Your Clean and Dirty Images are IN and Here’s My Take

Thanks so much to everyone who emailed me with images they felt would belong in a clean/dirty discussion from my last post, as promised, I’m going to show you a few emails along with the photos I was sent.

As usual, someone always makes a comment similar to this one “Maria, I will forever disagree with your use of the word ‘dirty’, if you’re reading this and you fall into this camp, read this post. Or, attend one of my Specify Colour with Confidence events where I show image after image and in the end you will see why ‘dirty’ (which is simply the opposite of the word ‘clean’) is the best way to describe a space where the colour scheme isn’t quite right and you can’t quite explain WHY. It’s just one more place to look.

This is the second comment that I receive a lot:

 ‘Muddy and clear colours live together in the world and nature every day. Think of shadows. It is the muddy colours that draw focus to the clear colours and make them pop. The Amish often artistically use this combination of muddy/clear colours in their quilts.’

I’m glad, my reader posted this comment because I think this helps everyone. So here’s the thing, rather than always looking at where you or your interior might be the EXCEPTION to the clean and dirty guideline, look at the following images like a learning experience.

We make colour decisions constantly in our day-to-day life, whether we are buying fashion or anything for the home, a colour choice is inevitable before the purchase is made.

Wouldn’t it be more fun, not to mention save you so much money if you made more correct and accurate colour choices, rather than living with mistakes you’ve made?

Or, even worse, you’ve spent a lot of money on a colour choice you don’t like (that you can’t afford to replace), so now every day, it stares at you and reminds you constantly that you made the wrong choice.

Okay, first up is this cream kitchen with this email from Molly:

In response to your post today about clean and dirty, I am forwarding these photos to you. If you can make use of them for your clean dirty post you plan to write feel free. The cabinets are off-white or cream and the granite is new Venetian gold. The current paint color is BM Mellow Yellow 2020-50.

This one is easy to see right? The granite is dirty in comparison to the bright yellow walls beside it.

This granite is a combination of pink beige/yellow beige and orange beige and I would try BM Manchester Tan to make it feel like it relates. If you want something lighter and you can get away with it, I would also test BM Feather Down if there’s enough contrast with the creamy cabinets.

Next up is another kitchen and this question is from Lori:

After reading your White is Complicated book and following your blog, I am beginning to think that my wall color is all wrong.

It is Sherwin Williams Agreeable Gray.

I don’t know exactly what my cabinets are but seemed to be similar to BM decorators white.

I knew something was off but I have been blaming the soft (yellow) white recessed lights, which are driving me crazy. This room faces west and does not get a lot of natural light.

Should I consider a cleaner cooler gray? My counters are Silestone Blanco Orion. Any thoughts would be much appreciated!

After I received these images, I asked Lori to send me a close-up of her countertops and the wall colour (above).

Okay so here’s my take on what’s happening in this kitchen.

There is nothing wrong with the wall colour.  As you can see when you look at the above photo, it even relates nicely to the countertop.

I’m guessing Lori would be happier if the wall colour was simply lighter. Her kitchen is dark anyway and since we are seeing so many photos on-line of blown out, bright white rooms, this shade of grey might simply be feeling oppressive in this room. The same grey in a brighter room would lighten up during the day with the sunlight.

Here’s what’s really bothering her.

There’s too much grey in this room now.

Remember, grey came along to be the backdrop to bright and happy colours which have been on trend the last 7 or 8 years and when there’s too much grey, we start feeling depressed.

Grey on it’s own can be debilitating if the room doesn’t have other warm accents in it from wood tones or other textures.

Also, I love these oval back french chairs like anyone else, however, your kitchen chairs should technically not be identical to your counter stools. A designer would choose chairs that coordinate, not simply choose the same style. Just like a designer would not help you buy a matching dining room or bedroom set. They would choose furniture that coordinates.

Also, this many chairs in the same trendy grey fabric, also looks like they were all picked up at the same time from a big box store.

And one more thing, my reader mentioned the lighting (which is also a super common myth if the colours in a room are bothering you, this I go into great detail in my live workshops) changing the lighting will not remotely change all the things I’ve already mentioned that are the real reasons this room is not amazing yet.

But, there is hope!

First, I would paint this kitchen turquoise and since there isn’t a lot of wall space, I would take the same colour onto the ceiling. Then it would feel like the sky! And turquoise would certainly bring the grey chairs to life!

Barry Dixon

Of course it doesn’t need to be this dark, several shades lighter would be just as gorgeous!

And then this kitchen needs to be styled!  The right corner with the window above the countertop could have a vignette that looks similar to this one (below). This one is a little overcrowded but you get the idea:

Related post: Ask Maria, Will my White Kitchen be Cold?

Image source

We need a lamp 14″ or shorter to be placed on the left side of the countertop in this kitchen which I would simply have ON at all times. A dark room looks so much more inviting even if no one happens to be in it, with one light on. Like an entry for example. My master bedroom is the darkest room in my home because it’s in the North facing corner, however, my table lamp in the sitting area is the first light I turn on every day and it stays on all day long.

We need a tray. This marble one (below) could be placed beside your stove with items like it’s been styled with but I also think a utensil container with spoons, etc is a great item to style. Add a few wooden spots to relate to the nearby decorative wooden cutting boards you’ll prop up to add warmth as well.

Table LampMarble TrayCutting Boards

See the vessel on the island above with the plant in it? That could also be on your kitchen island at all times. Lasts a long time and always looks great.

Or instead of turquoise you could introduce pink. I’m loving pink because it feels so NEW.

Coats Homes

Molly sent me another photo she snapped in her neighbourhood and this is what she said :

“This house just built in my neighborhood in Chapel Hill, NC is off. Maybe they were going for Carolina blue. Even our fire trucks are Carolina blue!”

So the stone on this house is varying tones of pink beige and taupe. The problem here is not that the earthy stone is causing the blue grey colour to look clean, it’s simply that there is no blue whatsoever in the stone.

This house would have looked gorgeous without the stone in this lovely shade of french country blue with the existing thick white trim.

Or, now that it’s too late to do anything about the stone, I would paint the front door blue too, and the windows on the big wall of stone would look pretty in blue as well.

Stone should never just be slapped up onto a house ‘just because’ it should be a carefully, considered and well placed architectural feature.

The stone on this house (below) is very different. European inspired exterior with well spaced out blue windows and shutters, it’s balanced.

Did you know we can help you choose the correct stone for your new build? Stone Consultation

Image source

And Molly, thanks again for another photo, here’s her note:

Saw this in Victoria, BC last month. Your training has me snapping all kinds of pictures on Vacation! 

The yellow on this house is definitely CLEAN, however it technically does work on this pale grey exterior. It’s too clean with the surrounding orange brick (you can see the post here in the foreground), however what we are reacting too is that there’s not enough yellow yet.

If you’re going to paint the trim such a strong colour, you need to commit fully and also paint the fascia as well.

However, I’m never a fan of random colourful trim on a house, it just looks like “We couldn’t afford to paint our house so we painted the trim instead”. And it’s definitely an unsophisticated yellow for the exterior of a house.

Yellow is one of the trickiest colours to get right because it looks pretty on the paint chip but then screams way too bright when it goes up. Yellow needs to look dirtier or more muted on the chip to give you the right colour on your walls or your exterior.

This cute, cottage style house should have been painted yellow to begin with (below).

Boston Magazine

Next we have a living room question from Kristin:

I have some photos for you of my formal living room which I have been struggling to decorate.  One day it dawned on me that the rug I purchased is (I believe) pink beige and that is probably what is giving me such a hard time. It’s dirty alongside my sofa and chairs.

I keep thinking I should get rid of the rug and start with something new. When do you decide if it’s better to start over or keep adding to something you don’t love in hopes of making it better?

Here’s my take on this room:

Your area rug is indeed varying tones of pink beige, orange beige and green. And there’s no lightness in the rug, so in this new living room with all your new linen furniture it looks like your rug is definitely holding you hostage.

Since you’ve added turquoise lamps, I took the liberty of continuing with the blue theme with the rug and pillows that I chose below. Also your end tables are too wimpy looking compared to your coffee table, so I added some new ones. I noticed that my eye kept jumping to your mirror and the legs of your tables. They kind of match but not in a good way.

So when should you get rid of an area rug? When it’s literally killing the look and feel of the direction you want to take your colours and decorating.

Area RugPillows | End Table |

This next question is from a longtime reader! Thanks so much, and here it is:

I am in the process of getting rid of dirty and moving to clean and this is where I have landed so far.  This is my dining room.  The dining table is too bright and the china cabinet too dirty and dull.  Pretty sure this is a perfect example of what not to do.

I am considering Newberry Port Blue (NAVY) Cabinets but I can’t decide if it is going in the right direction.  Oh, the linen white paint is going to be changed as well, it looks dirty next to the Santorini Blue dining table.  To what?  I don’t know.</strong

I’m so happy Meghann sent me this photo because it’s another good example of a situation where the colours don’t relate. NOT clean vs. dirty.

Currently, there are 4 colours in this room that do not relate.  Black, turquoise, coral, green grey and the creamy walls.

What’s missing, and causing my sweet reader to spin around and consider yet another unrelated colour like navy blue to paint the grey cabinet is there no unifying element like wallpaper, or artwork, or something to tie all these colours together.

Her china cabinet has some teal decor items but they in fact could be called dirty in comparison to the dining table.

I found some wallpaper that picks up the colours in the dining room. I’m not in love with it, but you get the idea. If she installed this wallpaper or something similar, I would paint the cabinet white (or her trim colour if that works).


And I have one more from my neighbourhood as I was riding my bike this morning. It’s a long weekend for the Canadians this August!

I’d love to have your feedback on this post? Was it helpful? Should I collect more images for another one? If you have a room where you think clean and dirty is an issue, clean up the room, take photos without flash and in good natural light and email me here.

If you would like to learn how to specify colour with confidence, check out my Fall events here. The early bird rate ends next week.

Related posts:

The Problem with an All Grey Room

How to Coordinate Coffee and Accent Tables like a Designer 

Clean vs. Dirty Colours



leave aREPLY

  1. Maria, I didn’t get a chance to comment on the images for real although I did in my mind. But I just want to say I loved the column and would love more along these lines. It reminded me of the wonderful 2014 Summer School you did where I felt I learned so much and felt so empowered. You are a fabulous teacher and your Color Training classes which are your business are increasingly successful as well they should be, but everyone knows that learning about and leaning how to are not enough. One has to practice, practice, practice. And there are those of us who will never be able to take your professional class for whatever reason. The 2014 Summer School as well as a “mini class” such as the 30-day series you did on undertones several years ago and this post are wonderful practice sessions – for all your graduates and for all of the rest of us. I think Amy’s idea of a series of mini classes like this post on different hot topics throughout the year would be a fantastic offering to all your readers. A lot of work and no money but surely a tremendous feeling of satisfaction and even excitement for spreading your message in ways that no one else can match. More, please.

  2. This was a great post. Easy to see what you were talking about!! Thanks for your great posts!! Love reading your blog!!

  3. Love the photos with the narrative, SO helpful. When all you usually see are “perfect” pictures, you dont learn much because you haven’t seen the process.

    Keep them coming!

  4. I enjoyed this post and other ones where I can practice training my eye to identify problems and come up with solutions. Thanks!

  5. The unifying problem with these rooms is that, sadly, they are boring. Some of the boredom comes from not repeating an accent color….kind of putting a baby toe in the pool, but not diving in. Decorating well requires risk and boldness! I learned this from my mother. I once painted my indoor porch a beautiful grayed out white and painted the shutters and a bench a grayed out green or a greenish gray. All went well but when my mother came to look. she said O should paint the ceiling the dame grayish green. Oh no, I thought, too risky. But she convinced me and it was the bold move needed! Still no bold bright colors, but the risky move paid off! I still love it 5 years later!

  6. Dear Maria, so glad to have found your blog! I have just finished an interior design degree and love colour but really had little taught about it on the course. I bought your book how to choose paint colours but still struggling to notice some of the undertones. Unfortunately in the UK Benjamin Moore paint isn’t that common here. Valspar is now the main one supplied in DIY shops followed by Dulux or Crown . I have also been looking at Eco paints such as Little Green/ Paint and Paper / Farrow and Ball. I am hoping you might consider compiling little books of colour and whites for those of us in Europe. I tried to colour match the shades you recommended online but most are slightly off etc. I have my fingers crossed and just wanted to say many thanks for all your info and advice. No one else is talking about colour in ths much detail. I LOVE it!

  7. Great post! Your comments are always so relevant and clear, as was your choice of photographs. I live in Los Angeles and it feels like everything has been about “dirty” colors for awhile. Now we have bright white Cape Code style homes popping up. Cleans are back and it’s fun. Thanks!

  8. The use of the terms clean and dirty remind me of skin tone categories in old makeup advice articles. Who wanted to be “sallow” when the alternative was”fair”?

  9. This is great constructive “exampling”! I love love love it! I could see 20 more. Some I trouble-shot. Some I didn’t. (Also loved the antique sari situation.) It was FUN AND functionally educational. I love looking at them and opining before I read yours.

  10. Maria, I enjoyed this post very much and I do want to take a refresher. Can you enlighten me and explain how the turquoise room with the saltillo tile isn’t a clean vs dirty thing?


    • It is slightly cleaner but I think it works in this case, however my point in showing this image was to illustrate the wall colour continuing onto the ceiling. Hope that helps, Maria

  11. Maria, thank you for all the valuable information you share! I’m not a designer, but I’ve found your knowledge of undertones fascinating. I had an aha moment this morning as I was getting dressed to run errands. I put on pair of jeans and a white linen top. The jeans felt tight ☹️ So I changed into a pair of faded sage green jeans. The clean white of the top and the dirty green of the jeans looked terrible together! Clean and dirty! I’d never put them together in an outfit so why would I decorate that way! Now I understand what’s been bothering me about my bedroom! I would not wear my bedroom colors out the door and in public, lol! Beautiful soft, calming, muted dirty colors with bright white trim! Nope!