Q: How does one use neutral tones in the home without getting “blah” results?
A: Before you go ahead and start to think that beige, taupe and grey are no-brainer tones and “safe” colors, stop that thought! Neutral tones are absolutely the hardest paint colors to mix, and therefore can be the most abused colors thrown around in home decorating.
Let me give you an example, proven by a recent discussion with my paint advocate, Natasha Robens. Natasha and I have been fine-tuning color conversation for years, since we started looking for the perfect red for her dining room in 2000. We often lamented about the lack of color spectrum for pre-mixed paint in Germany, or at least we did back then, so we spent hours mixing reds ourselves. In the eight years or so since the “red dining room dilemma”, Baumarkts have evolved with paint mixing machines that have vastly improved your choices today. The German palettes are definitely different than American taste, and British taste, as well. (I expect, as in all things, the level of choice will rise with time). In the meantime, what to do about those neutrals?
I decided to have my kitchen painted “taupe” this summer. Coincidentally, Natasha wanted to paint one living room wall “taupe”. I went off to the Baumarkt to see what taupes were there, and came home with about 30 color strips to choose from. The first 25 went in the trash immediately. Too pink, too green, too grey. At heart, I am a warm tauper. Natasha and I exchanged paint descriptions on the phone; she was searching for a “medium”, and I a “light”. I made my choice, and bought a small bucket to do some test spots on my wall. Yes, sample pots are not the rage here. It is quite unnerving to have to buy the minimum 2,5 liters of mixed paint just to try it out. I know DIY (do-it-yourself) folks who have spent hundreds to get the right color due to lack of sample pot variety. Anyway, I painted up a sample on paper for Natasha, and when we compared it to her strips in person, it was like two different worlds. Taupe has a huge range of definition: mushroom, dove, sand, tan, stone, khaki, and putty, to name a few. In German, that would be almost impossible to get right verbally, for me. So we are reduced to finding shades with numbers.
The nuances of neutrals are many, because when mixing, the artist seeks to find a combination that avoids a dominant color. A color without color? By English definition, a neutral is “having little or no decided color”. The secret to neutrals is to use certain colors as enhancers, or to let the neutral act as a backdrop, showcasing particular objects. An all-taupe room might be tranquil, and even chic, but certainly boring to me. Add a purple cushion or a vase with fuchsia flowers, and we are ready for a magazine spread. The strong color of purple, for example will draw those same purple tendencies out of your neutral, or perhaps contrast them, depending on the shade. It’s a tricky business, decorating with neutrals. My main suggestion would be to pay attention to its balance with accents, and practice trial and error. Neutral paint, colored accents. Colored paint, neutral accessories. Swing the scale wildly and you will get noteworthy results. When you do it all neutrally, welcome to Switzerland. Another aspect to consider is mixing neutrals: grey, taupe, beige, and creams can live fabulously together when you play with surfaces. Matte walls, textured fabrics, plush carpets, and polished woods will add dimension to your neutral palette and give some sense of diversity without a strong color pronouncement.
What about white? I don’t really consider white a neutral; by the way, as this is a reflection of all color. Same issue with black, but absorption. Grey, on the other hand is another matter entirely. Ach du lieber, the range of greys is unfathomable! The Pantone color company devotes an entire book to neutrals, with greys leading the pack: big business in Europe.
Sometimes, there is a time and a place for even-keeled neutrality, if only in just one room. You might find that you have a whole phases of your life craving “little or no decided color”, especially when you have experiences of a turbulent nature such as career changes, divorce, moving abroad or internal unrest. My own personality seems to defy the usual claim that neutrals are safe and color requires courage; most people have difficulties going for full-on color, as they believe it requires commitment. For me, lack of defining color is challenging, perhaps because of the finely tuned balancing act of non-commitment.
Whichever way you swing, there will most likely be a neutral in your home at some point. Just for fun, try to verbally describe your neutral tone to someone on the phone. “Well, it is taupe, but a warm taupe. Bright but kind of subdued, you know. Not really brownish, and a bit more on the green side, but not a khaki. It definitely is void of pink, but is looks really grey on a cloudy day…you know, taupe-ish”.
originally published in Currents Aug/Sep 2008