Color is dynamic. Every color has a vibrant public persona, but it also has more subtle attributes that the human eye does not immediately see. One of the most effective techniques for alleviating frustration and mastering color, especially when it comes to neutrals, is to understand materials and paint color undertones.
It could be easy to believe that your first look at any color gives you all the information you need. Don't be too quick to make a decision. 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 may be 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 you fail to recognize the undertone, it will show up when you least expect it. Disrespected undertones will cause colors you thought were perfect to feel amiss once put into a color scheme.
What is an Undertone?
To understand undertone, you need to know that colors have a mass tone and may also have an undertone. The mass tone is the color you directly see. The undertone of color may not be immediately apparent, especially in white and neutral tones.
Undertone is not natural for most people to see, but once you are aware that it may be there, you will begin to look for it. Not all colors have an undertone. The purer the color, the less you need to be concerned with the underlying color. Undertone lives primarily in the domain of whites and neutrals.
The less colorful, the more difficult it becomes to understand what pigments came together to produce a particular color. For example, many shades of gray are a mix of black and white and may not have an undertone, but these are not always the grays people want to use. There is a wide range of shades of grays that are a mixture of 3 to fourteen pigments. When a color contains a combination of multiple pigments, it is more challenging to identify that color's undertone because you can't readily identify the colors that came together to produce it.
The more complex the formula and less pure the color, the more difficult it can become to determine the undertone. However, in my experience, either not recognizing or incorrectly identifying undertone causes most color mishaps, making it worth your time to take a closer look.
How to Identify the Undertone of a Color?
Understanding how to select the correct color is essential, but choosing the exact color that also has the right undertone is even more critical. Here's why. If you ever see or create a scheme or design that should work but doesn't, it is probably the undertones that are 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 choose 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 one color to other similar colors.
Start by looking at your chosen color alongside other colors from the same color range. Although the hues all are close in appearance, you will see how their undertones are different. For example, some cooler grays will lean more purple, while others will slant more green or blue. Warm grays have a hint of tan or brown. Comparing your swatch to the pure color is another way to see the undertone. If you place your gray next to the most neutral gray you can find, 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 sample 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 complicated. You can compare neutrals to other similar neutrals, but that doesn't guarantee you will quickly 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 most often has undertones that are yellow, green, red/pink, and occasionally orange. Gray, on the other hand, usually has blue, green, or purple undertones while warm grays often called greige lean beige, tan or brown.
It's essential 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 colors will always coordinate perfectly.
Designers also use undertone to emphasize or downplay elements within a design skillfully. 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 colors, they know that the look achieved by finding a white or gray that has an undertone of the desired color is often more successful than going straight for the color itself. 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 actual pink paint.
Evaluating the color and the undertones are well worth the effort. Expertly choosing colors that harmonize is the foundation for designing beautiful designs. It may seem challenging at first, but like most things – practice makes perfect!
Color Theory Tutorial
Go to Lesson 1: Hue Value Chroma Explained
Go to Lesson 2: Understanding the Color Wheel
Jump to Lesson 3: Creating Color Harmony
Head to Lesson 4: Color Temperature
You are currently on Lesson 5: Understanding Undertone
On to Lesson 6: High Key, Low Key Color Combinations
Appendix 1: Color Terminology Glossary