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. LOVED this! Real examples with real potential solutions and suggestions so thanks for doing this. Looking forward to even more as we’re re-doing a room adjacent to a kitchen which will NOT be re-done. Need all the help I can get.

    • My name is Tara, too. So when I saw your post, I’m thinking, “Wow, did I already read and comment?” 🙂 I would have said the same things!

      Great post, Maria. So much rich information and solutions!!

      I have a few questions- if you paint the door dark blue in the stone house above, would that mean the current grey color can remain? And the cottage with the bright yellow trim- are you suggesting they should paint it pale yellow like the example below it? If so, what about the existing red brick.

      I admit I was shocked when you suggested the existing grey-out kitchen be repainted a teal!! That’s bold… Such a good point about the chairs all being matchy-matchy.

      I’m looking forward to anouther post like this one.

      Thank you,

      • I’m saying the stone house with all the blue shutters and windows works. And yes the cottage would have been way better if the siding had been painted yellow! And I would paint the brick white, yes! Thanks for your comment! Maria

  2. I LOVE this post because it lets me use my eyes to see and your on point discssion to help clarify the color issues.

  3. LOVE this post helps those of us that haven’t had a chance to take your class, educate our eyes. When you answer ‘real life’ questions it explains WHAT the problem is ( not really a clean and dirty problem–but the fact that there are colors that don’t relate).

  4. Love this post! So helpful to see real life “mistakes” and your suggestions are spot on. I love the rug new rug in the “hostage living room” Where is it from…It would work for my dining area.

  5. Was this post helpful? OMG, yes! Should you collect more images for another one? OMG, yes!
    It’s real world examples like these with your commentary and edited/photoshopped explanation examples that help me understand. I’m thrilled that I can usually spot the problem. I sometimes don’t know how to resolve it. (I’m not in the design profession) Did not see turquoise walls/ceiling in Lori’s kitchen coming. (or pink if she chooses pink).

    Lori, if you paint turquoise or pink you HAVE GOT TO send a photo to Maria for a future post.
    Well, not just Lori – any of you mentioned in this post. If you implement Maria’s advice, please send follow-up “after” pics so Maria can then show the rest of us.

    Yes, keep posts like this coming.

    Thank you !!


  6. Maria, this was a fabulous post. You should make it a monthly series. So helpful for understanding color. I’m going to share on my Facebook Page.

  7. It is posts like these that show you are a true educator. They are hugely helpful, and yes, more would be great. Thank you!

  8. Fantastic with the real life examples! So often this is where we end up after trying really hard and still having a space not quite work. I would love to see this as a monthly post too.

  9. Oh my gosh, examples like these photos are incredibly helpful. Like other non-designers have said, I can usually look at a photo and know that something’s off, maybe even know what needs to change. The solution is more difficult. And, as so many ‘newer’ homes are open concept, getting the right colors and ‘flow’ for multiple rooms is a challenge. I’d love to see more of these ‘real life’ examples! Thanks for one of my favorite posts.

  10. The clean dirty rule applies when designing flower arrangements too. I’m always looking for a balance when I have brides that come to me with clean vs. dirty flower ideas! And trying to explain to brides why something doesn’t always work isn’t easy.

    I LOVE your idea for painting your reader’s kitchen turquoise! I hope she goes with your suggestions. It’s going to be beautiful! Which touquoise paint color would you recommend?

  11. Dear Maria,

    I think this is my very favorite kind of post of yours of all time! So, so helpful!!

    I understood and agreed with every single one of your diagnoses and prescriptions. ? The only one I disagreed with the advice to Lori to paint her walls turquoise or pink. Although this would work, she might prefer to use a lighter grey, then add color with linen slip covers for her kitchen chairs (to disguise the fact they match counter stools). Then just add some green plants and a vase of gorgeous flowers.

    I love neutral kitchens because they can so easily reflect the colors of the seasons with just simple styling choices.

    Wonderful post, Maria! I have learned so much from you! Thank you for your generosity.



  12. I like Kristen’s living room, I think it just needs some art on the wall to draw the eye up and pull everything together. I do think the rug looks like old with new but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
    Meghann could look for a table cloth for the dining room, much easier and cheaper than wallpaper. Perhaps get rid of the chunky grey mirror in favour of something in a finer black frame, to better match the chairs and cool bird cage thing. I think the wall colour is fine.

    • Actually if she really wants to make the table colour work, even pink/coral placemats and other table styling (vase etc) could work.

  13. Real life examples are so very helpful! With each situation I try to figure out what is wrong and sometimes I’m spot on. Other times times I don’t see it until you point it out, then I can’t not see it. Thanks for the education and someday I’d love to take your class!

  14. This might be one of my favorite posts EVEH! I loved it and hope to see more of these. I tried with each one to “guess” what your answer was going to be. Let’s just say this – your answers just prove why you are the color expert and I am in technology! Thanks Maria!

  15. Loved the post. It was like a test with the answers posted just below. I patted myself on the head as I came closer to your choices and the why’s. It is so much easier looking at someone else’s choices because of the lack of emotion. Then we get to our own decisions and the hand wringing begins.
    Please have this kind of post at least once a month. This was fun!

  16. Sylvia
    Thank you for helping us understand colours. I’m so pleased to get your emails with the pictures and your suggestions of how it can look better. This is all so helpful. Thank you Maria.

  17. I think it is a very fun and interesting post! I think the examples from readers makes it even more interesting. I enjoyed it.

  18. I would love more posts like this. Quick question…how do you know if you have enough counter space to dedicate some to styling? I love the look, but it seems like it might just feel like stuff in the way.

    • Well only you can be the judge of that, most recently I helped a client with an L shaped kitchen find a collection of 3 beautiful pots that we arranged in the corner with Kalanchoes (they usually last about a month) it transformed her kitchen and gave it the perfect focal point and still left her with lots of space on the rest of her countertops. Hope that helps! Maria

  19. Great post! Sometimes we as designers don’t even catch every nuance. It has been so much fun reading your posts and realizing the mistakes that I made in the past. Super examples that your followers have sent in and it’s kinda like getting the answers to a test. I did wonder however that in the living room with the chunky table and dirty rug if eliminating the end tables that look too fragile, & replacing a wood tone like you did plus artwork that has the rug colors, pillows & accessories. (long run on sentence- sorry) Then using the blue either in the pillows or accessories would solve the problem? (That is if she didn’t want to replace the rug)? Would that be more expense than replacing the rug. To me that could be another solution. Your thoughts?

  20. Yes, please keep this up! It really helps train my eye, even if I’m running to keep up with you on some of these.

    As someone else suggested, if photo submitters implement your suggestions, follow-up photos–so ‘Before’ and ‘After’–would go even further towards my education.

    Education aside, it’s just a whole lot of fun to read these analyses!

  21. Truly enjoyed the post. I am curious about one thing…why did you choose to use the term dirty versus muddy? Did you feel that people just understood the concept a bit better using that term or do you feel there is a difference between a muddy color and a dirty color? Thanks again for a most interesting post.

    • I didn’t invent the term, I first learned it in San Francisco from Joanne Day of the Day Studio 20 years ago. And Dirty is simply the opposite of clean and that’s why it works so well in my opinion. thanks for your comment! Maria

  22. Yes, I like this. I know you prefer not to repeat topics on your blog, but I think the various real life examples was really helpful. And I like the quiz style so we could try to make our own conclusion first. Could also do this on other common issues. One topic, like one of your readers mentioned, is when do you keep decorating to pull the room together and when do you stop and fix or redo an issue element. When can you decorate and style yourself out of something bothering you? You talk about this sometimes but I’d love to understand better via examples.