MORE THAN 50 SHADES OF GREY

50 shades of grey

(Understanding Undertones to Choose the Perfect Grey Paint)


When the cream and beige trend of the 1990s and early 2000s gave way to the grey trend of the 2010s, householders everywhere rushed out to buy grey paint for their walls. 

Touted as the go-to neutral, grey should have been an easy backdrop to whatever colour you wanted to use as an accent. 

After all, grey is a neutral; it is simply a mix of black and white. Grey couldn't possibly clash with anything.

Except it could.

And it does.

Homeowners up and down the country looked on in horror as their freshly painted grey walls appeared green, blue, or even pink!

So Why is Grey So Complicated?

To start with, it's a lot to do with how grey paint is created. It would be reasonable to think that grey paint is made by mixing black and white. More white makes a paler grey, and more black makes a darker grey. 

But most greys are not made by just mixing pure black with pure white. In fact, most greys consist of a mixture of different colours.

This creates a complex grey, which has depth and interest.

Look at the innermost circle of the colour wheel below. All of the 'colours' here are different shades of grey. Yet they all come from completely different starting colours. 

Colour wheel grey paint

Although all of the colours appear grey, in fact they each contain undertones of their original starting colour. 

Industry expert, Sharon Gretch of Benjamin Moore Paints gave us this advice: 

The key to working with gray successfully is determining the undertone that best suits your space. The most popular grays are not just simply gradients of black and white; instead they are comprised of other pigments that add to the complexity and appeal.

The trouble is, the human eye and brain aren't that great at spotting undertones. It recognises the colour as 'grey' and filters out the undertones. It's only when you put the grey next to a coloured item which clashes with the undertones that you know all about it - usually after you've painted it all over your walls. 

fired earth grey paint

Skylon Grey by Fired Earth

Not only can clashing undertones be a problem, but you also have to think about the other furniture and accessories in your room. An orange coloured oak cabinet, for example, may highlight the green or blue undertones in a grey paint, that you didn't even know were there!

Sarah Foster of Fired Earth told us about the impact of other colours used in a room on the appearance of the paint colour:

Depending on factors such as the way a room is lit throughout the day, the other colours that you’re planning to incorporate into your palette, and how furniture and soft furnishings reflect colour of their own, the same grey can take on very different characteristics from room to room.
Red toned grey Fired earth

Fired Earth's red-toned Pumblechook

​How Do You Avoid Making These Mistakes?

There are several ways to make sure that you choose the right paint, every time.  

Clémence Flammée from the Little Greene Paint Company reminds us of the importance of testing your paint thoroughly before making a decision:

The depth of a colour is only perceived in relation to other colours seen with it. You should always consider how the space and light in the room will affect the colour. We would always advise painting large swatches and placing them on different walls. Leaving space between the swatches means that you can separate the colours. 
Farrow Ball Green Grey Paint

Farrow & Ball Green-Gray Paint

Another consideration is the direction that the room faces. Sarah at Fired Earth has some tips for choosing grey paints for rooms with different aspects:

Cool northern light will tend to bring out any blue notes in a grey [...] while artificial light really warms up red-toned greys [...]. Green-based greys [...] will look different again so it’s well-worth getting sample pots of several of your favourite greys and experimenting with them.

Top Tips for Choosing Grey Paints

  1. Greys can be made from any colour, by adding black and white, or by adding a mixture of other colours.
  2. This creates undertones.
  3. You often cannot see the undertones in a paint by looking at the colour sample in the shop.
  4. Other objects in the room can affect how the grey appears by reflecting light onto the walls.
  5. The direction the room faces can affect how the colour appears.
  6. Test paint before use by painting large swatches of colour in the room.

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Main image: Fired Earth's green-toned Granite eggshell on the panelling and green-toned Oak apple eggshell on the bath.