Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Expand Your Definition of "Neutral" Colors

What does the term "neutral" mean to you? To many of us, the working definition of "neutral" means light to medium colors that play nicely with others, such as the ones you see here. 

To have a better understanding of neutrals, first let's narrow the term to what neutral really means, then expand it.

The Definition of "Neutral"

From a technical standpoint, the term "neutral" means without hue, making the range of colors from black to white on a gray scale the true neutrals. 

A midpoint gray (50%) with equal amounts of black and white is the ultimate expression of neutral, reflecting or transmitting only a little light. 

The Expanded View of "Neutral"

But as you know, there are many, many shades of gray, some light, some dark, some warm (red, orange or yellow added) and some cool (green, blue or violet added), all of which can be considered "neutrals". Would it surprise you to learn that there also are neutralized versions of every hue, even red?
Neutralized colors can be created in many ways, such as by mixing a pure hue with black, gray or white, and/or with other hues. As this chart shows, there are warm neutrals and cool ones. Not only that, neutrals can be light, mid range or dark. The relative amounts of the additional colors determine the final characteristics of a neutralized color.   

Most of us choose neutral colors for our home because they're much softer and easier to live than the pure hues. Whatever you prefer, pick an approach and stick with it. Don't use a neutralized color in one room and a pure bright color in the next. If you're going neutral, choose neutralized versions of all your wall colors. If your daughter insists on a purple room and your son has to have a  red one, try compromising with neutralized versions of these colors, and say they're much more sophisticated, which is true. 

Viewed by itself, the attributes of a neutral color can be difficult to see, but when you look at colors side by side, their true nature is revealed, particularly the all-important undertones, as you see in these two beige samples.

One very helpful tool for comparing neutrals is to look up their Light Reflectance Value (LRV) to determine which is lighter or darker. The LRV values for every color can be found on the manufacturer's web site, in the fan deck, or sometimes on the back of a sample chip. To see contrast between two colors you usually need a difference in LRV of seven points.

Explore the world of neutral colors. It's larger and much more interesting than "off white" and "builder beige"!

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