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What You Need to Know About Paint Undertones Before You Paint Anything White, Off-White, or Neutral

I finally made the decision: I was going to paint my walls white

The existing paint color, London Fog by Benjamin Moore, felt deeply depressing during the dark days of winter. I was ready for a change. But, which white paint to pick? There are thousands of options among dozens of paint manufacturers.

How exactly should you pick the right white? I wanted something not too stark but not too warm. And not too dark or too light. I was Goldilocks in search of the right porridge paint.

So you can avoid the mistakes I made, I’m going to tell you the answer right here: Once your figure out the right undertone for your room, picking a white, light, or neutral paint becomes WAY easier.

This post will tell you everything you need to know about undertones.

What Are Undertones?

All white, off-white, light and neutral paints have a secondary color that shows through. They are sort of a hinted color. Green, blue, yellow, pink, purple, beige, taupe, gray – each neutral paint color has a smidge of one of these colors. These whispers of color are the undertones in your paint.

Before I painted my entryway, I knew undertones were a thing, just standing back and looking at the white paint swatches lined together on the paint store wall. The columns of subtle color variations on the white swatches are pretty obvious. 

But beyond my basic level of seeing colors, in retrospect I see that my undertone knowledge was severely lacking.

Why Undertones Are Important

If you pair together two incompatible undertones, your space runs the risk of feeling mismatched. It’ll look incomplete and amateur. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. 

And that’s what happened to me.

I painted Simply White by Benjamin Moore on my walls, which has strong yellow undertones. My tile flooring has taupe and purple undertones. The comparison between the two undertones was awful. I could see it during the day, but it became really apparent at night with warm lamplight cast on it. 

I knew I needed to pick a different white paint and fix my undertone color clash.

How to See Undertones

Okay, so you’re now adequately aware of the possibility of making an undertone faux pas. Now what? Next step: learn how to see undertones in both your paint and your fixtures accurately. There are two main ways to see it: 

Compare Paint Colors to Each Other

Let’s go back to what happened with Simply White. To say it’s yellow is one thing. But yellow compared to … what?

Simply White has a yellow undertone. We can see that when we compare it to Benjamin Moore’s Chantilly Lace, a “true” white.

But then again, not as yellow as Benjamin Moore’s White Cloud.

See how looking at similar colors and comparing them can help you see the depth of the undertone?

Now compare Simply White to another designer favorite Benjamin Moore paint color, White Heron. Comparing them, you can see the yellow undertone in Simply White and the blue/green undertone in White Heron.

Use a True White as a Control

You can also use a white piece of paper or a true white paint chip to see undertones. Just hold the white sample to your other paint chips selection. Their undertones will be easier to see. 

Unintentionally, my pre-existing white base trim, painted Behr Ultra Pure White, acted as my white paper test for both my tile and freshly painted Simply White walls.

Here’s a quick list of true, zero undertone whites for each paint company:

  • Benjamin Moore Chantilly Lace
  • Sherwin Williams Extra White
  • Behr Ultra Pure White
  • Valspar Ultra White
  • Clare Paint Fresh Kicks
  • Farrow and Ball All White

A Few Notes on Seeing Undertones

It’s super important to do your comparison experiments in the room you plan to paint. Not the paint store. For one, there’s terrible lighting there, and two, the paint sample will, without fail, look different in your home. I 100% understand being eager and trying to be efficient and not go to the store more than once. But the extra effort will pay off, and you’re less likely to make a paint color blunder if you take the time to look at it at home.

Case in point: Sherwin Williams’ Snowbound. Buying a sample, I thought it would be the perfect replacement for Simply White. It looked great online, in the store, and outside in the parking lot. But in my house, it looked pink. Really pink. It shouldn’t look pink because the undertones are grey/beige. But that’s just how it looked in my space.

Sherwin Williams’ Snowbound lookin SO GOOD … in a house that isn’t mine | source

Also, sometimes it’s hard to identify the undertones. Know that’s okay. To be completely honest, I sometimes struggle to see green undertones in paint swatches. Ultimately, the goal isn’t to become a color paint expert. The goal is to paint your walls with something that works for your home. When it came to green undertones, I just knew something about the chip samples that looked “off” and moved on to other options.

What To Do With Undertones

After a bit of playing around with paint chips, you should be able to see undertones. Now what?

Your Goal with Undertones: 

  1. Figure out the undertones of your fixed elements and
  2. Match them with white or neutral paint that has the same or similar undertone

Your fixed elements are your literal hard things in your home: your fireplace stone, your countertops, your tile floors, your woodwork. Fixed elements are literally attached to your home and aren’t super easy to change out. Furniture, throw pillows, and your other decor items don’t count as fixed elements.

Once you know those features’ undertone, you can narrow your white paint options down significantly. No longer are you looking at hundreds of paint swatches.

The undertones of my tiles were taupe and purple. My final paint solution? 

The final decision landed on Sherwin Williams Pure White. It has a gray undertone, with barely a hint of yellow. The trim is Sherwin Williams Heron Plum with a violet-grey undertone.

Note – Why the switch to Sherwin Williams from Benjamin Moore? The Benjamin Moore store near me closed, making the drive across the city a pain to get to the next closest one. But Sherwin Williams is near my favorite grocery store. And for this multi-tasking mama, convenience won out. 

Back to undertones! Undertones in your fixed elements don’t have to match precisely. But for a cohesive look, cool colors – green, blue, purple – should stick together. And warm colors – red/pink, orange, yellow – should also stick together.

Exceptions To The Rule

Remember: we’re talking about matching the undertones in paint and your hard, fixed elements. You don’t have to duplicate EVERYTHING in your room.

Take note of the undertones in your fabrics, rugs, vases, picture frames. The entire room’s design and decor don’t have to be matchy-matchy to work. Often it can be more attractive for your eyes to mix warm and cool elements. 

Once you start seeing undertones, it’s hard to stop. It can get distracting. Not too long ago, I flipped through an HGTV magazine, and the featured kitchen’s undertones were entirely off. It was a jarring warm versus cool clash. But the homeowner – according to the write-up – loved it. And happiness in your own home is what DIY home design is all about.

Let’s Recap

Undertones – they’re everywhere in light, white, and neutrals paints! So when you get ready to pick a paint color, it’s essential to take note of your fixed elements’ undertones. Match the undertones to your paint samples to select the right paint color.

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One Comment

  1. Great start on your blog, fellow Activator! Another trick with undertones when your looking at the sample cards with several colors ranging fro light on top to darken the bottom, is to look at the darkest one which will give you the best idea of the color undertones.
    I look forward to reading your other posts.

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