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What color should I paint the walls? Decorating with neutral paint colors

Updated on February 3, 2017

Beautiful Warm, Earthy Neutrals in a Cottage


The dominant blue in the gray neutral wall brings out the intensity of its complement in the orange flooring

Blue-gray neutral backdrop brings out the intensity of it's complement, orange
Blue-gray neutral backdrop brings out the intensity of it's complement, orange | Source

Tan, Beige, white, cream, and How to choose a neutral wall color for your room

Neutral colors are popular with people because they seem easier to deal with than bright colors. Committing to a bright color for a room is like committing to a bright color for your hair. You might be called edgy and hip, on the other hand, you could make a fool of yourself. And there is no hiding...

Neutrals are beautiful , not boring!

So neutrals are our friend. And the truth is, they really are. Contrary to what people assume, neutrals don't have to be boring or blah at all. In fact, they can give a room a glow and an aura that bright paints simply can't compete with.

The difficulty about neutrals, of course, is that there are so many. There are so many vague, similar, varying shades of tans, ivories, and taupes, it's easy to become confused, close your eyes and pick one. There isn't much difference, right?

Scary stories of neutrals gone bad

Wrong. Let me tell you a little cautionary tale about taupe. To begin with, I am an artist, I paint paintings. I know color, I work in color, and it's one of my favorite things to experiment with. So when I picked out the "perfect" grey- beige color of taupe for the living room in my first house, I wasn't worried at all. So I painted. And although the first wall didn't look quite right, I blamed it on the afternoon light and went on to the next wall. But the next wall took on the same ugly, pale, pinkish-purple undertone that the first wall did. But, I was committed so I finished , still thinking the light had something to do with it. It wasn't the light. It was awful and although I had to wait to save my money for more paint, I repainted as quickly as possible. And I've never bought another taupe in my life.

Now I realize that most taupes have a grayish undertone to them and aren't just another variety of beige . And because grays are usually more on the cool side of the color spectrum, violet is many times dominant because it's a cool . So lots of times, taupe will have a purplish hue.. Which is fine if that is what you want. But knowing it can save a lot of time and heartache!

Neutrals two basic categories; gray or brown

So let me explain a couple of things about greys and browns first to give you a better understanding. Greys are usually made up of violet and yellow, or blue and orange, and like I said, usually the cooler tone (the violet or blue) is dominant.

Browns like beige are usually made up of red and green or orange and blue, but the warmer hue (red and orange) dictates this time. Tans and beiges are usually browns, taupes are usually greys, and khakis can be a mix, as can "stone"- which I've seen a lot of lately.

Choosing your neutral by describing your home and it's style-

So how does this help you choose your neutral? Well, if you are going for a contemporary, minimalistic look, for instance, and have a lot of steel or silver, greys, blues, and/or violets, you might want to look in the taupes to keep the look cool and clean. Sometimes it helps to think about the things you would like to emphasize in your room/home. Or how you would describe what you want it to reflect. If you are emphasizing clean, sharp, modernistic line, crisp clean shiny surfaces, steel and glass and light, then cools- blues, cool greens, violets and taupes and greys will probably by what your after. Look for descriptors like "stone", "icy"," platinum", and "winter".

If, on the other hand, you are decorating a cottage- think about things a cottage brings to mind: tea stains, bread, warmth, fires, parchment , wooden furniture and wax candles- so you want to emphasize warmth, and the warm neutrals are going to be the browns, creams, ivories. Anything that has "tea"," sand"," antiqued", adjectives like that will point you toward the warmer neutrals.

The neutral wall color you choose will affect how other items look in the room - Be aware of how complementary colors work

You also have the colors of the existing furniture, floors, and woodwork to consider as you choose your new paint. Because whatever paint you choose as your neutral, will have more effect on those things than you realize. This has to do with the dominant color in the neutral and what that dominant color will bring out in whatever it is close to; skin tones, fabrics, woodwork, etc. Without getting technical, here is a little rundown of complementary colors and how they work. If you know what a color wheel looks like, the colors opposite of each other are always complements.

Complementary colors do two things. Understand them and discover the "magic" of a neutral wall color.

Two colors that are complements have two different effects on each other. First, if put side by side, they make the other more intense looking than if it were next to any other color. Example: Red and green are complements, there is a reason those colors are so popular together in the doldrums of wintertime. They literally vibrate when they are put next to one another. And second, if complements are mixed, they become a neutral. Mix up your red and green and you will get a lovely brown. Same with all the complement pairs: Red and green, Violet and yellow, oranges and blues.

So, we know what our neutrals are made up of now, but what colors will they bring out? Well it takes some attention on your part, but if you can identify, for instance, that the grey you like has a bluish cast or undertone, that particular grey will bring out warmth in your woodwork, and would work nicely in a room punctuated with orange because the dominant color in the grey is blue, oranges complement. If a beighe or ivory has yellow or peach(yellow and orange) undertones, it's going to bring out the cooler fabrics; that pale robins egg chair will appear more vibrant, for instance.

So, take along a little color wheel (you can get them in art or hobby stores) or print one off online.

Before you paint-

The last thing I always do with my paint chips is look at them out of the store. They will change tremendously when they are in the cooler daylight or in the warmer light of your home. And my last piece of advice before you paint that room is to buy a piece of poster board and paint it with the color you want. Tack it up on the wall you want it on and leave it there for a day or two. This gives you and exact idea of what it will look like in the morning, noon and evening light. Also when your lights are on and bright or dimmed. Put a couple of colors you're undecided about up next to each other and do this and you will have your mind made up at the end of the day!

Most of all, have fun and go with your gut feeling to a color. Look in your closet and check out the colors of clothing that looks good on you. Do you choose crisp whites or creamy khaki or earthy browns? You're going to be in that room a lot, so choose something that looks good on you! Have fun invigorating and freshening your space with beautiful neutral wall colors and have confidence- you know more about the colors you want to live with than you realize!


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    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico

      What a coincidence! Our council has modernized after 200 years of nervously contemplating doing so, and the color we all have now is...Magnolia! Much warmer and more earthy than beige but it do get boooring as well.

      To grinnin1. Yes, the British seem to have invented the word drab, or funereal might be better. So sick of seeing young ladies gowned in black everything. Depressing place really.


    • BristolBoy profile image

      BristolBoy 4 years ago from Bristol

      I don't think you can ever go wrong with good old magnolia. It is the buy to let and estate agents colour of choice for a reason!

    • grinnin1 profile image

      grinnin1 5 years ago from st louis,mo

      Good ole beige, you can't go wrong there! Watch out if that evil taupe ever gets in the mix! I was in London wearing a red coat one spring and noticed I was the only person wearing a coat that wasn't grey, black or tan.So maybe the English stick to your more basic neutrals... Your comments always make me laugh out loud. I have a lot of English in me- I think we may be related....Thanks for stopping by as always-

    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Interesting and erudite article.

      My council acquired 6 million imperial gallons of beige paint in 1880, or thereabouts.

      You can put in a request to have your flat painted (one room per year) in any color as long as it's basic beige.

      Like teeth, we have "poor man's paint" here in Essex."