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.

27 Comments

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

    Sherwin-Williams
  2. 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.

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

      Sherwin-Williams
  3. 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
    • 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
  4. Great information, undertones should also compliment the fixed elements in the room such as flooring, or tile.

    Claudia Rydel
  5. 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
    • 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
  6. 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.

    • 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
  7. 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
    • 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
  8. 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?

    • 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
  9. 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

    • 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
  10. 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
    • 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
  11. 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

    • 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
  12. 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!

    • 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
  13. 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 🙂

    • 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

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