Debunking Paint Colors: Understanding Undertones

Ever heard of masstones and undertones when it comes to color? I’ll debunk the mystery!

You know the three pure primary colors of red, yellow and blue, as well as the non-colors of basic white (the origin of all colors) and true black (the absence of color) and all colors are created by some combination of these five hues. The masstone of a color is the dominant one, it’s what you see first. For example, in the color magenta, the masstone is red while the undertone is blue. When looking at turquoise, the masstone is blue with a green undertone.

But don’t look at paint colors in isolation.

My best tip: audition the color in the room you plan to use it. The major paint companies offer sample pints or poster boards or peel and stick versions of the same so you can test out the colors before you commit.  This way you will be able to see them in all light conditions and see how they play with other colors in the room (or even the foliage or brick wall of a neighboring building or sky or ocean outside your large windows).

If the undertone is still not apparent to you, here are three more tips that might help.  First, hold the paint sample up to a white piece of paper to discover the masstone and undertone. Second, look at the potential selection(s) in comparison to the other hues in the manufacturer’s color card or five-color paint strip or, likewise, in its location among the hundreds of colors on the display wall at the paint store.  If you are wondering if the teal color you are choosing reads more blue or green, it should be more apparent if it is organized with more blue samples or green ones.  Finally, look at the paint color’s name.  If you’re looking at a neutral white with a name like lemon chiffon, it will have a yellow undertone.

If you find that you’ve made a costly mistake, there is a remedy: color temperature. For example, if your newly-painted grey kitchen cabinets have a blue undertone you didn’t discover til the job was complete, warm up the cool temperature of a blue color with a warm one like a choice from the orange family (blue’s complement on the color wheel) or even red or yellow and/or introduce more warm wood tones in the room. All is not lost and you might like the unexpected addition of the warmer color in your pale peach paint or apricot kitchen curtains.

With many satisfied clients since 2008, Barbara Graceffa owns and operates Secretary of the Interior in Quincy, MA offering creative decorating services at reasonable rates. If you have a blog topic to suggest or need professional help with decorating, downsizing, decluttering, or home staging and relocation services, please contact her via her website or phone 617.921.6033.

By Barbara Graceffa

Barbara Graceffa, CEO of Secretary of the Interior, serves decorating clients; assists with professional organizing, home staging and moving assistance; teaches on these subjects; and delivers quilt lectures and trunk shows.

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