color by a world renowned color expert”. She perked up. She asked if I had ever heard of the woman in Canada. I excitedly said, “Yes! Maria Killam! That’s who I trained with!” I was hired on the spot!

I am very happy that I invested in the Colour With Confidence training! It has been invaluable for me and I treasure the memories of the experience. I am also endeared to Maria and her team. Melissa Bolinger, The Room Stylist, Seattle, WA.


If you would like to improve your chances of being hired ‘on the spot’ you should be at a Specify Colour with Confidence Workshop near you this Fall. Go here to see the dates and locations!

Related posts:

When Colour Theory is Literally Dangerous

Colour Theory Rules are For Breaking

Ugly Costs the Same as Pretty

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  1. Great additional clarification of the color wheel launch. Good verbiage, Tricia. I really enjoyed Melissa’s story, too. I’ll have to hang out in showrooms with my cards more often! Thanks for the post 🙂

  2. Describing your color wheel as a way of organizing undertones rather than using it to make decisions reminds me of chord charts in music theory. A composer uses the charts to understand the relationships of the chords, but doesn’t use the charts to compose a piece of music by matching chords to each other. Same thing with the color wheel. Understanding how the neutrals relate allows us to “compose” a room based on that knowledge.

  3. The link to the six neutrals post was helpful. After reading one ebook (still need to read the white one) I felt there was a lot of good info but it’s necessarily a guide to choosing finishes. The value comes out over time as I notice undertones everywhere and start to understand what works.

  4. Morning,
    I’ve read your posts on color undertones & reviewed your color wheel, still having a hard time recognizing undertones. Unfortunately I am unable to attend any of your seminars. Can you be more clear in distinguishing undertones for though of us who can’t attend one of your classes?
    Thank you.

  5. I’ve followed your work for years – and my kitchen is still a cheery blue due to your color consultation back in 2011, Maria! I thank you every morning.

    I’m thrilled that you’re finally coming to the DC area.
    Although I wish I could register for your upcoming DC visit, financially, this isn’t the right time. So instead, I’ve committed to setting aside the money and vacation time to attend your True Colour Expert course this same time next year – no matter where it will be!

    To everyone attending, I wish you “Good Luck & Learning”! Can’t wait for the course follow-up blog so we can read all about it!

  6. I go by that little place a lot and remember the deli! Thank you, Thank you for making a colour rescue to this really cute new Coffee Shop. Must stop now it is there and open! The colours are inviting as is the interior. Hurrah Yarrow for have a decent coffee shop now!

  7. I recently did my first online consult after doing Maria’s course last year and I was so nervous as my client described how many colors she had tried. I channeled my “inner Maria” and pulled out color boards and carefully discussed undertones with my client. After giving her my suggestions for her new home, today I got an email from her saying she loved one of the neutrals I suggested and she had already bought the paint! I’m excitedly waiting to get her “after” pics. Thank you, Maria!