What’s in a Color? Understanding Paint Undertones

If you’ve ever found yourself staring at a handful of similar color chips with no idea which shade to select, you’re not alone. The key to choosing the perfect hue for your DIY painting project is hidden just below the surface—in the color’s undertone. Learn how to master these misunderstood building blocks of color, so you can choose your hues with confidence.

A Sherwin-Williams paint strip fan deck next to individual color chips.

Understanding Undertones (and Mass Tones!)

Want to become an undertone aficionado? Let’s start with the basics. Every paint color has two main components: A mass tone and an undertone.  The mass tone is easy to see because it’s the overall color of the chip itself. The undertone, on the other hand, can be more difficult to spot because it’s the paint hue’s underlying color—the subtle difference that distinguishes it from similar hues in its color family. It’s important to know that undertones vary in intensity which can greatly impact the overall look of a painted room.

Hand holding three fanned out Sherwin-Williams color cards including Big Chill SW 7648, Dover White SW 6385, and Dreamy White SW 6021.
Holding color chips next to each other can help you spot the difference in undertones. Big Chill has a blue/violet undertone. Dover White has a yellow undertone. Dreamy White has a red undertone.

Warm Undertones vs. Cool Undertones

When choosing a paint color, it’s important to consider the atmosphere you want to create in your space—which is where undertones really come in. Warm colors typically have orange, yellow or red undertones which give the room a cozy or energetic vibe. Cool colors usually have blue, green or purple undertones which bring a fresh and soothing atmosphere to your environment.

Three Sherwin-Williams color chips featuring warm colors are shown next to three Sherwin-Williams color chips featuring cool colors.
Paint colors with warm undertones are on the left. Paint colors with cool undertones are on the right.

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How to Identify Undertone Colors

Now that you understand the basics, let’s dig into the details. To find the undertones in the paint colors you’re considering, try these three expert tips from our Director of Color Marketing, Sue Wadden:

  1. Don’t look at colors on their own. “If you’re just looking at a white by itself, it will probably just look white,” Sue says, “but put it next to a pure white and you’ll see how it differs. The green or pink or blue undertone will show up in comparison.”

  2. Do a color chip comparison. “You can use this trick with any color: Just put the color you’re considering next to a pure example of that color. If you don’t have one handy, use a color wheel. The undertone will quickly reveal itself.”

  3. Look at colors on a color strip. According to Sue, this works especially well with light neutrals or whites. “Look at the mid-to-darker colors on a color strip—it will be much easier to identify the undertone than the paler colors at the top.”
Sherwin-Williams color strip showing the light-to-dark shift in colors with red undertones starting with Malted Milk SW 6057 and ending with Moroccan Spice SW 6060.
Notice on this color strip, each color presents subtle red undertones that range in intensity.

Don’t Underestimate the Role of Lighting

Whether it’s natural or artificial, lighting brings out the undertones in wall colors. The direction your room is facing, along with the type of light in the room and how much of it there is, also plays a huge role in a color’s appearance. For instance, northern sunlight tends to emphasize blue undertones while southern sunlight can make colors appear softer.

The Sherwin-Williams color Ice Cube SW6252 shown in both cool lighting and warm lighting.
Left: Cool lighting from a 60-watt LED bulb. Right: Warm lighting from a 100-watt incandescent bulb.

Artificial light is equally important, so be sure to consider the lightbulb type, color and temperature.

  • Soft white bulbs, like incandescents, emit warm, yellow light. They help create a comfy, cozy feeling perfect for living rooms, dens and bedrooms.
  • Bright white bulbs emit cool white and blue tones. They lend a refreshing, energetic feel making them ideal for a home office, kitchen or garage.
  • Daylight bulbs emit a subtle bluish tone that mimics natural daylight. Try them in spaces where you work, read or craft.

TIP: If you’ve already painted a room and feel like you chose the wrong color, try changing your lightbulbs. It could make all the difference!

Choose your final colors with confidence! To see how hues look and feel at different times of the day and in different lighting, place an order for color chips or peel and stick samples, and we’ll mail them to your door. You can also request a FREE virtual color consultation to get personalized color guidance from one of our color experts.

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