When it comes to color, it’s what’s underneath that counts.
Color is dynamic and energetic. Every color has a vibrant public persona, but it also has more subtle attributes that the human eye does not immediately see. This is what makes color both fascinating and frustrating. One of the most effective techniques for alleviating frustration and mastering color is to understand how color undertones affect what the eye actually sees.
More than meets the eye
It is easy to be cajoled into believing that your first viewing of a color gives you all the information you need. Don’t fall for the trap! Often a color’s unique qualities remain concealed until you take a closer look. What you see at first glance is the color’s mass tone, but what is less obvious is the color’s undertone.
The undertone of a color is often hidden from view and takes a bit of effort to uncover. Let me assure you that if at first you fail to recognize its presence and power, it will show up when you least expect it. Disrespected undertones will cause color schemes you thought were perfect to feel amiss.
To understand undertone you need to know that colors have both mass tone and undertone. Mass tone is the color you immediately see. Undertone is the characteristic of the color that is often concealed when a color is viewed in isolation. Undertones become more apparent when they are used in combination with other colors. In some colors, the mass tone and undertone are very similar; other colors have undertones that are quite different from their mass tone.
A true blue, for example, will have a mass tone and an undertone that are very close to the same hue. However, turquoise has an undertone of green, and periwinkle has an undertone of violet. These undertones are easy to see to the trained eye, but with other colors, that isn’t always the case. The more complex and less pure the color is, the more difficult it can become to determine the undertone. In my experience, either not recognizing, or incorrectly identifying undertone causes most color mishaps.
Finding the undertone
Understanding how to select the correct color is important, but selecting the correct color that also has the right undertone is even more important. Here’s why: if you’ve ever seen or created a scheme or design that should work, but doesn’t, it was probably the undertones that were off (rather than the colors themselves). The selected colors may have undertones that were fighting each other instead of working together. The mass tone and the undertone of the colors you select should work together to create a harmonious color scheme. Nothing undermines a good design more than clashing undertones.
Now that you understand the importance of identifying the undertone, the next step is to learn how to detect it. Skilled colorists and designers know how to take the guesswork out of this process. For those just learning, the easiest way to see the undertone is to compare it to other colors.
Start by looking at your chosen color alongside other colors from the same color family. Although the hues all belong to the same color family, you will see how their undertones are different. For example, some blues will lean more purple or red, while others will slant more green or yellow. Comparing your swatch to the pure color is another way to see the undertone. If you place your blue next to a pure blue, the undertones will become apparent.
This technique works for white as well. If you thought white was exempt from the undertone issue, think again. When looking at a white swatch on its own, it may be almost impossible to distinguish the undertone, but it’s there. Look at the same swatch next to pure white and it will mysteriously turn into a faint yellow or pink or some other color. That is the magic of undertone.
Neutrals are a bit more difficult. You can compare neutrals to other similar neutrals, but that doesn’t guarantee you will easily recognize the color of their undertone. Neutrals are the toughest to get right, but don’t let that discourage you. One at a time, place your swatch next to a pure red, yellow, green, blue, orange, violet and yellow. If your neutral has a green undertone, placing it next to red (the complement of green) will bring the green undertone into clear view.
The good news when it comes to neutrals is that while they can have an undertone of any color. Beige often has undertones that are yellow, green, red/pink and occasionally orange. Gray on the other hand usually has blue, green or purple undertones.
It’s important to identify the undertone of a paint color because selecting colors with harmonious undertones is the secret to creating a successful color scheme. Interior designers and paint color consultants know this and use undertones to create flow from room to room. If you think like a designer, your wall color will always coordinate perfectly with your carpet and furnishings.
Designers also use undertone to skillfully emphasize or downplay elements within a home. For example soft olive green will intensify the warm red tones in a wooden cabinet; terra cotta will make the red tones in that same cabinet seem less obvious. It just depends on what effect you are trying to achieve.
When designers want very subtle color, they know that it can be successfully achieved by finding a white or gray that has an undertone of the desired color. For example, using a white that has a pink undertone can give the appearance of a pink wall without it feeling as overwhelming as using a true pink paint.
Evaluating the color and the undertones is well worth the effort. Expertly choosing colors that harmonize is the foundation for designing beautiful rooms. It may seem challenging at first, but like most things – practice makes perfect!