What's an Undertone?

I'm on vacation this week so I thought I'd re-post and revise some of my oldest and best posts. I thought i'd start with this one because of the 37 Days of Learning Undertones series I am doing on  Facebook this month. It's a not-to-be-missed opportunity to start to see what others don't see, completely free. If you want to catch up, see my Understanding Undertones board on Pinterest.

Green beige walls, butterscotch sisal carpet (source)
The first semester I taught Colour Theory, I was well into a long talk about colour and specifically the many undertones of colour. All was going well (or so I thought) until one brave soul at the back of the class tentatively raised her hand. "What's an undertone?" she asked. I was dumbstruck. In that moment, I couldn't even explain it (or not very well) because it's so obvious to me but only because I've been doing this for so long.

So the next semester I was prepared with a definition and an explanation. And here it is:

Undertone: A colour applied under or seen through another colour.

Clients are always asking me "What's the difference between this colour and that one, which one is warmer which one is cooler, etc?."

As soon as I say, "This one's more orange, or that one is more blue", they mostly see it immediately but it takes a trained eye to be able to wade through all the possibilities and especially the undertones of beige, (which are the most confusing) to pick the one that's right for you.

It's much easier to see it with stronger colours like these:

Gold Beige walls – Living room by Maria Killam Colour & Design

In the living room above, the red sofas have an orange undertone and the green cushions, a yellow undertone.

Southern Living
The bedroom wall colour is a blue-gray, while the chairs are a soft green-gray. The accent yellow in the room has an orange undertone.
While this might seem obvious to you now that I've described them, the undertones of these colours will change again as soon as a warmer or cooler colour is placed next to them. If I hung this piece of art (below) into the bedroom above, suddenly the drapes in the room would appear greener/cooler while the new piece of art is much more orange/warmer.

source

Basically what it comes down to is that 'technically' you can't actually call a colour 'cool or warm' unless you are comparing it to another colour. You might have a personal reaction and opinion on whether the blue in the bedroom above is cold, but until its compared to a periwinkle blue (warmer) or a greener blue (cooler) it's not cold or warm.
Related posts:

Download my eBook, to learn what you didn't get in Colour Theory - How to Choose Paint Colours – It's All in the Undertones. Now available in Apple version for iPad.

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, contact me.

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

If you would like to learn to how choose the right colours for your home or for your clients, become a True Colour Expert.

18 Responses to What's an Undertone?

  1. I truly believe one must understand the concept of an undertone in order to better incorporate multiple colours in a room. I couldn't have explained “undertones� better myself. Great article!

    Marc Atiyolil
    Style & Design Editor
    Canadian Home Trends Magazine
    http://www.canadianhometrends.ca

  2. karenerika says:

    Can you please tell me what color you used on the living room walls? Love this look!

  3. Maria Killam says:

    Dear Karenerika,
    That colour is HC-28 Shelbourne Buff. It's a wonderful goldy beige tone!
    Happy Painting!
    Maria

  4. Great explanation! One place that many women will have common experience with this is make-up, especially red lipsticks and blushes…the orangy vs. the bluey, and how it works with their skin. I've used that analogy when teaching color.

  5. Laura says:

    What is the best strategy to determine the undertone of the woodwork in my house? It is an oak color that looks yellow in some areas but in other areas it looks pink. My kitchen and living room are an open layout and the cabinets, kitchen floor, fireplace and baseboard are all this oak color so I don't want to pick the wrong shade for the walls.
    Thanks!

  6. Hi Laura,
    I have seen some oak floors that are yellow and pink. Since you have yellow in there to work with it's okay to ignore the pink (assuming it's the pink you don't like).
    Maria

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hoping you can help. My kitchen cabinets are in good shape, but the stain is splotchy and outdated honey oak. I want to paint my kitchen cabinets a light creamy color and put glass in the top cabinet doors to display my jewel toned dishes (cobalt blue, red, green and amber).

    The living room/dining has a yellow toned beige carpet and as it is seen from the front door, I was hoping you could help me find a color that works with both. The tile in the kitchen is close to Behr Oyster. I really prefer neutral colors I have like to use bold colored art and accessories.

    Also, I was curious about something else. Why do you not worry about an orange undertone? Is it because it is not very common or it matters less?

    Thanks,

  8. susannah says:

    Ah you just opened my eyes!

  9. dyan says:

    If you know the basics of colour theory you will also know how certain colours come together; You just need to know if the quantity of one colours weighs out the others. Keeping this explanation simple if you see a yellow tone in a colour than you will know that the colour u see has a warm undertones, if you see more blue then the colour has cool undertones enz…. For any body a little confused go back to the three primary colours where all colours originate from. , T
    he use of a colour wheel is also a big help.

  10. reviously, it has always confused me when someone has said (or I've read) that a colour "changes" i.e., cooler or warmer, greyer or not depending on what colour is beside it–but what you say makes sense. Just the other day, I spray painted something gold. We brought it into a room painted a warm beige and my Mother instantly saw the gold object as green. (It was a greeny gold as opposed to a warm browny gold.) Interesting.

  11. Beryl says:

    Hi Maria,

    I love reading your blog. I have a question:

    What makes periwinkle a warmer blue?

    Thanks,
    Beryl

  12. always a good read. sometimes I explain it to a client by using the fragrance model. there's a top note, and under the top note is another, different note that has the capacity to filter thru and into the top note. and so do the other levels of fragrance.

    sometimes that helps!

  13. Sarah says:

    Do you have any guess as to what Benjamin Moore color might come close to the blue bedroom above? I have been having a hard time deciding between painting our master bedroom Ben Moore's Woodlawn Blue or a grey-blue as seen above. Both would be lovely, but I am having trouble trying to find a happy color for curtains if I choose the Woodlawn Blue, and if I go with the grey-blue it seems impossible finding a shade that is a calming inviting blue vs a blue that is cold and steely. Paint is so tricky! Any suggestions?

  14. Anne says:

    Oh my, after reading your posts for a year, looking at the pictures on Facebook, and going back and rereading posts, I FINALLY GET IT!! I recently moved and purchased a home based on the enormous windows and amount of sunlight in the interior plus some good views. However, the colors are awful. Pink beige carpet with adjoining green beige tile. Green beige tile in kitchen, granite with pink beige flecks, with goldish oak cabinets. What a mess. At least now I understand why it's been driving me crazy!!

  15. Kelly says:

    Hello Maria! I love all of your articles/blogs and great information. I was hoping you can help me…….we are building a home with antique white kitchen cabinets. We found a grayish-taupe-cream granite that we love. However, we want to be sure we don't pick any countertop (or paint or tile backsplash) that makes the cabinets look yellow. We would prefer to stay in the gray/taupe range of colors though and not tread into the gold category. Do grays and taupes make cream/off whites look yellow? Thanks!

  16. Jula says:

    I am so glad I have found you. Love this. Keep up the good work.

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