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.

Order free color chips

Order free color chips


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.

57 Comments

  1. I am looking for a exterior trim color. Something different! Greens maybe. Moss or other suggestions.

    Kimberly Luchynsky
    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hi Kimberly, take a look at these pretty greens for your trim:
      Lemon Verbena SW 7726
      Koi Pond SW 7727
      Edamame SW 7729

      Sherwin-Williams
  2. Sherwin-Williams logo

    Hi Hilary! We recommend reaching out to your local store. Here is our Store Locator for your convenience.

    Sherwin-Williams
  3. Sherwin-Williams logo

    Hi Hilary, we recommend reaching out to your local store for assistance. Here is a link to our Store Locator.

    Sherwin-Williams
  4. I need a warm, light color for my open concept living area. I have a lot of wood furniture with red tones. My home faces North.

    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hello there, check out these options for your space:
      Natural Choice SW 7011
      Alabaster SW 7008
      Ivory Lace SW 7013

      Sherwin-Williams
  5. I’ve always wondered if a colors RGB could be used to identify the hue? Learning how to determine a colors hue using those numbers, if that’s possible, would be so helpful. I often have trouble spotting hues and do not always trust my eyes.

    Beth Sicignano
    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hello Beth, RGB is not used to tint paint, RGB data is used to created colors on video screens and there is no correlation to liquid colorants that are used to tint paint. Hope this helps!

      Sherwin-Williams
  6. Great information, undertones should also compliment the fixed elements in the room such as flooring, or tile.

    Claudia Rydel
  7. My Kitchen is red. I want to lighten it up. We have a natural oak floor with a medium colored maple cabinets with a cream colored island. We only have a western window. Any suggested color? I really would like a bright colored kitchen with a warm color.

    Help!

    Patsy McMillan
    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hello Patsy, take a look at these bright but soft colors for your kitchen. Any of these would complement the different wood tones beautifully.
      Pale Pink SW 9696
      Alluring White SW 6343
      Warm Beige SW 0035

      Sherwin-Williams
  8. My bathroom is very small with no window. The floor is light oak, cabinets medium brown paint and counter is quarts in shades of grays, cream. and white. I need a light paint color for the walls.

    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hello there, take a look at these soft and subtle color options for your bathroom. Check out:
      Mortar SW 9584
      Sunbleached SW 9585
      White Sesame SW 9586

      Sherwin-Williams
  9. If the walls are a warm hue, should the ceiling paint be also?

    I was wondering what effect would be achieved by having a warm hue on the walls and cool in the ceiling white? would it help neutralized the warm hue on the walls?
    The room has large windows on the north and east, high ceilings and 2 skylights.

    Dianne Whetsel
    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hello Diane, warm colors have a drop of red or yellow in them and work quite well with the typical ceiling white. The standard ceiling white is cool, however, your eye skips right over the ceiling as a color so it does not neutralize the warmth on the walls or affect the wall color in any discernable way. Hope this helps!

      Sherwin-Williams
  10. I want to paint my kitchen walls, trim, cabinets and doors in 4 different shades of gray. Can you suggest 4 shades to compliments each other?

    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hello Lana, there are many families of gray. Did you want a greige (beige undertone) a blue-gray or green-gray? Let us know when you get a minute.

      Sherwin-Williams
  11. Redoing my master bath. Fixtures are a brushed nickel. Tile a light beige, floor also in the beige/off white colors. Vanity dark with multi colored beige, brown.

    l

    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hello Karen, are you open to painting your vanity? If you can envision that in a lighter color, you would have a completely different bathroom. Let us know if you are open to this.

      Sherwin-Williams
  12. I’m wondering why undertone can’t be noted on the paint chip since it can be challenging to see? Maybe just a notation for cool or warm, and the color of the undertone – blue, yellow, etc. This would make it easier to coordinate colors.

    Rebecca White
    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hello Rebecca, so many things can affect how a color looks in a room. Lighting, furniture, and other items in a room can accentuate a miniscule undertone and this undertone will not be visible in every room. There is a general rule for cool or warm though. Any color with a red or yellow in it is considered a warm color (creamy whites, pinks, yellows, etc.) and any color with blue or green in it will be a cool color (grays, blues, many whites)

      Sherwin-Williams
  13. I have an open concept where I painted my kitchen cupboards – white at the top and cyberspace at the bottom. I plan to paint the living space with Rock Candy. Not sure I am making the right choice. Can you say what can be used in the foyer to complement these colors

    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hi Alison! here are color suggestions that should pair well with Rock Candy, Cyberspace and White for your foyer.
      Smoky Blue #SW7604
      Steely Gray #SW7664
      Dustblue #SW9161

      Sherwin-Williams
  14. Hi,
    I want to brighten up my living room and kitchen / dining area. I have oak floors and moldings with a gray brick fireplace. My kitchen cabinets are dark gray finish with nickel pulls.
    Thanks!

    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hi Liz! Consider the colors below to brighten up your living room and kitchen. Warm colors with yellow undertones will complement your oak floors and trim. These are also neutrals so they will go with your gray cabinets and fireplace. We recommend obtaining the color chips and viewing them in your space. Visit swcolorchips.com to order them!
      Creamy SW 7012
      Grecian Ivory SW 7541
      Agreeable Gray SW 7029

      Sherwin-Williams
  15. Hello,
    We’re building a custom home & our kitchen/living rooms are north facing. I am wanting to paint the cabinets & walls in shades of white to compliment white oak floors & Carrara marble countertops. We will have 3 large windows in the kitchen & in the living room along with a set of French doors. But I’ve been reading about the challenges of white paint in north facing rooms looking flat or green, blue or gray. What are some white paint choices that might work in this space? Thank you 🙂

    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hi Dee, We’d like to get a better sense of your space before making a recommendation. Sign up for a free Virtual Color Consultation here.

      Sherwin-Williams
  16. I am painting my kitchen cabinets Greek Villa, with marbled gray countertops, my bar cabinets will be Deep Sea Dive, with marbled white countertops. My designer chose Repose Gray for the walls, plus the walls in the open family room and hallway. My semi-open dining room is currently red(!!) and I want to paint it somewhat similar to Repose Gray but with a very subtle blue/green to it to compliment the Deep Sea Dive. Any suggestions? My designer suggested Silver Strand but it looks too green to me. My accent colors throughout are teal blue and teal green.

    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hello there! Take a look at using Sea Salt SW 6204 or Comfort Gray SW 6205 for your dining room, either of those would work with the different colors and finishes in your palette.

      Sherwin-Williams
  17. The exterior of our condo is being painted shortly and the majority have agreed on a light colour scheme. In the harsh Florida sunshine, what do you suggest? To take into consideration, we have a brown roof and a wine coloured walkway canopy.

    Thank you!

    Louise Robson
  18. Hi I have an open concept living room and kitchen area, the floor is Kumaru ( Braziian Teak, yellow/red/orage tone) with wood red/cherry kitchen cabinets and yellow tone granite countertop. The living room and kitchen is facing east, doesn’t get a lot of sun light in the afternoon, but get some in the morning. we want the room to look bright and warm and also not too yellow or gray. what color do you suggest we use for wall and trim? also, we have two rooms facing west, kind of bright during the day, what color do you suggest if I want to use them as home office?
    Thank you very much!

  19. Hi there,
    I have a light cool gray floor in my basement – it is quite open in concept. I am trying to pick a color for the wall and accent one for my TV feature wall. My research led me to the ever popular Repose Gray or Agreeable gray. Would you be able to recommend one color over the other to go with my floor? Also, what dark deep color could I use for the feature TV wall please? Thank you very much in advance.

    Chris Nguyen
    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hi Chris! A saturated green or navy would work well with your floor and the greige on your wall. Consider using Evergreen Fog SW 9130 for a green option or Mineral Gray SW 2740 for a navy option.

      Sherwin-Williams
  20. I’m considering using Pearly White, Accessible Beige, Soft Sage and Evergreen Fog as the main palette for my home. It seems like the paint chips coordinate pretty well under different lights, but is there anything I might need to consider in terms of undertones, especially with 2 different greens?

    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hi Alyssa! Yes, that palette will flow beautifully. Pearly White and Accessible Beige both share the same greige (grey+beige) undertones and Soft Sage and Evergreen Fog both shared the same muted grey/green undertones.

      Sherwin-Williams
  21. I am wanting to paint my bathroom “In the Navy” color, I have a small window in there and the bathroom is pretty big.. I am also wanting to paint my bedroom which is also a good size but I’m but not sure what color to paint it. I want something that won’t clash with the bathroom considering its off the bedroom, The bedroom has 3 windows. any suggestions?

    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hello Angel, Can you tell me the other colors/finishes in your bedroom? For instance: flooring, bedding, and furniture.

      Sherwin-Williams
  22. Hi there!
    I have orange toned cabinets, and neutral dark brown flooring.

    My kitchen (North/East wall with 1 large window close to patio door) living room (North West wall has windows and patio glass door) is an open floorplan.

    During the day the kitchen is quite dark..
    Looking to brighten up the space and bring a sense of cohesiveness and warmth as one steps in.

    Thinking of painting cabinets white as the floor and cabinets just don’t jive.. the wall could get brighter on the kitchen side where it’s quite dark most of the day!

    Love my orange curtains, and soft white decor with pops of coral, and my walls are SW Kilim beige right now.

    Please suggest paint colors for my cabinet and maybe walls too?

    Dining room is adjacent to kitchen, window on south east and painted SW Watery.

    Our entrance door has tiny windows (south east) currently painted SW Kilim beige.

    Was considering a warm creamy white that brings all these spaces to be cohesive, clean and warm.

  23. Good Evening,
    Would it be possible to order a color wheel of Sherwin Williams colors?
    Thank you.

    Ann Marie Bette
  24. Hi There,

    I am repainting a living room with an open floor plan. The vinyl plank flooring is natural oak, the trim is a bright white. (I’ll repaint it but would like to keep it white.) I have beige and black, and cherry wood furniture. The windows face east and south. It’s in a natural setting, so I’d like something that harmonizes with nature. Can you suggest a cool neutral? Thanks in advance. Susan

    Susan Katsarelis
    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Consider using one of these subtle green=grays. Any of these colors would complement the different wood tones in your floors and furnishing while echoing the greenery outside your home. Look at:
      SW 6204 Sea Salt
      SW 9646 Create
      SW 6193 Conservative Gray
      It is always best to look at color in your lighting. Order some free sample chips from our website to determine which color will work best for you.

      Sherwin-Williams
  25. I just recently painted my bungalow Farro SW 9103 which I absolutely love. I am now desperately trying to figure out a color for my exterior doors that will POP. Hint No Burgundy or black as 2 of my neighbors have there exterior doors these colors .

    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hi Renata! Consider using a darker blue and/or teal for a striking pop of color next to the Farro SW 9103 on your house. Look at:
      Mineral Gray SW 2740
      Seaworthy SW 7620
      Teal Stencil SW 0018

      Sherwin-Williams
  26. Open living area, dark furnishings – Grey, Navy, dark wood trim. Looking for a clean white, cool undertones, not too stark.

    Christine MacNeil
    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hi Christine! Take a look at these whites, any of which would work in your palette. Check out:
      SW 7005 Pure White
      SW 7636 Origami White
      SW 7004 Snowbound

      Sherwin-Williams
  27. I am using perfect greige for my hallway. I would like a lighter shade of Greige for my kitchen. any suggestions?

    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hello Ann, Two options that would work well for your kitchen are White Heron SW 6070 and Popular Gray SW 6071. It is always best to look at color in your lighting. Order some free sample chips from our website to determine which color will work best for you.

      Sherwin-Williams
  28. I am using perfect greige for my hallway. I would like a lighter shade of greige for the kitchen.any suggestions

    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hello Ann, Two options that would work well for your kitchen are White Heron SW 6070 and Popular Gray SW 6071. It is always best to look at color in your lighting. Order some free sample chips from our website to determine which color will work best for you.

      Sherwin-Williams
  29. I have re-painted our kitchen. Cabinets are SW7757( white ) with a kitchen island painted SW9177 ( dark blue ) & countertops are Carrara Marble. We have an open floor plan with lots of windows. I am not really fond of greys and was wondering if a pretty light blue such as snowdrop SW6511 would work ? Are there any other colors you would recommend. Thank you. Chris We are also thinking of painting all the walls with SW7757.

    Christine Corbett
    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hello Christine, SW 6511 Snowdrop may be too pastel for your entire space. Consider instead using a similar blue but a more muted, subtle interpretation. Check out SW 9631 Mantra or SW 9632 Serenely. It is always best to look at color in your lighting. Order some free sample chips from our website to determine which color will work best for you.

      Sherwin-Williams
  30. I thought I posted but I don’t see it so I am posting my issue again.

    Kitchen repainted Cabinets SW7577 Reflective White, Kitchen Island SW9177 and have carrara marble counter tops with white subway tiles. The kitchen is beautiful ! We have an open floor plan and can’t decide what color to paint the rest of the area. I am not really fond of grey colors, I do like blue. I was thinking of SW 6111 Snowdrop for the walls. What do you think ? If this doesn’t work we are also thinking of just painting everything white. This is such a hard decision & I am really scared about making the wrong one. Any suggestions ?

    Christine Corbett
    • Sherwin-Williams logo

      Hello Christine, SW 6511 Snowdrop may be too pastel for your entire space – it could resemble a baby boy’s bedroom. Consider instead using a similar blue but a more muted, subtle interpretation. Check out SW 9631 Mantra or SW 9632 Serenely. It is always best to look at color in your lighting. Order some free sample chips from our website to determine which color will work best for you.

      Sherwin-Williams

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

More Stories Like This