The Sometimes Confusing Language of Color

Many words have double meanings in the language of color.

For years I have used the term ‘neutral’ in a couple of different ways. On dictionary.com the following definitions are given for when the word NEUTRAL is used in relation to color:

a. gray; without hue; of zero chroma; achromatic.
b. matching well with many or most other colors or shades, as white or beige.

For me, a neutral is a color that you’d have a hard time assigning a hue name to. For example, many people will wear a color like rust as a neutral in their wardrobe….but rust is derived from red so it is not in my opinion a true neutral. It is a “neutralized” red. The same can be said for navy…a neutralized blue; olive….a neutralized yellow-green; or eggplant..a neutralized purple.

But the word neutral also means “not in support of any side” and it is in that vein that I have often used the word to describe hues that are neither decidedly warm or decidedly cool in their undertone. The colors in a childs basic paint box will usually include a neutral red, blue, and yellow. From those colors along with the addition of black or white, all other colors can be mixed. Hard to believe isn’t it?

There are also basic neutrals that have a neutral color temperature. These are actually “balanced”. A blue gray is a cool gray. A yellow gray is a warm gray. Those subtle differences make a big difference when you are purchasing neutrals for your wardrobe. A gray with a blue, violet, plum, or rose cast to it will fight with separates that have warm undertones. A golden brown pant will almost resist sharing space with a cool mauve top. But the most neutral versions of these “neutral colors” will straddle that line between warm and cool and will be more harmonious with other outfit components that are either noticably warm or cool.

So I’ve decided to try and change my vocabulary when I talk about these colors that don’t take a strong stand in either the warm or cool camp. I’ll call them “balanced”. I think it’s fair to say that no one will look bad in balanced colors provided that the intensity is not too far afield from their ideal range.

One fine example of a neutral hue is Coral/Pink. It walks that fine line between warm coral and cool pink and looks good on almost everyone. Not great necessarily. But not in obvious conflict with their coloring.

When I create a palette for a client, I choose basic neutrals and optional neutrals for them. The basic neutrals are the “NON-colors” like white, beige, tan, brown, taupe, gray and black. These colors are the backbone of the wardrobe. They are worn more than the colored items in the wardrobe and for many people, they can be quite boring if not alleviated with at least a touch of color. They work harder and are worn longer provided they are of good quality. Your personal best neutrals should be where you put the most money in your shopping budget. 

The next category is Optional Neutrals. These colors are neutralized hues that have only a hint of color in them. Examples are rust, olive, navy, teal, camel, moss, eggplant, and wine. These give us options  that will work well with many of our best colors in garments we might also wear in basic neutrals like  pants, skirts, jackets, leather goods, coats, etc. They are not as versatile as basic neutrals but they look good even without the addition of a color accent. 


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