Tricky Undertones.

Nothing ruins a good design more than mismatched undertones. If you’ve ever walked into a space and something felt off, it probably wasn’t so much the colours, as it was the undertones.

Colours have both a mass tone and an undertone. The mass tone is the colour that is seen at first. Undertones can be a little more sneaky. They are often concealed if a colour is being viewed in isolation. But you can bet the bank that they will show up on a large wall, or when placed next to other colours.

You’ve probably heard this story before, or actually said it yourself. I have a nice neutral coloured sofa and just want a neutral wall colour…how hard can it be? Well plenty hard if you don’t consider undertones. Neutrals are the hardest of all colours to specify.

Remember in about grade two when you learned about colour wheels. Three primary colours of red, yellow, blue. If you had a patient teacher, she actually let you mix those colours to come up with the secondary colours of orange, green and violet. So you know that all colours are made from varying amounts of primary and secondary colours. Millions of fantastic beautiful colours can be created from mixtures of these and that is why they will carry an undertone of the strongest colour of the mix.

It takes lots of practice and a good eye to recognize the undertone of colour. And it’s not just paint you have to worry about. Counters, flooring, backsplash tile, fireplace stone…it’s important to have everything work in harmony. Most colour mistakes occur not in picking colours, but in not correctly identifying undertones.

The first step in identifying undertones is never to look at colour in isolation. If you pick up a white swatch, it looks white. It’s not until you have laid out a bunch of whites together that you can start to see faint traces of yellow or pink. Also comparing complex colours to a true colour is a good way. If you need to know the undertone of your counter and can’t visually recognize it, lay out samples of pure red, yellow, blue, orange, green and violet. If your neutral has a green undertone, it will show up next to red, as red is the compliment colour.

As a designer who specs a lot of colour, I have my colour swatches broken into undertones. If a client says she likes blue, I am able to specify a blue that will work with her fixed colours such as flooring and furniture.

Last week we talked about the colour grey and how grey can be either green, blue or violet. This week I thought I should back up a step and explain what an undertone is and why undertones will make or break a room. Next week we can talk about colour again. I’ll share some of my workhorse colours and break them into undertones for you. If you want certain colour groups, leave a message in the comment section and we can discuss.

Colour is both fascinating and frustrating…let’s take out the frustrating part!

Hungry for more colour advice?

In case you missed it, take a look at our post on Gorgeous Greys.