Deciphering Undertones: What’s My White?
by Quinn Larson
For those of us who work with color on a daily basis, terms like undertone, muted or clean generate an immediate understanding of a color’s properties. This isn’t necessarily the case for most people though, and sometimes we forget that when giving descriptions. These types of descriptions can be especially confusing when it comes to whites and other neutrals.
For those of you that find yourself scratching your head at a description like, “a creamy white with a yellow undertone,” here is an easy breakdown to start you interpreting white color descriptions like a pro.
What is an undertone exactly?
To answer this we need to remember back to kindergarten art class. Do you remember your finger painting project where the teacher only gave you 5 colors (red, yellow, blue, white and black), but you were instructed to mix peach and brown? You thought, ‘How am I supposed to do that?’ You soon learned that by mixing certain combinations of colors together you could make those shades. Undertones are obtained in essentially the same way, by mixing colors together. If you start with green paint and add some yellow paint your color will still be green, but a far yellowy-er green right? Seeing how “yellowy-er” is not a grammatically accurate way to describe this new color, we would say you now have a yellow-green, or a green with a yellow undertone. Generally of the two colors mixed one color will remain dominant and the other will color become an influencer or undertone.
The same is true when mixing whites and colors. Let’s look at some examples of whites with color undertones.
White + Red = a white with a red undertone, or a light pink.
White +Orange = a white with an orange undertone or a light peach.
White +Yellow = white with a yellow undertone, or a cream.
White + Green = a white with a green undertone, or a light mint.
White + Blue = white with a blue undertone, or light/baby blue.
White +Purple = white with a purple undertone, or light violet/ lavender.
White + Brown = white with a brown undertone, or an offwhite.
White + Black = White with a black/gray undertone or a light gray.
All the resulting colors illustrated above are considered members of the white family each with a different influencing color, or undertone. If you now hear someone say, “a creamy white with a yellow undertone,” you’ll know exactly what they are talking about.
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