Finding the Right Neutrals – Warm & Cool

Why do some neutrals look better on us than others?  The likely reason is that the ‘undertone’ of these neutrals is in harmony with that of our skintone.    Like our skintone, colours have an undertone as well.

In describing undertones, we use the words ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ to describe the ‘feel’ we get from them.

In this colour wheel, we roughly divide warm and cool colours this way:

In general, if a colour has more ‘yellow’, it’s considered ‘WARM’, if it has more blue, black or white, it’s ‘COOL’.

Left: Cool Neutrals (colour combo)
Right: Warm Neutrals (colour combo)


How do we know if a colour is WARM or COOL?

Truth is:  determining a single colour’s undertone is  DIFFICULT.  The best way to do so is by COMPARISON.

If Colour A has no yellow in it, while Colour B has, then Colour A is COOL

So, the presence of yellow / a greater amount of yellow makes a colour ‘warm’ or ‘warmer’ than another.

A greater amount of blue, black or white in a colour makes it ‘cooler’ than another.

The colour on the right has the most yellow, therefore it is the ‘warmest’ among the 3 colours.

Even blues can be warm.
Left: Coolest colour, Right: Warmest (has the most yellow)


If your skin tone is warm, then the colours that are in harmony with you are warm as well.

If you find that a colour just doesn’t seem ‘right’ on you, it’s likely that that colour has the opposite undertone.  A person who has a warm undertone will find that colours with yellow in them look more  HARMONIOUS with their skin tone.

The following pictures are used the illustrate how colours of a different undertone look out of place – they stick out like a sore thumb, drawing attention to themselves.

Original Colour Scheme (done by Nippon iColour Visualiser)
Warm Neutrals



The colour of the decorative partition has been changed. Notice how it doesn’t jive with the rest of the colours in the combination. The original on the left looks a lot better. This colour is too ‘cool’ for the whole colour combination.


The same partition has been ‘repainted’ – this colour is better than the earlier one, but it’s still not the best.


Finally, this colour fits best into the general colour scheme. It attracts the right amount of attention without being strangely out of place.

The same principle applies in choosing neutrals for your outfits.

To find the best neutrals for you:

  1. find out your skin undertone
  2. select different colours and put them against your face, ask yourself, does the colour look ‘weird’ on me?  If the colour shouts for attention in a negative way, then it isn’t the right colour for you.





The Role of Neutral Colours in Colour Combinations

Black, grey and white might be the oldest and most acknowledged neutral colours around, but many others have joined the fray over the years.

More and more colours, including neutrals, are created each day for various purposes, but it is interesting to note that the fashion and design industries share similar colours that are considered ‘neutrals’. Take any neutrals from a paint company catalogue (like the pic below) and you’ll see that when you wear them, they’re still considered neutrals.

Whatever neutrals might be to you in your fashion context, we agree that generally, the neutrals below are the popular ones we see:

  • shades of black
  • shades of white
  • shades of grey
  • shades of brown and some blues and greens
  • denim

And the list goes on….

How do we define ‘neutral colours’ then? 

In my definition, neutral colours are those that ‘take a backseat’ in a colour combination and allow other colours to advance.  Let’s take these examples.  Notice how a couple of colours pop out from the combination, while others form the backdrop.

Our focus is drawn to the brightest colours – fuschia and green. The rest of the colours form the backdrop.

The blue and purple flowers get the attention.

The inclusion of accessories in brighter colours distracts us from the neutral colours. When these brighter colours are worn with neutrals (not all together of course), they add interest.

If I could personify ‘neutral colours’, they would have these character traits:

  • Reserved
  • Undemanding
  • Reliable
  • Hardworking
  • Humble
  • Versatile
  • Non-assertive
  • Might be perceived as a wall-flower by those who underestimates her worth
  • A team player

As colours, neutrals are:

  • Easy on the eyes
  • Easy to match
  • Understated
  • Provides a backdrop for accent colours to add interest
  • composed, unassuming

In short, neutral colours may seem boring, but they are necessary.  In interior decoration, they are an asset to those who find solace in  a cozy and relaxing place.  In fashion, they are a staple that give you mileage for your money, and works hard to present your in whatever way you choose – to stand out with bursts of colour, or just to stay understated, but composed and elegant.

Photos of living spaces captured from

  • Home Colour Visualiser,
  • Dulux  ‘The Color Guide’ 2012,