How Paint Color Undertones Work (and why it matters)

How Paint Color Undertones Work
How to Use Paint Color Undertones | Color.About.com. Photo ©Jean-Yves Bruel/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

What are Paint Color Undertones?

Here is the simplest way to define undertones in paint: When a color is created by mixing two or more colors together, the undertone appears through the exact proportion of color used. In creating a beige, if the color formula has a little more green in it, then it will have a green undertone, with more red, it becomes a pink undertone (this is why choosing neutrals like  beige and taupe can be so tricky!) 

The only colors that are not created by mixing color together, are the primaries (red, blue, and yellow.) As it relates to paint color, only a true red, blue, or yellow, created with pure pigment would not have an undertone, but the vast majority of paint colors have an undertone of some kind, even white. Though white is not technically a color, it can have an undertone when a tint is added, like the popular Swiss Coffee. 

Every Paint Color Has a Secret

Undertones are the secret code of every color. Once you crack the code, you can choose paint color with confidence. It would be perfectly reasonable to expect that your new blue paint would look just fine with white, but the green undertone in there makes it a terrible match for the pink undertone in the white paint color you chose.

Understanding Undertones and Masstones

When looking at any color, your eyes can quickly identify its masstone. This is the main aspect of a color, so that when you see it you say “oh, that’s blue.” The undertone is the subtle influence of one color underneath the masstone, that distinguishes it from similar colors.

  The undertone is not always readily apparent until it is paired with other colors, or under certain lighting. 

How Can You Identify an Undertone?

The quickest way to determine undertone is to compare it to a color that you know to be a true color in the same masstone. If you are trying to find the undertone for a red, then compare it next to a true red.

This will give you an idea of whether your red has more yellow or violet undertone. It’s not always easy to find a true color for comparison, so use a color wheel to be sure you have the purest color for comparison. 

Sampling a paint color in your home is the best way to check a color if you’re still not sure about what undertone you're facing. Everything from floor and counter surfaces to lighting, and even foliage outside, can bring out surprising undertones on your painted walls. If you’ve already taken the plunge and painted the walls and are battling an unwanted undertone, try replacing light bulbs and lighting before repainting. Light bulbs can be warm, cool, or natural, and can correct undertone problems quickly and inexpensively.

Once you’ve decided on a few colors based on your sampling and comparison, sample them again in your home.  I prefer the use of a large painted board for sampling, as you can move it around to see how it looks in all corners of the room, and in all light.

Which Undertones are the Biggest Troublemakers?

Pink and green capture the title of the most difficult and wily paint color undertones. Even the most neutral gray or beige can become green in certain settings.

Green undertones aren’t always easily visible until they meet up with your cabinetry or flooring with its own undertones of yellow or orange. This is what makes the green undertones problematic. The prevalence of warm woods in our homes really sets off even the slightest green undertone. Chalk this up to basic color theory. It’s actually the blue in your paint color formula that is throwing a green cast. For warmer cabinets and flooring, try a warmer wall color, or a neutral with a yellow or red undertone.

Pink is another problem undertone, especially with taupe and beige. All it takes a slight prevalence of red in the neutral formula, for pink to emerge. The opposite of the green undertone problem, the pink undertone appears most often when near a green, blue, or violet color. If you’re having trouble with a pink undertone, try a neutral with a warm yellow undertone instead.

 

Here is the Easy Way to Manage Paint Color Undertones

No extensive color theory instruction is needed to master paint color undertones. If you can see that the colors you’ve chosen have a green or blue undertone that doesn't work in the room, then try warmer colors.  If a yellow or pink undertone appears when you are combining colors, try a cooler color. 

Sometimes just making adjustments based on color temperatures, are enough to tackle any undertone issues without having to overanalyze it. What can feel like an undertone issue, can actually be a color temperature problem, and that is an easy color problem to solve.