The Hunt for Gray Undertones

This recently jumped off a page, “chalky gray undertone”. I have already explained my point of view on undertones and how layers define them. Layers that are manipulated to leverage undertone. No layers = no undertones and from my perspective, that applies to everything, not just paint.

However, the concept of undertone as a descriptor is not lost on me. I can follow when people use the term because to them it obviously means something; problem is that “something” is very broad and in order to determine exactly what it is they mean, more information would be helpful.

With regard to the “chalky gray undertone” comment, there is an additional angle that I am interested in exploring. Which is how the perception of a gray undertone is even possible?

Years ago while doing research for the article I wrote about Light Reflectance Values, I learned that a perfectly black-black or white-white does not exist in everyday terms. Color standards will quantify black and white per the purpose of the standard. In this example, they call it “Whitemetrics“. This type of information inspired some key questions about a “perfect” gray.

Perfect black and white do not exist in everyday terms, and actually have to be defined for color standards, but what about a perfect neutral gray? What I found was that a certified neutral gray is a lot less complicated but still not so common that it is available on every street corner; it is a rare occurrence.

Here is one resource for purchasing gray cards.

munsell neutral gray

You can even buy spectrally balanced neutral gray paint.

In this blog post, I describe spreading a color thinly so you can indeed see the undertone. If you were to spread a truly colorless, achromatic gray thinly, the undertone would be the same as the masstone – it would have to be because it is colorless.

As mentioned, getting your hands on a perfectly balanced neutral gray takes a little effort because the majority of colors considered “gray” and readily available are unbalanced mixtures of other colors that when combined look grayish.

Even though grayish colors appear very near an achromatic gray, they aren’t a true neutral gray.


They have some degree of colorfulness and are organized in to different categories from an achromatic gray.  The categories are muted and chromatic grays.


Muted is more colorful than chromatic gray. Chromatic gray is closest to achromatic gray. Combined, muted and chromatic gray are referred to as near neutrals and/or complex colors.

You really can do this! Read these other blog posts and add to your color skill set.

  1. Bringing Perspective to Undertones
  2. Color Order Systems are Like…
  3. Learn How to Use a Paint Color Order System Now
  4. How To Master Overtones
  5. Etymology of the Term Overtone
  6. Color Overtones Review

Creative Commons License The Hunt for Gray Undertones by Lori Sawaya is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at

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