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Know Your Neutrals

by Quinn Larson

You thought picking a neutral would be a cake walk, but curiously you find yourself staring at a purple wall, when you are sure you bought a gray.  Perhaps you are questioning why this is when neutrals are the recommended, no fail, go with anything and everything colors.  Here is a little insight to why neutrals can be fickle and some tricks for zeroing on the right ones for your home. 

I’m going to deliver some truths here, so brace yourself. I’m sorry to break it to you, but you’ve been lied to all this time regarding neutrals.

Neutral truth 1: Neutrals are not simple, in any respect.  

Neutrals are exceptionally complex colors that belong to color families. They are colors that have been mixed, muddied and toned down to the point where they can appear to have no color. The more colors we mix into a color the lower the chroma, and the more complex it becomes.

Take a look at the chroma scale below:

A color’s chroma is how bright or intense it is.  High chroma colors are what we would consider clean, bright and free of any kind of muddying. Low chroma colors are the opposite; they are not clean or pure and what we consider neutrals or neutralized colors.  Low chroma colors can be muddied to the point they are difficult to discern for what they are.  Recognizing their color family takes a little practice in undertone identification.

Neutral Truth 2: Neutrals can be warm or cool

All six color families have neutrals.  The neutrals of each family will retain thier color family attributes, though with diminished impact. Cool color families (green, blue, purple) will have cool toned neutrals with cool color properties. Warm color families (red, orange, yellow) will have warm toned neutrals with warm color properties.

Let’s compare a blue and red chroma scale,

and take a closer look at the two on the end.

The red family neutral, left, feels warmer than the blue neutral on the right.  A big step in the right direction for selecting neutrals is to acknowledge this and chose a neutral as you would a higher chroma color. For example, you want a neutral wall color, but you’d prefer a cozier feel over a spacious one.  If you were selecting a higher chroma color you might select an orange or yellow color to suit this need. The best place to select neutrals then would be from the yellow or orange family.

What about gray? Grays are achromatic right?

Neutral Truth 3: Grays are not achromatic

Colors can be so muted, washed out and neutralized that they don’t register as colors remember?  When a color reaches that point, we call it a gray. True, achromatic gray is the end of the road for the chroma of a color, and a last point that all color families will share.  However, before you reach that point, there are thousands of grayed colors.

I’ve pulled some examples of grays from each color family for comparison.

Greaceful Gray PPU18-12, Burnished Clay PPU18-09, Creek Bend 790F-4, Falcon Gray PPU26-04, Gentle Rain 790E-2

Red toned grays feel very complex.  Some lighting can make theses grays appear as mauves or to have a subtle pink tint.

Smokestack N220-3, Sculptor Clay PPU5-8, Eiffel For You MQ2-37, Elephant Skin PPU18-16, Griege PPU24-11

Orange toned neutrals make up the greige (beige + gray), and taupe families.  These tones, in warmer lighting conditions, can appear as browns.

Whitewash Oak PPU24-12, Arid Plains PPU25-07, Silver Drop 790C-2, Tanglewood N320-3, Silver City MQ2-59

The yellow family is, by far, the most forgiving and versatile as far as grays go.  In warm lighting conditions these grays can appear like tans or off whites.

Battleship Gray N360-4, Pumice MQ6-23, Old Celadon PPU25-05, Granite Boulder 790D-4, Brampton Gray PPU11-16

These grays can appear as sages or spruces depending on the temperature of the lighting.  Green undertoned grays are popular choices for exterior use.

Tin Foil N500-3, Dark Pewter PPU18-4, Rainmaster MQ5-22, Ocean Swell PPU25-19, Sterling 780E-3

These tones will impart a cooler feel to a room and can appear blue in darker conditions. Like the green family, blue toned grays are popular choices for exteriors.

Classy MQ5-4, Natural Gray PPU18-10, Silver Bullet N520-2, Smokey Wings PPU26-07, Suede Gray PPU18-17

Purple undertoned hues are probably the most challenging of the gray tones.  Not only can it be difficult to recognize the undertone, but their murky, complex nature reveals itself in a color that changes its appearance throughout the day.

Neutral Truth 4: Lighting will make or break your neutral

The color complexity of neutrals means they are very susceptible to the influence of lighting. Light is color, and different sources of lighting, natural or artificial, will effect how the neutrals appear.

Take this light gray room with standard midday light.

In the early morning with the bright warm morning sun it might look more like this:

In a home with the blue light of a north facing window it might look like this:

The only thing that has changed in the room is the light temperature.  You can see now how the percieved wall color is dependent on the light source.

You should have an idea now why the color you selected may appear so different than what you thought you picked out.  Let’s review some of the key takeaways about neutrals to help you choose the perfect shade for your home.

#1.) Neutrals retain the color attributes of their parent families, just on a softer scale.  For example yellow based neutrals will impart a warm feeling, blue based neutrals a cool feeling.

#2.) Neutrals have more color nuance than brighter, clean shades.  You’ll want to pay close attention to undertone when selecting shades.

#3.) Lighting plays a huge role in the perception of colors, and neutrals are particularly sensitive.  Be sure to test your color in your space to see how it will appear throughout the day.

We strongly recommend sampling colors on your walls before committing to a color.  This is especially true for neutrals whose appearance can be quite transitional throughout the day.

For more information, ideas, and inspiration on color visit our Color Studio at behr.com.  Our Paint Your Place tool is a great starting point for exploring, comparing and contrasting color within your own space.

Colorfully yours,

Quinn

24 responses to “Know Your Neutrals”

  1. Tina says:

    What is the color on the walls used in your example?

  2. Kathryn Foster-Martin says:

    I am painting my kitchen cabinets in Sweet As Honey. They are appliqued on the front with grape vines and the look is kinda country french/victorian vintage. The countertops are slate formica with rope edge trim. Backsplash is white subway tiles with black grout and black rope edge trim. White appliances. The kitchen is open to the family room, which has buttery yellow and oxblood upholstered furniture. The space measures 18′ x 22′.

    White for the walls is way too bright. Im looking for a gray green or green gray, whichever you might suggest. I want it to be soft and vintage. Morning light is plentiful, not so much in the aftrernoon. I tend toward warm colors, cooler tones are visually offensive although i love them for other people.

    Thank you so much in advance for your suggestions! I love Behr, it is the only paint I ever use☺️

    • Deanna Torrez says:

      Kathryn,
      Thank you for your interest in BEHR paint!

      A gray green or green gray will work perfectly. Here are some recommendations that will work nicely with your kitchen furnishings – Light Year N370-3, Eon N370-2, Heath Gray N380-2, Foggy London PPU25-09 or Soft Secret PPU25-10.

      Colorfully Yours,

      Deanna

  3. Traci Ramirez says:

    Hello,
    I painted a couple of walls in my 2 story great room with Natural Gray (before finding this page) and testing it on 2 walls. Of course it looks light purple on one of the smallest wall that I didn’t test and of course I bought a 5 gallon bucket. Any suggestions? I want to lighten up my great room and have tried at least 10 different samples. I have tried BM revere pewter (too yellow), behr graceful gray, greige and classic silver, glidden pebble beach to name a few!

    • Deanna Torrez says:

      Traci,
      Thank you for your interest in Behr Paint!
      An option could be taking it to the Home Depot so they can see what to add in order to make is less purple. It is only appearing purple on that wall perhaps that wall can be a different color in an accent hue and remaining walls can be in the Natural Gray.

      Colorfully Yours,

      Deanna

  4. Paintpixy says:

    A most excellent and totally helpful tutorial on grays. I love gray paint. They are complex but when you nail it, you’ll know it! I went through the process many times and it’s def all about the undertones. When you have that “ah-ha moment” do the dance baby!!

  5. Jennifier says:

    This was a very informative read. I’m looking to paint my master bedroom in the next few months a shade of grey. I haven’t even began to research yet, so I’m happy I found this. Hopefully it won’t be too overwhelming when the time comes. Thank you.

  6. Harriet says:

    Please help! I have very old oak flooring throughout my home, which of course has yellowed a lot! I would like to paint hallways a soft grey perhaps, so would i use a yellow based grey? or stick to a cooler blue based grey? What do you recommend? thank you.

    • Deanna Torrez says:

      Hi Harriet,
      Thank you for your interest in BEHR Paint!
      Either color gray will work nicely.
      Here are some recommendations that will coordinate.
      Planetary Silver N460-2, Evening White N460-1, Seagull Gray N360-1, Evaporation N450-1, or Toasty Gray N320-2.

      Colorfully Yours,
      Deanna

  7. Anne says:

    So if I have a home with blue toned gray exterior paint and white trim, what door color do you recommend??

    • Deanna Torrez says:

      Hi Anne,
      Thank you for your interest in BEHR Paint!
      We will recommend the following colors for your front door.
      Precious Stone M470-6, Royal Gold M280-4, Valley of Glaciers M480-6, Amiable Orange M230-6, or Antique Tin PPU18-03.

      Colorfully Yours,

      Deanna

  8. Donna Barry says:

    I have a deep red dining room that I want to leave. I want to paint the room adjoining a grey. As well as the kitchen and family room a shade of grey. What colors would flow well with red? Thank you!!

    • Deanna Torrez says:

      Hi Donna,
      Thank you for your interest in BEHR Paint!
      Here are some shades of gray that will work with a deep red.
      Ashen Tan N220-2,Doeskin Gray N200-2, Graceful Gray PPU18-12, Classic Silver PPU18-11, Sonic Silver HDC-MD-26, or Nightingale Gray N200-3.
      Also we offer 8oz samples for purchase so you can test these marvelous shades of gray on your walls prior to making a big purchase.
      Colorfully Yours,
      Deanna

  9. Mary says:

    How can I tell which grays are yellow toned, or blue toned, etc? Is there something about the numbering system, or some other way, besides being able to see the undertone with your own eyes? Because I have the equivalent of tone deafness with respect to color. 🙂

    • Deanna Torrez says:

      Hi Mary,
      Thank you for your interest in BEHR Paint!
      The cooler blue/purple/green toned grays will be throughout N320 to N570.
      The warmer red/yellow/brown toned grays will be from N200 to N310.
      If there is a certain gray you are having a hard time deciphering the undertone please let us know and we will be happy to help.

      Colorfully Yours,

      Deanna

  10. Monta says:

    Have blue tinted windows and a lot of natural light. What undertone would you suggest for a nice true light gray?

    • Deanna Torrez says:

      Hi Monta,
      Thank you for your interest in BEHR Paint!
      We will recommend the following light grays.
      Evening White N460-1, Seagull Gray N360-1, Drizzle PPU26-14, Silent White PPU26-13.

      Colorfully Yours,
      Deanna

  11. KE says:

    Hi! I love the light greige walls with white trim. I’m trying to paint a tall room with large windows (lots of light) this modern “farmhouse” color. The problem is the current walls are light mustard yellow (90’s) BM revere pewter looks really silver, SW perfect greige looks eggplant.
    Would I go with a yellow base grey? Which of your paints would you recommend? Thanks!

    • Deanna Torrez says:

      Hello KE,
      Thank you for your interest in BEHR Paint!
      We will recommend the following light greige hues – Ashen Tan N220-2, Spun Wool N220-1, Greige PPU24-11, or Moth Gray N200-1.
      Also we offer 8oz samples for purchase so you can test these marvelous shades of gray on your walls prior to making a big purchase.
      Colorfully Yours,
      Deanna

  12. Nadine Fernandez says:

    what darker blue-toned grays are good for exterior of a 2 story colonial house?

    • Deanna Torrez says:

      Hello Nadine,
      Thank you for your interest in BEHR Paint!
      Here are some perfect blue-toned grays – Antique Tin PPU18-03, Dark Pewter PPU18-04, Intergalactic N450-5, Charcoal Blue N490-5 or Moonquake N450-4.

      Also we offer 8oz samples for purchase so you can test these marvelous shades of gray on your walls prior to making a big purchase.

      Colorfully Yours,
      Deanna

  13. Erica Barkshire says:

    Could you please tell me what under tones are in fast as the wind. I’ve tried so many samples….but so far they’ve been blue and lavender! Or can you recommend a color? I painted a blue gray in my guest bath and love it but I don’t want it for my main floor which is an open floor plan. If I didn’t paint stripes on my walls I wouldn’t paint at all! Lol Thank you!

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