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. How fun! Great mini-lesson on real and approachable decorating issues. Maria is so very generous to her readers to provide real-time feedback. It’s my favorite post so far. I’m new to MK since July 2018, have never followed a design blog in my life, and I’m feeling so fortunate to have found her! I’ve binge-read most of her blog, purchased the ebook HOW TO CHOOSE PAINT COLORS – IT’S ALL IN THE UNDERTONES (best bargain on the planet) and it’s changed my way of seeing the world in color.

    Now I can actually apply this system in deciphering these before/after photos. Things are starting to click and make sense. I’ve got a long way to go, but aside from COLOR, she’s also showing me how to STYLE a space feel more balanced and not so “matchy-matchy. She says her core system is a ‘color system’ and anyone can understand it (and I’m trying, but I drive around town looking at painted homes/buildings and say to myself “remember…you can’t say a color is dirty or clean until you compare it to another color” and “choose ONLY ONE bossy pattern in a permanent surface of a room” and “most floor colors are like a pair of jeans, they go with everything” ), but it takes YEARS to develop her genius sense of style on top of her color instincts. I just love how practical she is without being dull in any way. She’s exceptionally gifted. Thank you so much Maria.

  2. Great post, Maria! And I always congratulate folks for taking a leap and putting their own photos out there. This was a great quiz to keep our seminar lessons fresh and I just loved it. I laughed, I cried, I cheered for the hero!!! This would be a fun regular column to post. A big thank you for keeping us all fresh… or should I say clean?!?!

  3. In your workshop, the whole ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ explanation really helped me understand why a lot of colors just don’t play well together. Thanks for another great post!

  4. I love your insight on colours. I am confused by your comments on getting furniture that coordinates, not matches. What does this mean ? What is coodinated furniture ? What does it look like ?

    • Good question, the only way to properly answer it is to direct you to this post which visually explains what ‘coordinates’ means. And it’s something that takes designers a while to get good it, it’s not easy to do, which is why there’s a lot of ‘matching’ furniture sets out there for sale:
      Hope that helps, Maria

  5. 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.

  6. I feel like I learned so much from this post. I have a hard time picking up undertones sometimes so I feel like each time I read your posts I learn a little bit more on how to educate my eye. Thank you!

  7. A fabulous and informative post Maria. Thankyou!!! Can I also suggest for Loris kitchen that there’s not enough contrast….the only bit I see in the photo is the black on the appliances. Also there’s no pattern in the room. I would love to see the counter chairs re-covered with a lovely patterned fabric and even a co-coordinating rug under the dining table. Applying design principles of tonal variation ie light tone, mid tone and dark tone (which is missing) and pattern for movement and interest would bring the room to life as well as using a bright colour.

    • Yes I agree with your suggestions, however french chairs like that are very expensive to upholster, it would be less expensive to buy new coordinating chairs (for anyone who is curious). Thanks for your comment! Maria

      • I would love to know what would you suggest to coordinate with the Louis dining chairs. I just can’t picture anything.

  8. Maria, your transformation of the living room above is nothing short of a miracle! When I saw saw the living room photo I said to myself, there is no way to fix it! Then, I scrolled down and I thought you skipped it and went on to a totally new room. But no, you didn’t! Oh my, you made it sing! (An entirely different tune!).

  9. Maria – I LOVED this post! I found it very helpful because in many of the photos the error was obvious and easy to see. What I like to do is formulate what I would do to make it better and then compare with what you have to say.

    I say YES PLEASE to more of these!

  10. About the comment: ‘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…..’

    Ask any artist who paints shadows – it’s all about proper use of color to create that shadow. Look closely at any painting and you will see that shadows are not ‘muddy’ at all. For a painting to be successful all the colors still have to complement one another and the shadows are no exception.

    Hope this helps!

    • Hi Lee, The reason I posted that comment is not because I don’t understand what the commenter said, it was to suggest that there is context for applying this concept to colours in interior design that is helpful. Perhaps I wasn’t clear. Thanks for your comment! Maria

  11. Terrific exercise Maria and would love to see more. Do agree with most of what you suggested however am on the fence about Kristen’s area carpet ‘holding her hostage because it appears old or there is no lightness in it’ compared to the rest of her furnishings. That stated and not to offend, but IMHO if anything is the culprit I feel it could be the large chunky coffee table (that is also duplicated in the full-length floor mirror) plus the layout of the furniture itself if she wishes a cozier and functional conversation area.

    • Hi Brenda, I’m glad you brought this up because her furniture is basically white in comparison to the carpet which doesn’t have any white in it which is why I said it looked old. There is no such thing as a sofa so neutral that it doesn’t need to relate to the decorating in the room. Hope that his clearer! Thanks for your comment! Maria

  12. I have a follow up question about complimenting and accent colors relating to existing finishes after reading this post. When can you use a color that does not relate to what’s there? I see the house shown with Carolina blue paint does not coordinate with the pink-beige & taupe stone so looks off and is not nearly as appealing as the charming European stone house with blue shutters you showed. But, the European house with yellow beige, pink beige and violet gray stone doesn’t seem to have blue in it, but the blue shutters look right on. Why is that? This is another topic I’d like to better understand — what makes accent colors work or clash? When can you choose a color that is not in the stone (exterior, countertop, tile)?

    Yes, Maria, these ‘name the problem’ then ‘here’s the solution’ posts with ordinary photos is very helpful. As I am out & about my mind now races with color commentary after reading your books and taking your course. I want to discuss the color scenarios I see all the time (as my family will attest!) These kinds of posts are like taking that long weekend bike ride together and chatting as we go about what we see. What a gift to your readers! Thank you.

    • Great question, I think there’s also a whole other conversation about what colours work with the style of an exterior or interior. French country blue works great on the house that is actually european inspired, there’s balance with the blue and the stone is something you would expect to see on that stye of home, it’s great. The same french country blue seems wrong on the other house and would require more blue in order to balance it better, hence the windows and front door would have looked better in the same blue, however the style of that home is not french nor is the stone attractive at all.
      So much of design takes years to ‘see’ because every house is different yet similar principles apply. Hope that makes sense, thanks for your contribution to this post Molly! Maria

  13. Clean teal (though dark and muted) in your last photo has me a bit confused. I would not have considered the teal siding was clean. After reading your books and taking your course I imagine the answer is “in comparison” the teal siding is clean. We can’t look at these clean/dirty colors in isolation I suppose. Is that right?

  14. MORE PLEASE :D. thank you so much for this fantastic post and for all your hard work at “spreading the word”. Your simply amazing !!

  15. Hi Maria,

    Isn’t the turquoise kitchen you used as an example a clean and dirty situation? I thought it was an example of clean and dirty until I started to read more.

    • No, you might not like the wood stained cabinets but in actual fact I chose that image because it has the ceiling painted. There is so little wall space left around kitchen cabinets that in this case, I think it would be gorgeous to just paint the ceiling and the walls the same turquoise given she doesn’t have any crown! Hope that makes sense. Maria

  16. WONDERFUL post! These examples followed by your color expertise and specific corrective directions are gold mines to those of us struggling to apply your wisdom. I’d love to see more of these posts.

    In fact, as a painter, I subscribe to weekly video training by a still life artist. I think you could take that idea and add it to your business. I know posts like this are time consuming but if you did one a week and charged your devoted Killamites a monthly fee ($10, 15, 20/month) for posts like the caliber above, it could be a worthwhile endeavor — for you and your trainees. Think of them as virtual, mini workshops reaching a wider audience. Please put me down as your first potential subscriber.

  17. LOVE this post and those like it. It puts into action your wonderful class I took in CA last year and reinforces what you taught us. I keep second guessing myself and appreciate examples to see the before and then after suggestions.

    Thanks, again.

  18. Great post, Maria! Seeing real world examples is really helpful!

    I don’t know if Lori removed all styling before she took the photo of her kitchen, but, in addition to MK’s recs, I think her kitchen would look a ton better if she styled it with plants; meaninful, coordinating tchotkes; artwork; etc. Right now it looks like only appliances live there. 🙂

  19. I love seeing these clean/dirty pictures and explanations! I’m not sure that I’ve seen you address outlets, outlet covers, and light switches. We are happy with the dirty colors in our home but recently upgraded to white outlets, covers, and light switches. Can that be a problem? Thanks!

  20. This is helpful. But isn’t the turquoise kitchen photo (Barry Dixon) an example of mixing clean and dirty? The turquoise paint looks fresher and cleaner than the muddier/dirtier tile and cabinets… It certainly doesn’t look bad in the professional photo and the repeated turquoise in the styling helps, but if you were standing in the room itself wouldn’t you notice that the combination was off?

  21. Loved this post…Not a designer and I’m not great at seeing colour. With your e-books and varied blog posts I am slowly but surely getting better at spotting what is not working and why. These real life examples are so helpful. Would love to see a monthly post along these lines! Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

  22. Dear Maria,
    Love this post! For Lori’s kitchen, very pretty by the way, I love your idea of brightening it with blue paint on the walls and ceiling of her kitchen. Would you consider painting the tan portions of the walls “white” to match the tile color for uniformity and then light blue (or turquoise, as you recommend) for the ceiling alone? As long as the rest of the home is not “dirty” colors, right?

  23. Hi Maria,
    This post and similar exercises that you walk us through with at your color training are so effective to help the rest of us train our eyes to what you see and what is very important is that you are able to tell us what is wrong and why. This is what makes me confident to be able to say that I am a color expert trained by Maria Killam.