Understanding Paint Color Undertone

 

When it comes to choosing color for your home, what you don't immediately see about a paint color is as important as what you do notice.

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 think that first see about a color gives you all the information you need. But you can't always trust what you see. Often a color’s has qualities that at first are concealed. It isn't until you take a closer look that you discover exactly what a color is all about.

There is the color you first notice but there may also be a quality that is less obvious. This is the color’s undertone and it is often "hidden" and takes a closer look to see. It is important however that you do take a closer look because if you fail to recognize the colors undertone, it will show up when you least expect it. Choosing a color, especially a neutral, without considering the undertone can cause the color schemes you thought was perfect to feel amiss.

Understanding Undertone

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 on its own. Undertones become more apparent when a color is place near 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 either green or blue and periwinkle has an undertone of violet. Sometimes the undertone is referred as the way a color "leans" -- a turquoise that leans blue or a purple that leans red. These undertones are usually easy to see. 

With whites, neutrals and muted 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.

An example of a well-chosen white. The color blends beautifully with the surrounding
and the
Bellaforté Shake Shingles in Mountain Vari-Blend.

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 on your home's exterior. Here’s why: if you’ve ever seen or created a scheme that you thought should work, but didn’t, it was probably the undertones threw the scheme off rather than the mass tones of the colors. The specific colors you chose may have had undertones that were fighting each other instead of working together.

The mass tone and the undertone of the colors you select need to work together to create a harmonious color scheme. Now that you understand the importance of identifying the undertone, the next step is to learn how to detect it. For those just learning, the easiest way to see the undertone is to compare one color to another similar color. 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, while others will lean more green.

Comparing your paint swatch to the purest version of the main color is another way to see the undertone. When you place your blue swatch next to a true or 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. 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 way to confirm the undertone of the neutral you select won't class with your other colors is to place the neutral swatch against pure hues -- red, yellow, blue, green, orange, or purple. If your neutral has a green undertone, placing it next to red (the complement of green) will bring the green undertone out. If the neutral if the neutral has red or pink undertones those will more clearly come into view against green. Yellow undertones pop out against purple, orange against blue,

A little tidbit that can help you to know your right is that while neutrals can have an undertone of any color some are most common:

  • Beiges undertones are green, yellow/gold, red/pink and occasionally orange.
  • Undertones of colors most people describe as a gray are blue, green or purple.
  • Taupe or Greige is a color that is between beige and gray and doesn't lean towards a particular color.
     

Creating harmonies

It’s important to identify the undertone of your paint color because selecting a main color and trim color with harmonious undertones is the secret to creating a successful color scheme. Evaluating the color and its undertones is well worth the effort. Expertly choosing colors that harmonize is the foundation for designing a beautiful exterior. It may seem challenging at first, but like most things – a little effort now will pay off every time you look at your home.

Ready to know even more about choosing color? Here is another post that can help you as you choose your exterior color Color Lesson: Defining Colors


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