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The New Neutrals...or Not

"Neutral" is probably the most bandied about color description there is. So often we hear about this year's "new neutral." Is that all marketing blather or can there be a "new" neutral? Is the definition locked with those hues already established?

Krane: Welcome to Let's Talk Color.

Woolf: I'm Amy Woolf, principal designer at Amy Woolf Color and Design. Krane: And I'm Amy Krane, founding designer at Amy Krane Color. We're both professional color experts who specialize in architectural color. We met while training and years later the conversation is still going strong.

Woolf: We both live our lives immersed in color and design. We often agree, but sometimes we don't because color is personal... Color truths, however, are universal.

Krane: In each episode we'll unravel the mystery of choosing color for your home or business, both inside and out.

Woolf: Hey, Amy, let's talk about neutrals, shall we? I think where we should begin is probably with what actually is a neutral. I used to have my own little personal joke that red was a neutral. Based on my definition that a neutral is supposed to go with everything and I kind of believe red goes with everything. How about you?

Krane: Well, I think I'm going to start with an act of shameless self-promotion, if that's okay with you? I want to mention that I just had an article published in the July 2021 issue of Fine Home Building Magazine and the article was called How To Choose Colors. They asked me to create a glossary of commonly used terms related to architectural color to accompany it and I have to say I really spent the most time devising a definition of the term neutral. Because as you know, Amy, it's bandied about all the time. And as time and trends come and go, the term itself is a constant. So maybe it'll surprise our listeners that there is not a universally accepted definition. I don't think there is. Woolf: So you don't think red is a neutral?

Krane: I don't! Here's what I came up with from my experience and training. I think there are two components to what makes a color a neutral, one is dependent on the other. So these are colors that have been neutralized in effect, and I know that's a grammatical faux pas to use the root of a word in its own definition. But what I'm trying to say is that they are lacking colorful-ness, a mouthful.

Typically, neutral colors are de-saturated or greyed down. Sometimes they're neutralized because they're tinted with a lot of white. They include greys and beiges, whites, black and creams. But the second component is that because of that, they're deemed to be able to work with every other color out there. And while we know that no one color can work with literally every other color, neutrals work with the vast majority of them.

And I want to add also that some people include earth tones within this collection of colors. When you think about it, with the exception of tan, earth tones like taupe and mushroom and putty and stone are all actually warm greys so they fit right into the definition. And I'd say that tan, a color from brown that's been heavily tinted with white, also fits. I think there's another component to earth tones that's key. We're so used to seeing them all around us in the natural world - these earthy colors in stone and soil and rock and we see they "go with" all of the other colors in the natural world. So folks consider them neutral too, but they fit the definition anyway. So putting red aside, Amy, how would you define it? Do you think it's just all about it going with every other color?

Woolf: I guess for me, there's an obvious conversation about desaturated color, which means toned down, which is usually grey and less colorful. But I would agree with you that earth tones move into that zone. We can tone a color with more of a brown influence. But to me, when I think about neutrals, I think about the function and I guess that's where I come from. Joking aside, I think about red being a neutral. For me the function of a neutral is a color that works as a peace keeper in a way that helps everything else fit together. One of the things I talk about when I'm working with clients is what I call the Big Happy Neutral. So for those interstitial spaces like hallways and foyers and areas inside a home or building off which all the other colors flow, that Big Happy Neutral in the middle is the peace keeper. So I guess for me, the definition of neutral has more to do with function. You mentioned that you could neutralize a color with white, and so that neutral in that big, happy interstitial space could be a super pale pastel. It could be a white tinted with a little tiny bit of color in it, and that would function as a neutral. So I think really I'm driven by the function...

Krane: Yeah, I think function definitely is a part of it. But I think it's about what it looks like AND how it functions. Meaning it works with all these other colors. You know, Amy, you often use a term complex neutrals. You've used it really a lot in the podcast so far. Do you think you can explain what you mean by that and maybe give some examples?

Woolf: For me, I love a color that when you look at it, you're not quite sure what you're looking at. And it often will be a color that changes throughout the day or throughout the year as the lighting conditions vary. So I have a color in my dining room right now, that's... It's a custom mix I put it together. It's got about 11 or 12 different pigments in it, so it's very mutable. There are times when it looks grey. There are times of day in the year when it looks sort of pale blue. It kind of resembles Benjamin Moore Gray Owl. And there are even times when it takes on an almost golden cast. So that's what I'm talking about with a "near neutral", something that's got a smidge of the root color or the hue, but is almost not recognizable.

Krane: So you just used the term "near neutral" when explaining complex neutral. Are they kind of the same thing in your mind?

Woolf: No, I think the near neutral can be like an overt gray, green. My favorite with a little bit red. The complex neutrals, I would say, are more complex. They've got a little more stuff going on and it's a little harder to read them. One of my favorite exterior complex neutrals is... Oh, here I am giving away my secrets is a color called Millstone Gray. I think it's also fabulously complicated and mutable. Some people want to always understand what they're looking at. And so I find sometimes people, when I propose a near neutral or a complex neutral, they don't like that ambiguity. I enjoy the ambiguity. I embrace the shifting, the metamerism, which is what we call it when a color shifts. But some people really want to look at a color and say, "Oh, that's green or that's blue." They want clarity. I don't know. Do you run into that? People really want to know what they're looking at?

Krane: I do. I think that one of the possible downsides of both of us, explaining to our clients WHY we chose the color we chose, or why it works, is that they can end up going down some kind of rabbit hole of names and terms and descriptors. They really want to nail that name or that descriptor to a color. I call those kind of colors you called complex, atmospheric colors. They tend to live in the world of greys and blues and greens and they make me think of cloudy days. Those are really exciting - exciting emotionally to me but also very soothing. Soothing colors which I love a lot. And I consider them neutrals as well.

Talking about using neutrals, I want to say something which might get some people's hackles up. I don't think a whole house should be painted in neutral colors. I think that's boring. And I know owners of homes that are all grey or all white might take exception to that remark but this is not only my personal taste. It is based on our training. One has to keep in mind how under-stimulating or over-stimulating a built environment is. And again, coming back to the natural world, you should create a home that's like the natural world in that it's moderately varied in hue, saturation and value. Hue being color, value being lightness darkness and saturation being purity of color. This kind of space feels best to be in. It's best for your brain, for your body, and ultimately for your spirit because of that. So I think if you've got a lot of neutrals in your home on your walls, you really need to spice it up. You can do that by mixing them with other kinds of colors, either in your decor or on your walls. I like the latter best. I like to mix neutrals and other more pronounced colors with neutrals in your paint colors. The things is, is that neutrals are easy on the eyes. They kind of provide the equivalent of visual breathing space, a chance to relax your eyes and your mind in between the stimulation of more active and complex colors that are around you and around them.

I often use them in hallways, the arteries of the home, that's what I call them. They take you from space to space and stop you from having to have distinct hues butting up against each other in one room next to another. Because you can do that but you have to be really good at combining colors. If you want to keep important concepts like flow, cohesion and balance in mind, then I think it's really important to mix neutrals around your other more pronounced colors in all of the rooms. How would you categorize neutrals, Amy?

Woolf: Well, I think probably starter categories would be warm and cool. I think that's the first place that we, before we get really focused on hue, start with warm and cool. Does this want to be cool? Does it want to be warm and then think about value. Should it be dark? Should it be light? I know it's counter-intuitive, but sometimes I will paint a very small a very dark neutral, a charcoal or something. You're never going to make a very small dark space light with a paint color. Color is magical. But not that magical. Right?

Krane: We always say that! Embrace the light you have. Right Amy?

Woolf: Yeah, exactly. So I think start with warm and cool. Make that decision, then think about value. And then of course, these near neutrals that I talked about, neutrals are just like every other color in the universe, other than pure black and pure white. They all belong to some color family. They all connect back to some pure hue on the color wheel, even though it may not be detectable by the naked eye. So... Is that what you mean by categorize?

Krane: Yes, I'm in agreement: Warm, cool, dark and light, like any other color. Let's categorize them the same way. And I'm also in complete agreement that I would start with warm and cool. Then right after that, dark and light.

As you have more and more different colors in your home, it becomes more and more complex to be able to successfully mix the colors. When it comes to mixing neutrals... That is really, really difficult. If you want to put a grey sofa on a grey carpet and you want it to be fool- proof, the way to do it is to choose two greys from the same hue family, the same color family. For instance, take both greys from the yellow hue family and make the colors different by value or saturation, not hue. So in other words, one is light and the other dark. Or one is a little brighter and more saturated while the other one is a little bit more muted. The thing is, for a really well-balanced home overall, when you're looking at wall colors then adding the additional layer of decor color on top of it, the most successful homes are ones that are really balanced, mixing warm and cool colors.

But it's super tricky mixing neutrals that are warm and cool, unlike saturated colors. I think you can do it if you really know how, but it's safer not to try it. For me, jumping into pet peeves and common problems for a second, I can't stand a blue grey with a warm brown grey. I think it's a disaster. It's like a pink beige and yellow beige. I think it clashes. So if you want to be safe and mix neutrals, make sure they're from the same color families. Combinations are much more successful when you mix more saturated versions of colors... When you can really tell it's a blue, and really tell it's a red. They'll look great together. But once you get to neutralized, greyed down versions of those colors, I don't think it usually works and I think you have to really know what you're doing to mix them.

Woolf: You know, it's interesting, NCS, which is a kind of color organization system based in Sweden has an atlas that's very similar to the Munsell color tree. And the NCS theory is that... Well, one of the things I believe they teach is that you can combine colors no matter where they are on the huge circle if they all come from the very same location on the value and saturation scales. So it's really interesting. I've always felt that that's true for colors that are closer to the pure hue. It makes a lot of sense to me. It would be really interesting, I think, to play with that theory and see whether that actually works for neutrals or not. But I do totally agree with you, Amy that mixing neutrals is hard.

I can't tell you how many times I've been called in to, let's say pick wall color for a kitchen where the client either moved into the house and it is the way it is, or they just remodeled their kitchen... God help me, I wish they would call me before they remodel. But they pick everything neutral and because they think - it's all neutral, it's gonna work. And you get in there and you just see all these clashing browns... Warm Browns, cool greys. I mean, there are some designers who do a really good job at that. Jean- LouisDeniot, who is French, is one of them. But like you said, it takes a really deft hand to pull that off correctly. When clients say to me, "I just want neutrals" I say, "Yeah, that's the hardest thing there is..." It's actually much easier to pick color colors, wouldn't you agree?

Krane: Oh, I certainly do! I remember a color consultation I did years ago, I recently went back to these people's home to help them with bedroom carpet, but when they called me in the first time years ago it was a second home here in Columbia County and it was a big open living/ dining space with a small kitchen that sort of overlooked it. So it was kind of open with a peninsula in between the rooms. It had a big cathedral ceiling with a fireplace with stone on one wall and this house was just completely furnished. It had a lot of furniture in the living room and some of it was that sort of shabby chic off-white distressed wood pieces. And the carpet was a yellow beige. And some of the upholstered seating was brown, which was fine, but a lot of it was pink beige. They called me in for help with the wall color in this room, and it took every ounce of fiber to not say "tear up that carpet" because this is so bad, but you can't. I mean, these people just lived meticulously. They could have owned it for like 10 years, it didn't matter, it was like they furnished it yesterday. Everything was in great shape and beautifully tidy and clean and decorated with artwork and tchotchkes from all over the world where they traveled. It was really personal but also pristine. They had used a color consultant in their NYC apt years and years ago, and that was really successful, they said. But I think this person helped them with the carpet color and decor or else the guy in the carpet store did. I just had to keep the old lips zipped. I didn't say a thing because why hurt their feelings? It's already there and they weren't changing it. So you know, we came up with... Oh Amy, we did your hated accent wall!

Woolf: I don't hate. I don't actually hate accent walls. I just want them to be for a reason. Not a default.

Krane: Right. I hear you. Well, I put this beautiful brown, warm, bronzey color on the fireplace wall, which was really tall. My intention was to take your eyes off the clashing beiges. It said "look at this great fireplace wall!" They were happy in the end and I was happier then when I came into that space. I think that color can really help in situations like that. I ask my clients in my questionnaire, is there any architectural details or anything you want color to help you minimize? That's something I ask usually in reference to exteriors, but it could be for interiors too. What do we want to take your eyes away from. Let's have color help you do that.

Woolf: That goes back to the whole notion of a peace keeper. How can color be the peace keeper? It sounds like that bronzey brown on that accent wall, which sounds like it was a neutral, certainly did the job. It probably made peace with the carpet. We talk about the fifth wall all the time - the ceilings, but... Yeah, boy, carpets are a biggie. When you pull a sample board of carpet and you bring it home and you take a look at it, it's just like 1000 shades of beige and gray. It's really hard to discern things that are one by one inch. How can you discern what are the undertones going on here unless you spend all day, every day, looking at colors like we do? I think it's really kind of hard to see what you're gonna get into. But man, once you've got it everywhere, it's a sea of something... Hopefully, it's a sea of whatever you chose!

I had a client... Oh God, this is so bad. I had a client who called me in after the fact. She had oak floors throughout her entire house and she decided at the beginning of the grey trend, which was 10 plus years ago, to have all of her floors redone in a soft gray, which was a great idea. But the outcome was that the floors were blue. So what she had hoped to be a neutral with this grey, [because grey is basically a watered down black and black has a tendency to read very blue] was that she had basically pale blue grey floors throughout her entire first floor.

Krane: It could be pretty, but it wasn't her intention...

Woolf: Right. It wasn't her intention. It certainly wasn't neutral, and it was definitely not a peace keeper. She wanted a warm, inviting family home. She wanted to have warm walls... But, if you put a warm color on the walls, it's just going to push that blue even further blue because of that opposing color interaction. So yeah, that was about 10 years ago when grey was the big thing. Now we're swinging back to the B word... That's right, we're swinging back to Brown-based neutrals, to earth tones, warm neutrals. Warm colors, earth colors, the pendulum has swung. It's not swinging absolutely everywhere yet, but certainly at the cutting edge, we're seeing grey trend out and beige coming back.

Krane: Well, I say Yay. I mean, grey was great. And for lovers of those complex atmospheric greys that you and I love, Amy, those green blue greys... I'll always use them 'cause they're so wonderful. But neutrals are the color "work horses" of the home. As we talked about, some people slather greys all over all of their walls and other folks like you, and I use them in the arterial or interstitial spaces. They're in your house a lot and I think people just get sick of them. Just like everything else, neutrals trend. But their trends are longer. It's not like purple is the color of the year this year, and it's orange next year. The greys stayed a long time! And I'm in agreement, it's about 10 years with the grey, and I also think it's going to go out more slowly in different parts of the country than others. It's going back towards the beige.

The funny thing is also, I think that because the big neutral is used so much and around so long that when we do switch the popular neutral, the old one gets maligned. People have all kinds of negative things to say about them. I go back to our recollection of Linen white and Navajo white. All of those builder beiges. That term has a negative connotation. Builder beige... What the builder uses. But we are trending back towards them. Let's talk about grey a little bit, 'cause it is still kind of here. What kind of colors do you like to mix with... Neutrals, let's say in decor, Amy?

Woolf: Well, you know... Red goes with everything! A little bit of red with any one of those complex greys... You know, bright, clear, clean colors. I mean, any of the clearer, brighter colors work. I kind of rail against that term "pop of color." But it's overused for a good reason, because it makes sense. It's what it is. It's a pop of color.

Krane: Amy, do you have any pet-peeves or common problems that you want to talk about? You want to to rail against?

Woolf: Me, pet peeves? I have complaints. Yes. I think, going back to what you said about beige being maligned, I think the hardest thing for me sometimes is, and you mentioned this even earlier, about clients getting attached to a name, is that there are some really terrific colors with really lousy names. And there are some really lousy colors with really terrific names. So I guess my pet-peeve would be to not get too attached to the name. If there's the B-word in the name- beige, let it go. It's okay. I know a lot of us, especially if you've been at this decorating game for more than 10 years and you did watch the last trend, you thought beige was not for you anymore... You embraced grey. It's now going to be harder I think to swing back into beige again. It kind of feels old. And for some people, they JUST got rid of their beige and finally embraced the grey. And when I'm talking to people now about kitchens and bathrooms or flooring, where they're putting in neutrals that really need to stand the test of time, they need to be looking forward. They need to look 5, 10 years out and beige is where we're going. So yeah, that's a pet peeve. Keep an open mind. Beige can be your friend.

Krane: Yeah, it's like the bell bottoms of colors, beige, right? It comes back because it all comes back... Oh, well, for me, for me, it's when designers say "Such and such color is the new neutral... " I mean, can something be a new neutral? I say no! Yeah, I say no! You can't just assign a color the moniker of neutral.

The thing is, they're not referring to the first part of the definition, which is lacking colorful-ness. They are referring to its function only- it goes with everything. I think a neutral needs to fulfill both parts. So colors like navy, lovely, and pink, lovely... They are not neutrals. They are not lacking colorful- ness and they really don't go with everything. So don't be going around calling this and that color a new neutral because in my mind it is not...

Woolf: I don't know, I might argue with you on that navy thing. But generally they're just... I think it's just about selling magazines and getting more eyeballs, and I think it's just... What do they call it? There's a name for this.

Krane: Yada yada yada yada? Or blah blah, blah?

Woolf: No, no, no. No, it's something about hooking people in... It's locking in eyeballs. You start talking about the new neutral and everybody wants to know what's going on. Yeah.

Krane: Clickbait.

Woolf: Yeah, that's the term. Clickbait, thank you. Alright, on that happy note. Shall we wrap it up?

Krane: Yeah, well, I hope you learned something new about neutral colors used in architecture. Tune in next time when we talk about another aspect of color for the built world.

Woolf: And if you have any requests or questions or things you'd like to hear us talk about, you can find us at Let's Talk [paint] Color dot Com. And send us a little note to let us know what you're thinking about.


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