Clean or Dirty? HINT: it’s all in the undertones!

If you’re asking yourself what’s wrong with your room, it may not be a clean or dirty issue. HINT: it’s all in the undertones. Once you learn my system for identifying the undertones of neutrals, you can apply it to all your decorating dilemmas.

To learn more about clean vs. dirty colours in a room, read 3 Surprising Reasons Your Colour Scheme Looks Dirty

This morning, I posted a story on my Instagram on my sisters piano/library room that I’m working on.

Elizabeth’s wing chairs had just arrived and I announced that the room was being painted pink. Then, one of my lovely followers commented that she couldn’t see pink working well with the carpet, which in her mind looked ‘dirty’.

I got to thinking that there is a lot of confusion about this concept of clean and dirty colours.  And, also WHEN they apply to any given decorating situation as well as WHEN you should be concerned enough to DO SOMETHING about it.

I also think this confusion is due to the fact that there aren’t too many other colour designers who distinguish colour this way. In fact some designers out there, have great arguments as to why this is very wrong indeed.

However, this doesn’t bother me, what I teach is a system, not a theory.

If what I’m talking about doesn’t make sense and doesn’t resonate with your aesthetic, it’s easy to keep clicking.

And, the reason why my system works for so many people is because a system is the quickest and most efficient way for a newbie to get really good at something, really fast.

It took me 20 years to invent and perfect my system, so that it doesn’t have to take anyone else that long.

And my large following all over social media and the blog you’re currently reading, is proof that my system works and makes colour something you feel you can wrap your arms around and actually get right, for once.

Clean or Dirty?

In this image below, you’ll notice that all the moulding and trim work has been painted pink beige, to coordinate with the floor tile. However, in doing that, the mint green walls make it all look dirty in comparison.

Is this bad? Can we all still love this Parisian inspired dining room? Of course we can. However, was there a BETTER trim colour that could have been here instead?

Well, YOU be the judge.

For those of you who are new to this idea, I’ve written a few posts about clean and dirty colours here, here and here.

 Image source

In this kitchen below, you’ll notice that the drapes are a stronger pink beige than the banquette which appears to be more of a natural linen colour.

In this case, would I call the drapes ‘dirty’ in comparison to the much whiter cabinets?

You could, and if the walls were the identical shade, then you might be bothered. However, in this instance, you might notice that the backsplash is more green gray, and that the drapes need to be changed.

And, it’s a well decorated room so we’re much more distracted by that, than the nuances of the colours.

Better Homes & Gardens

Often, during my Specify Colour with Confidence events, students will approach me to ask about their homes, or their clients homes and they’ll say things like “I think this is clean and that is dirty”.

But that’s actually not the problem. And as soon as I tell them what it is, they get it.

It’s all in the undertones.

The beautiful thing about teaching the nuances of neutral undertones is that you can’t ‘unsee it’ once I tell you what you’re looking at. And that’s why it’s so teachable. Lucky for me!

Anyway, I would love to write a post with your burning questions about this.

Another example is below. The pillows are a screaming pink beige again, which you could argue, do, in fact relate to the brown in the carpet. But, the green leaves on the pillows obviously pick up the green in the room making it look like it belongs.

And, of course, clean and dirty colours combined in fabric or area rugs are the quickest and easiest way to fix a clean and dirty issue that might be bothering you in any given room.

However, in this case, the clean and dirty combination of colour in these pillows were not necessary to ‘fix’ a colour issue. They would have been even better if they were white and green.

My opinion. Doesn’t mean it’s right. You be the judge.

Architectural Digest

So, if you have a space in your home that’s bothering you, or maybe you’ve seen one online, and you’re thinking “I think this is a clean and dirty issue, but I’m not sure” clean up your room, take a photo–without flash and in natural light–and send it over! Or tag me with your photos on Instagram

And I’ll write a post about it to help clear things up!

Also, don’t forget to give me your thoughts about the above photos in the comments!

Related posts:

When is White Dirty?

The Difference between an experienced Colourist and a Novice



leave aREPLY

  1. Hello Maria,
    I have a house with a red roof which I love. In a near future we would need to have the shingles replaced but I am finding out that the red shingles that we currently have on the house have been discontinued and a blotchy red replacing it. I know for sure that I won’t be choosing the new red. It leaves me with a dillema:will my new roof colour make my house exterior look dirty as we have white windows and trim, beige pink stucco and a bit of orange brick? Husband would like to go with the Euroshield in Beaumont shake style(very uniform colour,not blotchy) but it only come in three colours:black ,brown and grey. I am afraid that either of these colours might be wrong and create clean dirty combination. My gut tells me go with black as my windows are white and won’t be changed anytime soon but the orange brick and stucco limits and complicates my choice but can be repainted. Oh I wish the old red was still available so I would not have to make a drastic change to my house. Maria if you would like to use my house as an example for your dirty/clean post please feel free. I can to send you some pictures of my house.



  2. Your notions of “clean” and “dirty” changed everything for me – it was the missing element in decorating, to my eye. As well as the most important. For me it doesn’t matter that the first image is French – the mint walls mixed with the “dirty” trim turns my stomach. I found your blog 8 years ago when we were renovating our beach house in Southern California and you saved us a boatload (pardon) of money when selecting chantilly lace paint and other basic items so that it all blended seamlessly. Thank you for that.

    Currently I struggle with mixing in “less clean” fabric elements for some variation. You are so right that once you “see” colors this way you can never “unsee” it.