To understand the role of neutral paint colors, consider a traditional winter landscape in a temperate climate: snow, bare trees, fragments of dried grass, gray boulders, and leafless shrubs sticking out from the icy terrain of an overcast day.This might be a somewhat of a challenge to imagine for Southern California residents!
But the benefits of a neutral palette can be enjoyed in a beautifully remodeled Palos Verdes home as much as they can in an east coast Cape Cod home.
Without the impression of strong colors, other visual quality become apparent; details of form and texture seem more pronounced. This is the power of a neutral palette, and the reason it remains an ever-popular strategy for painting rooms.
Black and white and all tones of gray in between, plus the lighter side of the brown family, constitute those hues that are considered neutral. Yet this label does not mean that using neutral paints in rooms will result in drab or unexciting spaces.
Every paint color makes a statement, and these shades are no exception.
Anyone who has seen one knows the vitality of a successful black-and-white room, or the enveloping comfort of an all-beige room full of interesting shapes and textures.
Applying White Paints
Every manufacturer’s fan deck of colors contains a large section of whites --sometimes more than one hundred different shades and hints of this supposed non-color. Bright whites make a crisp contrast to almost any other color; often used as a standard treatment for ceilings, they make an adjacent color look more lively and true.
Creamy whites, with a touch of yellow, orange, or brown, have a softer appearance. They mimic warm afternoon light, creating a serene setting for reading and relaxing -- a great palette for a library, bedroom, or home office.
Using creamy whites in discernibly different sheens on the walls of a room is one way to achieve an interesting, yet subtle, patterned effect. For example, stripe a room with an ivory hue, using eggshell and satin sheen of the same shade. This creates a light, formal look of striped damask.
For another elegant hint of pattern, apply subtle stenciled borders in classical motifs along the perimeters of a room using this same serene juxtaposition of gloss levels.
Picking out trim, molding, doors and windows in glossy, creamy white creates a somewhat aged appearance in rooms, especially when these details are paired with walls finished in vintage colors. Off-whites, pearl-whites, and putty tans have this historical connotation for many decorators and designers.
Painting With Soft, Neutral Tones
The gentle qualities of pale neutral colors lend themselves to painting linear or subtle geometric patterns. When used together, soft beiges, tans, whites, and grays will never clash. By vertically taping a white base coat, stripes of any pale neutral tint will energize a room and also provide an illusion of greater ceiling height.
Taping off sections of wall and painting them in a different soft, neutral shade artfully define a room’s important features. Surround a large abstract canvas or a hall table with a painted rectangle or square of a neutral shade slightly darker than the base wall color.
This subtle “framing” effect draws the eye to such focal points.
Using Neutral Paints to Mimic Natural Materials
Slate, marble, granite, and limestone are durable and beautiful natural materials that have become highly desirable for surfacing walls, floors, and countertops. Yet their distinctive -- and expensive -- good looks can be duplicated with a bit of practice.
A wooden mantel or fireplacesurround, artfully painted to suggest stone, creates an elegant focal point for a living or dining room.
Distinguish an entry hall by painting walls to resemble blocks of stone. Using a pale smooth color, tape off walls in squares that suggest quarried sections of limestone or sandstone. Then apply glazes in one or more soft shades that duplicate the chosen stone, rubbing along the taped borders to suggest the subtly shaded edges of cut stone.
Getting the Look of Granite
Imitate the rich, speckled surface of cut granite on bathroom walls or kitchen backsplashes with a simple sponging technique. Copy the colors of a favorite sample, which may have three or four different neutral shades: tan, white, gray, and black is one combination for a number of varieties from different quarries around the world.
Use the lightest color in the granite sample for the base, then sponge in succession with gazes in the other colors, finishing with the darkest shade, allowing glazes to dry in between colors.
Depending upon the granite look desired, choose sponges in the pore size that will best replicate the sample.
Using Beige, Brown, and Tan
The colors of sand, bark, and wood provide a natural and relaxed harmony in rooms. Choosing one shade of the brown family for walls, and furnishing a space so enclosed with other tints and tones of this hue, creates an immediate sense of warmth and security.
The association of libraries and spaces for work and reading with materials such as leather and tweed also make a case for painting walls in brown or tan.
Shiny glazed walls in deep chocolate, or warm textured or flat-finished walls in a soft fawn shade, make an elegant background for richly tactile furnishings with crisp, white trim.
Or, soften and make the effect of brown or tan more rustic and countrified by color washing the chosen shade.
One of the most exciting aspects of a neutral palette is its broad flexibility: myriad combinations of whites, grays, beiges, and black work together harmoniously.