What is a neutral?
Basically, we define most neutrals as colours that are ‘off the colour wheel‘ – as in we don’t give them a name of the rainbow colours (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet) so we’re talking grey, brown, white, black, tan, camel etc. These are bascially the non-colours. They are created by either being achromatic (the absence of colour – eg. black, white and grey) or by mixing lots of colours together until there isn’t any distinguishable rainbow colour left (brown tones such as sand, camel, honey, beige etc.).
But, there are exceptions. And some colours do end up also categorised in the neutral category.
So when does a colour become a neutral?
There are two ways a colour (rainbow) can be morphed into a neutral:
1. Toning (Adding Grey)
When you add lots of grey to it (toning) and it becomes so muted that the colour becomes much less obvious. You might then consider a greyed out blue, green or aubergine to become more of a neutral than a colour when the colour is toned down to the point of describing it as very dull, muted or dusky.
Neutrals such as denim, cognac, camel, khaki tend to fall into this category of neutrals.
2. Shading (adding black)
When you add lots of black (shading) to the colour so it becomes very dark and less obvious.
The lighter, brighter versions of rainbow colours are not neutrals. But we consider that many of the dark or very toned (greyed down) versions of colours fall into neutral territory.
Here we get navy, deep aubergine, deep olive, deep burgundy, which can all act as neutrals in your wardrobe as the low level of perceived colour (it’s harder to distinguish between different colours when they are darker as our eyes don’t pick up the variations as easily) makes them more useable as neutrals.
This is why if you have a colour palette from a colour analysis it will likely contain a range of neutrals from the achromatic, the toned and the shaded ranges. And you may ask how I decide if it’s a colour or neutral? Well, when I’m looking at the colour in comparison to the other colours in the swatch, some just look too neutral, so end up in the “neutral” section of the colour swatch. But you may find some of the really deep colours in the “colour” section of your swatch could also be used as neutrals because of their depth.
How to choose neutrals
There are lots of neutrals around. Some have a warm undertone and some a cool. The neutrals you choose ideally want to work with the vast majority of the colours you wear (which is why having a colour palette makes choosing both the colours and the neutrals so much easier as they are preselected for you and designed to go together).
You can base your choice upon your hair colour as an easy way to decide on neutrals that flatter you. Check out these blog posts on how to choose a neutral to work with your hair.
- Red hair
- Brown hair and black hair
- Blonde hair
- Grey hair
Tips on wearing neutrals
When wearing neutrals, if you’re wearing black then adding a denim jacket, the denim jacket will appear to be more coloured rather than neutral, because of the achromatic nature of black.
You can see in this example that the black, grey and greige of the tunic, leggings and boots make the denim jacket more ‘blue’ and less neutral.
But in this photo below, the denim of my jeans is darker and less apparent than the blue of my jacket and green of my top, so it becomes the neutral backdrop to the colours.
And again here, if you’re wearing navy blue and then add a brighter or lighter colour, the denim will appear to be more receeding and neutral.
So the navy in my skirt and white top are acting as a neutral here because the red boots and necklace are really popping against them and so red becomes the most apparent colour in the outfit.
Thank you, Imogen! All questions are answered!
It’s always good to know what people want to know! Made me think about it as a subject in a more detailed way.
As a cool brunette, I no longer like the way black looks on me and have purged a lot of black from my wardrobe. If I had to pick out of black, white and grey, I prefer a light to mid grey now, but believe my neutral is a dark blue and so wear dark blue jeans, and have found dark blue leather and suede boots.
I try and wear coloured tops to bring some life into my complexion and have avoided other neutrals such as olive, beige, or other shade of brown and dark greys as they make me look sick and haunted, or I just don’t like them. I do like teal as it brings out the green and blue in my eyes and have many tops in the blue/green spectrum. But I do love my colour and have a lot of it, especially multi coloured kaftans which I think really brightens my complexion.
You may find as you age that your colouring softens so black isn’t as flattering as it once was. You can find a brown to flatter (you have brown hair) but it’s looking for the cool not warm brown shades.
Crystal clear examples, Imogen. Thanks.
After reading your fascinating colour and contrast tips, I have examined my wardrobe of blacks, navies, whites and reds (sigh) and am looking back to the olives, browns and beiges which I used to wear 20 years ago when I first had my colours ‘done’. The thing is all these muted colours have not been in fashion for a while and I am having trouble finding up to date pieces, especially for evening wear. I had dark brown hair which is now hightlighted blonde to blend with the grey. My skin is light olive and I have light caramel/green eyes. Weird colouring, I know! Orange looks good on me but not for work or events. I have been wearing black and navy suits for work and realise now they are not really very flattering at all. I am from Melbourne where black is de rigour. Can you help?
THere is a lot in the olive/khaki range of colours out now (not brown or anything else sadly) I’ve seen it in loads of stores.
Very good article. My wardrobe is full of neutrals! I like them but the other reason has been that I have not been sure about the colours. Only that I’m cool. Now I’m waiting for my colour palette to arrive, so I can start to combine some flattering colours to my neutrals.
Thank you for this post. I have had my Opulent palette for years and I never realized that the back of it contains neutrals! I had been wondering why some “colors” are considered neutrals and your visual examples helped a ton.