The statement began, perhaps, as a dramatic departure from the complex, dark and rich color schemes of the Victorian era in an attempt to clean up the overabundance of clutter. It also reflected the unique ability of the nouveau riche class to keep white or neutral furnishings clean. Translation: They could afford servants and lived with gentility and without dirt. The same two reasons persist today in interiors based on neutrals. It is a good selection for a clean-looking interior that is upscale in quality and expense.
Today there are other compelling reasons to turn to neutrals and to earthtones. Foremost in importance is that they are stress-reducing. Interiors with neutralized hues that do not proclaim themselves in identity or intensity seem to blend effortlessly into the background. They are relaxing colors because they do not demand attention. Another reason is the safe nature of neutrals. They blend with nearly everything and so can form a pleasing background as color and pattern choices evolve or are decided later.
Defining Neutrals and Earthtones
Strictly speaking, neutrals are black, white or pure gray, which is a mixture of black and white in several values (lightness to darkness steps). Interiors in true neutrals are termed achromatic or without chroma. Chroma is the intensity of color, its brightness versus its dullness. A room that is achromatic, therefore, has no color only real neutrals.
Loosely speaking, when most of us refer to neutrals we think not only of black, white and gray but off-white, the entire brown family from light tan to deep brown, tinted grays and off-blacks. Of this palette we can choose from thousands of variations, some very light and pastel and others deeper and darker. Some can be "clean" or pure tints and others "dirty" or complex neutrals influenced by several colors.
To summarize, then, the term neutral can include both achromatic black, white and gray and also off-whites, the family of browns, colored grays and off-blacks.
A general rule when using neutrals with other colors in a decorating scheme is to pay close attention to the colors mixed with the neutrals. Called undertones these colors mean a gray, for example, may be tinted to greenish gray. If so, it may be a cool greenish gray or a warm greenish gray. Cool hues have more blue undertones, and warm hues have more yellow undertones.
Seeing undertones so that the proper blending or matching takes place is easy for some, it's like natural talent. For others it is a genuine struggle. Practice and effort can make seeing and identifying them easier. The keen ability to perceive or identify undertones and distinguish them from other very close hues or neutrals is termed visual acuity. It is the opposite of visual color deficiency, sometimes called color blindness (no longer a politically correct term). You can test your own acuity level by looking at swatches of neutrals and verbally identifying the undertones. For example, "Is this neutral influenced by warm or cool undertones? What undertones can I see?"
Neutralized colors are hues that still own their identify but have been dulled, grayed or softened, so they no longer are pure or clean. This means the green is still green, but is complex with one or more undertones. One way to judge a neutralized color is to ask, "If I were naming this color, would one word work to describe it?" If it is not simply "green" but a "grayish, brownish green" or a "bluish, blackish green" then you know this is a neutralized hue.
A neutralized color is called a tone. There are three ways to neutralize color: 1) by adding black; 2) by adding white then black; or 3) by adding its complementary color and/or other colors. The most beautiful of the neutralized hues are accomplished this third way, by adding complementary or other hues.
When the tone is achieved and white is added, the result is a pastel. Pastels are grayed or neutralized light tones and are easy to live with, noncommittal and aesthetically pleasing. Whereas tones make great floor colors, for example, pastels are lovely for walls and window treatments and neutrals (tinted or pure) are wonderful choices for walls, ceilings, wood trim and natural floors.
A new buzz word in recent years has been the addition of earthtones to our contemporary color lingo. The earthtone palette is a result of a renewed interest in the earth itself and the profoundly important concern with our environment that all of us should feel. Those of us who want to preserve the earth for future generations often give high priority to selecting materials and colors that will stand the test of time, that will seem just as beautiful 10 years from now as they do today. These colors and materials will age gracefully because they seem to be one with the earth, the very color of the soil, stone, bark and water of the forest, desert and prairie. The theory is that these hues will not need replacing as often and thus add less to landfills. So selecting colors of the earth can be a means of saving resources.
Just how long lived the colors actually are remains to be evaluated. However, it does appear that earthtones are no passing fad, but constitute a long-term trend in color selection. There always will be stylish or faddish colors, and perhaps these can be added into a design scheme as accents or easily replaceable items, while the overall background is stable and handsome. Above all, earthtones are livable, undemanding and harmonious with a lifestyle in which naturalness is a value.
Of course, earthtones are neutralized hues-tones and pastels. Their identities are complex, they vary from light to dark, but are never bright or intense in chroma. An interior composed entirely of earthtones will need pattern or textural drama in order to be interesting. A neutralized interior often requires a bit of brightness and sparkle, even in small quantities to be truly beautiful and to achieve interest. Too many unrelieved earthtones can be terribly boring.
Among the laws of color are found The Laws of Chromatic Distribution, which deals with earthtones in this way: The most neutralized colors of the scheme should be used or applied in the largest quantity and the brighter the color becomes, the smaller the area it should occupy. This means backgrounds should be in the most dulled, grayed, browned or neutralized colors; furniture, beds and window treatments should be slightly brighter; artwork and accent pieces can be brighter still; and the very brightest flecks of color are saved for, say, textiles or flowers in a vase. Earthtones can be most effective when this law is put into practice.
Earthtones also are universally appealing because they can be predominately light hues, or mostly medium values, or even prominently dark hues, each with its own psychological effect. Earthtones can be used in interiors with many themes: casual, formal, traditional, contemporary, eclectic, country, ethnic and of course, environmental.
Balance earthtones with value in mind as well. A dark interior (called low key) usually needs the relief offered by light values, and a light or mid-toned room (high key) needs dark accents to balance the value effect. Frequently the Law of Value Distribution is helpful: Lightest colors above and around, darker colors around and below. Applying this law often translates into using the lightest colors or neutrals on the ceiling, mid-tones on the walls and furniture and the darkest colors underfoot.
No matter which of these rules you follow, earthtones can help you achieve a tranquil and enduring interior.
Karla J. Nielson, Education Affiliate ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.