Understanding Undertones = Color Success

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.

Neutral territory

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.

Creating harmonies

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!


  1. How do the professionals determine undertones?

    • Mostly can see by eye, focusing on the colour. Maybe squinting, if that fails COMPARE to other colours on color wheel !

  2. My other question is this;

    First of all, all these rooms are visible one from the other. My hall is a light aqua blue. I want to emphasize the blue in it, but when I held up a yellow (to paint my dining room adjacent to the hall) with blue undertones it looked ghastly. But a yellow with peachy-red-orangey undertones looks amazing. So my then my next question is what color of undertone should I be looking for in a neutral beige brown for the living room? The living room is in full view of the dining room and the hall. I don’t want the yellow to look muddy.

    • Ok so if you want to BRING the blue out, you have to tone down the green aqua undertone, to do you use colour opposite on colour wheel in this case its red. Hence why the red-orangey one looks amazing !

      Also any red undertone will work for the beige living room.

      • I ain’t no color expert, but to intensify the blue, I’m pretty sure you would use the complement (opposite) of blue which is orange. Red intensifies green because they are complementary colors.

  3. I’ve been reading endlessly about undertones, and the importance of using the same undertone in your entire house.

    What confuses me is how do I use a yellow in one room (say, BM Bryant Gold HC-7 which I understand has more orangey undertones (rather than the greenish undertones that some yellows have), and then use a red in another room. What undertones am I supposed to use in other colors that aren’t the same? Not every color is going to have an orange or yellow undertone.

    I also read on another website that I should used more muted yellows (like Bryant Gold for example) with an orange undertone as opposed to the yellows with green undertones as those greenish yellows don’t look good unless they are against bright primary reds and other bright colors. Perhaps that’s just one opinion of a designer?

    I also read that if you have more earthy muted (muddied) colors like off reds and rusty colors, you shouldn’t use a bright (as in clear, crisp) yellow (say Hawthorne for example). But I can’t tell you how many sites I see these bright crisp clean yellows with muted furniture. Is that another designers opinion or a general rule?

    I’m using Bryant Gold in my living/dining area, and I would like to use a nice muted red in my kitchen (which has dark cherry cabinets) but what undertone do I look for? It is currently painted SW Viva Gold, and I never really liked that color for whatever reason. My home is very traditional tudor style.


    • I think it will help you to study the colour wheel, don’t get bogged down in the undertones, look at samples and how they feel good together, sounds like your mentioning lots of warm colours which are all neighbours on the colour wheel and will all work once undertones are not cold colours.

      Also often designers choose neutral colour and will pick one accent colour that is various degrees of that colour, muted and bright in order to bring a room together.

      Does that help?

  4. Terrific article. I find myself having no trouble with undertones but did find it difficult to work with a group on a community paint project. Many in the group could not decipher undertones so those of us who could found it hard to explain to those who could not.

    • Yes, undertones can be difficult to explain. I find it is best to show by putting colors side by side. Usually by comparison people can see the undertone or at least the differences more easily.

  5. I have a small, interior hallway with connecting rooms painted in soft, pale yellow, a medium, blue-gray, and a soft green. Those three colors are all ‘quiet’ and lovely, but I thought I’d like a ‘relief’ in the hallway, and am thinking of painting it white. My problem is I can’t decide if I should go towards a bright white or a soft white. My fear is if I use a bright white it will close in the hallway by jumping out at me, but if I use a soft or creamy white it may look dingy since there’s little natural light in the space. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    • Making color decisions can be confusing. That is why I do my best to post helpful information and tips here on my website. Unfortunately my work with my corporate clients does not leave me with time to answer individual questions however I have trained hundreds of designers and color consultants who are available to assist you with your specific situation. Please visit the directory of color pros here on my site where you will find someone that can help you directly:


  6. how do i see undertone….plz give time to dis article ro clear confusion in finding undertone …give some example by illustration ot photo….side by side…it will be helpful for us…thank you

  7. It seems there are a lot of articles that discuss undertones but then seem to stop short once the undertone is determined. For example, after determining that a light gray tile floor has purple undertones, what are some paint colors that would work? What goes with purple undertones?

    • Purple itself or any colour that is close to purple on colour wheel or complimentary opposite to it, or simply another neutral with similar undertone !!

      • Cristy Carey says

        I have gray walls with purple undertone that I do NOT want brought out. What color curtains should I use?

  8. I bought taupe chairs that have a serious moss green undertone. Eeeek! I cannot return the. And am now going to paint my wall to try to tone the hue down. I’m thinking about going with a neutral gray…. Any other suggestions would be appreciated! Floors are chocolate stained wood, trim is white. Current paint has a strong purple hue which makes matters even worse… Help!!!

    • Did you sort this out. Taupe is usually made of brown and grey, with whatever undertone. Make sure if you pink a grey that it’s undertone suits the chocolate in your floors!!! If you were painting and wanted to tone down a green you would use colour on opposite of colour wheel like red. …

      • *pick

      • Thanks Savannah, painted walls gray & think it helped a little. I’m now going to try red area rugs. Have tried various gray area rugs & they actually accentuate the problem !!

        • Gina the complement accentuates the color. It does not tone it down. Red will bring out the green. Green would make the taupe look less green however it sounds like you don’t wish to use green. Try yellow/gold or yellow/green or blue/green. Colors closer to green on the color wheel will help to tone down the green in the taupe while colors opposite will bring out more green.

  9. My living room gold, sage, and a lille burgundy accents. What undertone should I look for in paint. Orange? Yellow?

    • If the gold has warm undertone then yes red orange yellow all good, sometimes gold could have cooler undertone although definitely not as often !!

  10. If the gold has warm undertone then yes red orange yellow all good, sometimes gold could have cooler undertone although definitely not as often !!

  11. I just spent a significant amount of money on a beautiful gray Kravet velvet fabric to reupholster a camel back Ethan Allen sofa I inherited from my gandfather. I should have ordered a larger fabric swatch because upon delivery I discovered I should have bought a darker gray. Instead of a clean silver gray I envisioned it has a baby blue undertone that feels watery and underwhelming. I have a lot of aged brass and gold in the living room / open dining area and 2 vintage golden yellow velvet chairs I love but may be forced to reupholster because they clash with blue in sofa. Not currently in the budget and I LOVE my tufted barrel back chairs…

    In interim what color throws and pillows could I use to tone down blue and trick the eye to seeing a darker gray? Light gray walls (Bruton White by BM) and classic honey colored stained red oak wood floors).

  12. I am in the process of having white Formica 949-58 kitchen cabinets made. My problem is when I place various white paint colors next to the Formica I see on undertone of pink. I have Benjamin Moore analyze the Formica chip and the closest color match was oyster 2115-70. The colors named on the oyster paint strip included majestic mauve, iced mauve and mauve blush. I guess that why I kept picking up the pinkish undertone. My question is what shade of “white” paint would help the Formica appear less pink? Thank you for taking the time to write this article – with much appreciation….

    • Try BM White Dove.

    • I am getting enlightened by reading all this good info. BUT I need help with my color challenge. I bought a linen headboard ‘oatmeal’ in color but NOT neutral. It def has pink undertones(maybe in some light could be considered taupe). What wall color would downplay the pink? I used ivory bed coverings ( dont love them together but stuck for now). The rug has golds, beiges, greens tiny bit of red.

  13. My quest for complete info about undertones continues. Every source seems to explain undertones, but fails to fully explain how to use them effectively.

    I want to know:

    The article says that using harmonious undertones is the key to a successful color scheme. Okay, so what makes certain undertones harmonious and why?

    Why are certain undertones not harmonious?

    How many different undertones should there be in a pleasing color scheme?

    Should the same undertones be used throughout the house or can they vary?

    • Casey, your questions show me that you are putting too much emphasis on undertone when it is just one small part of what you need to be looking at when creating your color scheme. You need to start by determining the colors you want to use in your room or throughout your home. Once you have a scheme in mind you fine tune those color selections by considering value (lightness or darkness), intensity (bright or dull), undertone, and finish.

      In the case of most colors a range of undertones makes for a pleasing scheme. For examples a room with green in both warm and cool undertones can be much more eye appealing than having all greens with undertones that match.

      Neutrals and whites are the colors that seem to most benefit from understanding undertones. A beige with yellow undertones on the walls in the same room with a beige with red undertone carpet is not going to feel as harmonious as if both the beiges had the same undertones. In most cases you will want the undertone of your whites or neutrals match the predominate temperature — warm or cool — or your scheme. So if you have lots of cool greens and blues in your home a crisp clean white would keep with that same feeling. Creamy whites or neutrals have a natural affinity to warm color schemes.

      Color harmony follows the same principles for all colors regardless of undertone. For example, if a beige has a yellow undertone it falls into the yellow color family for the purposes of creating harmony.

      You are never going to gain a full understanding by reading an article on my website or anyone else’s site. Understanding any aspect of color is best learned by spending time as I mention in the article above, looking at colors side-by-side. Comparison and giving yourself time to look is the best teacher. Trust your eyes and natural instincts.

  14. I have painted my toilet and bathroom walls grey, I have painted a patch of the same colour on my lounge wall and it looks blue ? I wanted to paint 2 walls grey and 2 walls a taupe/beige colour ? Why does it look blue ?

  15. I bought a leather sofa and love seat in broadway khaki for my living room, my wall’s are mint green right now also I have a burglary wing chair across from the sofa in the corner open Comsat lots of light dark furniture also floor is reddish light brown .
    Would like to no if that would go with the living room sofa and love seat that I purchase Please let me know appreciate

  16. Hi I am moving into a home that has brazilian walnut floors and really dark kitchen cabinetry and also is an open concept. I would like to have gray as our color but would like to know the undertone color that would work best.

  17. I have Brazilian cherry floors that we are planning on staining with a bit of ebony to tone down the orange/red. We also have maple kitchen cabinets stained with “spice” cinnamon type color. I can see undertones but just don’t know what color I need to tone down the orange red in my cabinets and floor. Do I understand this correctly red undertones will look redder next to my cabinets and floor and green undertones will make my cabinets “pop”. So I don’t want my cabinets to pop or and for size the orange color. So again what undertone do I look for? Kinda confusing. Thanks for your help.