Undertones are the secret code of every color. Once you crack the code, you can choose paint color with confidence.
When it comes to color, it’s what’s underneath that counts. One of the most effective techniques for avoiding frustration and mastering color is to understand how your paint color undertones affect what the eye actually sees.
Mass tone vs Undertone
To understand the concept of undertones you need to understand 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.
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.
As Kylie M. says about undertones on her decorating and design blog:
- If you have a lot of green/trees/grass outside your window, 1 or more of your walls might look slightly green
- If you have northern exposure, your walls might look a bit more gray/blue toned
- If you have southern exposure, your walls might look a bit softer/warmer
- If you have furniture that is a particular ‘colour’ (ie: red/blue/green/etc…) this can be reflected onto your walls
- If you use warm toned bulbs with a blue-tinted white, you might see a bit of green
- If you have a wood ceiling, this can reflect an orange/warm tone on to your walls from the top down
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.
When you’ve decided on a color
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 foliage outside can bring out surprising undertones on your paint. If you’ve already taken the plunge and painted your cabinets or walls, and you’re battling an unwanted undertone, try replacing light bulbs and lighting before repainting.
Modern LED light bulbs can be warm, cool, or natural, and can help correct undertone problems quickly and inexpensively. If you’re using LED lights, lights with a “cool” tone give off a hue that is most often blue, but can also be green. Those “cool” lights are marked with an intensity of 5500K (Kelvin) or greater. “Natural” LED lights are between 5500K and 6500K, and attempt to offer happy medium between cool and warm light. “Warm” toned LED lights give off a color that can range from golden yellow to red. Warm LED lights range from 2700K to 3000K.
As you look at the palettes below, although they don’t look like “pure whites” – they are! What you see are the pure undertones because the white part fades into the background. All of these colors on a wall would look pure white but when we look at the colors this way, we seen the undertones perfectly clear!
I just want white
Many of my customers start off by telling me they just want their cabinets painted white. This is usually what starts our discussion of undertones.
We’ve painted some of the bright whites dozens of times. One color that is very bright white is called “Extra White”. If you scroll through some of the previous cabinets we’ve painted with Extra White you can see how the exact same color can look different based on the surrounding colors, light sources and time of day.
Experiment: If you want to see what a difference time of day can make, try this experiment. Take a photo of your kitchen from the same spot at different times during the day. Try to get one as early in the morning as you can, then snap one while you’re eating breakfast, another at mid-morning if possible, lunch, mid-afternoon, dinner, sunset and then before you head off to bed. When you’re finished, look at the photos together and notice how everything looks different in each photo.
We can help
As 2 Cabinet Girls approaches 1,000 kitchens and bathrooms transformed, we can help mitigate the undertone color challenge for you. Even if you don’t agree the color we suggest, we’ll do our best to keep you from making a choice that you won’t love later.