What are Neutral Colors and Why Should I Use Them?

You may hear the term, “neutral colors,” and have a vague sort of misty idea of what that is. Neutral means greyish brownish blah, right? Isn’t that the thing you’re supposed to use when you don’t know what else to do? Or when you can’t decide on a “real” color? NO. Wrong! If you feel that way about neutral colors, we need to go back to the basics. Neutrals are a critical component of great design.

Furniture with earth colors for livingView in gallery

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Let’s delve a little deeper into the world of neutrality and see, first, what neutral colors are. Then we’ll explore some benefits and challenges of decorating with neutral colors. Last, we’ll look at neutral color trends and the use of specific neutral colors.

DEFINITION OF NEUTRAL COLORS

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Neutral, in this instance, means lacking or being without color. Or, in other words, unsaturated with color. But neutral colors are still colors, so a better description would be something like “a hue that appears to be without color.” That technicality is incredibly important in distinguishing what makes a neutral color, well, neutral.

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Informally, some people like to think of neutral colors as any hue that doesn’t compete with other colors, although that is a subjective definition. Surely, however, some hues are more neutral than others in any single color’s spectrum. But for the purposes of this article, we’ll stick with the basic neutrals: white, beige, brown, grey, and black (and a few more discussed later in this article).

BENEFITS OF DECORATING WITH NEUTRAL COLORS

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Benefit 1: Neutrals are visually restful. Neutral colors are by definition unsaturated (or, at least, they should have very little saturation), allowing them to serve as the relaxing background to a space. Your eye will flow from one point to the next in a neutral-flavored space without the distraction of a singular color. Something to remember about neutrals: nature-based elements (e.g., this gorgeous Cartwright wood table) tend to be inherently neutral themselves and thus provide a lovely, restful complement to a neutral space’s décor.

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Benefit 2: Neutrals do not hamper decorating taste.No matter your design style or preferences, there is a place for neutral colors in your décor. This is because neutrals provide an ideal decorating foundation or background, which lets you add in layers and/or pops of color to create depth in your space. Bonus: colors pop more when placed amid neutrals.

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Benefit 3: Neutrals let you incorporate pattern and texture without the busy-ness. Because of their neutrality, neutral colors benefit a space by encouraging the use of patterns and textures without becoming an eyesore or a visual headache. One thing to keep in mind: the greater the contrast between your neutrals, the more busy a space will read. So white-and-black patterns will have more energy than, say, beige-and-tan patterns.

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Benefit 4: Neutrals work well with any decorating style. If you love modern minimalism, intricate traditionalism, simple Scandinavian, rustic southwestern, or French country décor (or anything else), neutrals will likely play an important role in your successful décor. Vary the neutrals’ use in geometrics for a simultaneously classic and relevant appeal.

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Benefit 5: Neutrals mesh with any color palette. Neutral colors used in a home can have warm or cool tones. This versatility increases the usability of neutrals as a whole – simply identify the warmth or coolness that your space needs and choose loved neutral colors accordingly. Mix up the sheen and tone (gold is neutral!), and your space will sing with aesthetic sensuality.

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Benefit 6: Neutrals create an excellent decorating foundation. Your space’s design possibilities and potential will actually expand with the use of neutrals because you won’t be limited to one specific color or scheme. Instead, neutrals will open up vast opportunities and possibilities in every color direction. Bonus: neutrals are timeless, never going completely out of style, which means they’ll provide an excellent decorating foundation throughout the years.

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Benefit 7: Neutrals typically increase resale value potential. Maybe you love the avocado bathroom fixtures and tiles of your 50s rambler, but that doesn’t mean everyone does. Opting for neutral tones in your interior design will attract more potential buyers, should you decide to sell, than bright, specific colors will. Neutral colors also increase the flow from room to room in a home, which is something that homeowners want, even if subconsciously. In other words, neutrals have a mass appeal across style, taste, preferences.

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Benefit 8: Neutrals allow for easy decorating alterations, even larger scale ones.When your space has a neutral foundation, you will more easily be able to change up the décor and furnishings without having to scrap everything and start over. In other words, decorating with neutrals as a foundation is both time- and cost-effective.

CHALLENGES OF DECORATING WITH NEUTRAL COLORS

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Challenge 1: Neutrals are safe…and therefore potentially yawn-worthy. Part of the reason that neutral colors have gotten such a bland reputation is the fact that they are “safe” to use, which leads many people to stick to neutrality and nothing else. To overcome this challenge, look outside of neutral colors when choosing accent pieces, rugs, and wall colors. Use uniqueness and texture to your advantage to bring personality into neutral colors, like these kinder modern stools, and to break up visual monotony.

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Challenge 2: Neutrals are still colors and must be used thoughtfully. Neutrals still have shades and tints and tones. Being aware of these underlying tones is important while matching or coordinating colors or picking paint. Beige might have pink or golden undertones, while white undertones can vary from ivory, blue, or even peach. These niche modern pendants, for example, are indeed varied neutral shades but work together beautifully based upon their soft, warm undertones.

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Challenge 3: Neutrals require strategy to get the “right” ones right. As we’ve already discussed, every neutral color has many (infinite?) shades, tints, and tones within it. Take the mother of all neutral colors: beige, for example. There are warm beiges, with yellow, orange, or red added; there are cool beiges, with violet, blue, or green added. All of these are considered “beige,” but you need to be aware of which ones will work best with your space, in your lighting, with your other design elements and furnishings. Keep the spectrum of undertones consistent throughout your neutral and color palette.

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Challenge 4: Neutrals can be bland if overdone or used wrong.We’ve all walked into a spec home and been assaulted with tan mouldings upon tan walls upon tan carpets upon tan tiles, haven’t we? Avoid matching drab walls with drab carpets (actually, avoid anything “drab” altogether!). Stay away from boring monotony by first using neutrals with confidence and, second, dressing them up! Introduce brighter colors, interesting shapes, and/or luxurious patterns and prints.

EFFECTIVE USE OF SPECIFIC NEUTRAL COLORS

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Beige – Many people gravitate toward white in the kitchen these days, but beige can be a gorgeous, creamy alternative that keeps the kitchen feeling warm, welcoming, and still fresh and light.

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Ivory – A pale, velvety alternative to beige and rich, deep alternative to white, ivory provides all sorts of chic neutrality. Particularly in spaces where natural light abounds, ivory takes that light and transforms it into a softer, albeit vibrant version of itself.

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Taupe – Taupe tends to have purple undertones, and thus pairs seamlessly with elements of warm purple as accents, such as are present in this gorgeous Pieper Glass lamp.

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Black – Black is the most striking of the neutrals, as the darkest and color-absorptive hue there is. Using it adds unqualified sophistication to a space. A good way to use black in a non-overbearing way is to opt for more delicate, detail-oriented black pieces such as these Hubbardton drop pendants, where the black silhouette shines.

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Brown – A sunburst-topped side table or pair of nesting tables, such as these Kanin displays, look wonderfully natural in their two-toned brownness. Remember that the darker the brown, the more of a grounding effect the tone will have in the space.

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Grey – As a more-saturated alternative to the all-white modern kitchen, grey works wonderfully. Consider warming up this popular neutral shade with a piece of wood or other nature-based detail, as grey can read as stark and uninviting if overdone. Incorporating chrome touches in a space such as a kitchen provide a shinier element while still in keeping with grey neutrality.

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White – White is a dreamy, airy color with which to decorate (particularly a favorite among monochromatic spaces). It appears best when thoughtfully styled with various shades of similar undertones, which will create depth and a visually interesting and restful space. White is also a lovely neutral in two-tone décor and furnishings, as is evidenced by this Ruby Lux chair.

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Gold – While the debate might rage as to the pure neutrality of the color gold, we’re calling it a neutral based upon the fact that it really goes with everything. When using gold, consider carefully the sheen: too much shine, and the neutral element is decreased. Not enough shine, and you’ve merely got yourself a glorified yellowy-tan.

What is your favorite way to incorporate neutrals into your space?