Neutral Colour Palettes: How to Master

Neutral Colour Schemes And Neutral Paint Colours

Neutral colour patterns are versatile, chic and simple. But to understand neutral colour combinations and create neutral colour schemes that work - you may need to tweak the way you look at your home. 

Purely neutral colour palettes are made up of nothing but white, grey and black. If you relax this rule a little, neutral colour schemes can also include browns, as well as mixtures of all of the above, including cream and beige. You won't find neutral wall colour on the colour wheel, but most neutral paint colours are not entirely 'neutral' either - then carry a hint of colour. They go beautifully with more saturated "real" colours in an accented neutral colour scheme. 

We approach rooms like this:

1. Look at your room as if it were a black-and-white photograph.

2. Make sure the dark and light values are well balanced. 

3. Most neutrals carry a hint of colour, so check all neutral paint colours and fabrics under different light sources to make sure they really form harmonious neutral colour combinations. 

4. Make your neutral colour palettes, interesting by varying textures, patterns, materials and finishes. Think of textures as light-and-shade patterns. 

5. Beware of the effects of too much white and too much black.

6. Use neutral colours as a 'base' for your decorating, and add subtle colour for variety, warmth, and interest.

The Big Picture: See your Room as a Photograph

A black-and-white photograph is a neutral colour palette: and with no colour to distract you, you can focus entirely on the play of light and shadow in the room. So try pretending that your room is a photo, by squeezing your eyes have shut. That blurs your vision and helps you see the darker and lighter areas as blocks of dark and light. This way, you don' notice the clutter so much (if indeed you have any) you just see the big picture in more of less neutral colour. Alternatively, just get a camera out and actually take black-and-white photos of the room during the decorating process. 

Then ask yourself:

What parts of the room is the eye drawn to? And is this where I want the attention to go?

The usual suspects are. Areas thats are busy with light and shade (or pattern) and areas of stark contrast 'chunks' of very dark and very light colour values are not always easy on the eye. You may find that a part of the room us just too dark, or that there is an area with too much going on. If you want to brighten areas up, or bridge the gap between very dark and very light areas in neutral colour palettes, textiles and paints are your best friends.

You can always

  • Paint a wall or two in neutral paint colours.
  • Slipcover a sofa.
  • Add a carpet or large area rug in a lighter / darker shade (small area rugs can add to visual clutter.
  • Change throws, cushions or curtains.

Now lets take a closer look at the colours

Neutral Colour Palettes Are Not All Neutral 

A neutral colour wheel doesn't exist, but on closer inspection you will find a lot going on between neutrals and the colour wheel. Of course, if you mix pure titanium white with pure black you will get various shades of seriously neutral grey. But these shades are hard to find in the 'real world'.

Most white fabrics in the shops have a slight tint - of blue, pink, yellow or cream. This is easy to see when you hold all the whites next to each other.

And the greys - don't get me started. Grey is a wonderful colour, and extremely versatile, but there are more bluish, greenish and yellowish hues of greys than you can shake a paint brush at.

This is true for black as well. It comes in green, blue and brown hues. Particularly when you buy decorating fabric it's important to look at it in different lights (natural and artificial), and see it together with the other colours you want to use un a neutral colour palette. 

Brown has people wondering about its membership in the neutral colour clan. Is brown a neutral colour at all? No and yes. It's usually included in neutral colour palettes, sometimes as a 'near-neutral' colour, but you can get browns that are quite biased - deeply red or orange or greenish/grey.

Brown can play an important role in neutral colour palettes because it comes in so many subtle and complex hues. It can pull the whole scheme together and give it depth. The patina of worn leather, the vividness of beautifully textured wood can add as much life to neutral colour palettes as patterned fabrics do.

And speaking of patterns - they don't have to be printed or woven patterns. Shadows create patterns as well. So you could use textured materials to add interest to simple neutral colour palettes.

Texture Adds Sensory Richness 

Most surfaces are good candidates for adding texture:

  • Textured sisal or wood carpets and rugs can 'warm-up' the floor.
  • Accessories made of woven natural fibres or pleated leather add soft lines and tactile element.
  • Slightly three-dimensional finishes on walls or ceilings, for example textured wallpapers and/or paints, can provide further interest.

Apart from these options, textured fabrics are a fairly inexpensive and interesting way to add sensory richness to a combination of neutral colours. For an elegant look and feel, mix:

  • Silk, velvet 
  • Raw and doupion silks 
  • Devore 
  • Wovens with raised patterns 
  • Exquisite embroidery

If you prefer a relax living space, create neutral colour palettes with:

  • Fine and coarse linens 
  • Chunky knits
  • Leather 
  • Suede
  • Corduroy
  • Velvets 

Putting A Neutral Colour Scheme Together 

Some people claim that any neutral colours work together. I don't think that's true. Here are a few points to be aware of when you crete neutral colour scheme in your home.

  • A neutral colour combination can look boring if there is not enough contrast. You might want to use some really crisp, bright accent colour to keep the look fresh, for example white gloss paint on window frames and baseboard, milk-white walls, or curtains and cushions in a light neutral colour, or a crisp light pattern on a darker ground.
  • Too much beige, particularly if it's a yellow-hued beige, can make a room look tired and a bit depressing. To liven it up, add lighter and/or darker neutrals.
  • Hard, shinny surfaces and dark colours sometimes create an austere look and feel. Neutral colour palettes that consist mostly of black and white can have the same effect. Adding some natural wood (and maybe even subtle touches of colour), will warm a room up and make neutral colour combinations more welcoming.
  • If the room does not have good natural light, a neutral colour combination might look a bit 'bloodless' - unless you use warm brown and beige hues with a lot of red and orange in them. Even then, lighting is a real issue here. you need the shadows that bring textured surfaces to life, so you want good light sources (at an angle, not just from above).
  • When mixing cool and warm neutrals, use white with care: Beware of the blue tints of chemically bleached fabrics - they will throw neutral colour palettes off and give them a 'fake' look.
  • Summer sunshine on large amounts of brilliant white can create quite a glare. So in a very bright room, unless you want to keep your sunglasses ready at all times, you could opt for an interior design scheme of off-whites combined with a few darker neutrals. 

Almost-Neutral Colour Palettes 

Even if you're one of the purist crowd, it can be quite difficult to keep colour out of the black-and-white picture that is your home. Some blue sky outside your window is practically enough to ruin your efforts!

Adding 'real' colour to neutral colour palettes is a bit like adding spice to a meal. You don' need much, but want you do add gives your composition a distinct flavour. So how about an "accented" neutral colour scheme?

Here are some points to consider when you inject colour into a combination of neutrals:

  • Neutrals go with most colours, but success is easier if you stick to one colour family. Also make sure the colours you add don't look 'synthetic' or flat. If they are related to the neutrals, so as if they contained a bit of white, beige grey or, brown.
  • 'All-white' schemes often look great with just a hint of colour, for example a mix of pale grey/blue/green. Colours look their most vibrant against a background of white. Even a little colour will have a great impact. 
  • A neutral colour palette makes a great unifying element in a home. Every room can have its own selection of added colour, but the neutrals anchor the overall look. 
  • If you move houses a lot, it's good to have some key pieces of furniture in co-ordinated neutral colours. They're easy to regroup in a new home, and you can quickly create a 'look' that fits the new environment. 
  • Neutral colour palettes can easily be 'updated' on a budget. Add a new textiles, art and wall paint - and you have a new room.