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Clean vs. Dirty Colors – 2 Tips for Adding Color to Your Home


Pantone named their 2013 color of the year.  It’s Emerald Green.  Do you like?

If you do, the question is, does it work in just any space?  When does green work?  And, when does it just not work?   (Shhh, but these tips work with any color.)


In a way, green is easy to add since it’s the color of plants and that is considered a neutral in most cases, but there are a few things to consider before adding green to your space.

To tackle this, we need to talk about fixed elements and clean versus dirty colors.

1.  Fixed Elements.

Before adding any color, consider the fixed elements that are in the room.  Fixed elements are things that are attached to the home and cannot easily be changed such as countertops, sinks, flooring, etc.

What color are the fixed elements in your space?  What are the undertones?


The space pictured above has black countertops, white cabinets without a glaring undertone, stainless appliances and a white with a slight gray undertone subway tile backsplash.  That is about as flexible as you can get.  So, the saturated emerald green works in this space.  In fact, most colors would work in this space.

Here is another kitchen that has lots of white fixed elements.  All whites aren’t the same, so check the undertones, even in white, by comparing it to other whites.  Some whites have yellow undertones, being super creamy.  Other whites have blue undertones, and so on.

Green works well with all of the fixed white in this space though.


And, what is an important thing to consider when doing white?  Light.  White does not do well in a dimly lit room. It goes dull gray fast.  For more information on white, see this post.

However, not all spaces are as flexible as the kitchens shown above.  Some of us have funky colors that we inherited in our countertops or other fixed elements.

Let’s be honest, these countertops below are pretty bossy.  Not all colors will work in this space.


And, the worst color in a countertop is beige with a pink undertone.  It’s super bossy!  (See below.)   And, not only does pinky-beige not work well with a yellow beige, but just doesn’t work well with much.


If your space has pinky undertones in the countertop, please note that and work with it, not against it.

If you are going green, be sure to ask, are there any fixed elements with orange undertones in the room?  Orange is opposite the color wheel from green.  Anytime you put two colors together that are opposite the color wheel, they will emphasize each other.  Do you want the orange emphasized?  That is a question only you can answer.  If the orange is in a tile you hate, maybe not.  If the orange makes the cabinets feel dated, maybe not.

Having said that, please note that orange toned wood on the horizontal acts as a neutral.  All wood as flooring does, so don’t worry about wood flooring too much.  That’s not to say that some tones of wood won’t work better in a space than others, though.

2.  Clean versus Dirty.

The next thing to consider is if the color you want to add is clean or dirty and how that corresponds to the surrounding colors.

(Note: this concept does not apply to neutrals like gray, beige, tan, and white, though their undertones and saturation should be taken into consideration.)

What does clean and dirty even mean?  Clean is the color without it being mixed with much gray to muddy it up.  Dirty colors are typically muted with gray.  Muted and muddy are other words that are used interchangeably with dirty.

Below is an example of clean green (table) being combined with dirty green (chairs).


We all have our own opinions, but I’m not the biggest fan of the two together in the space above.  I do like how she used two rugs and two tables in the oversized room.

Which of the color combinations below do you think looks best?


Typically clean colors look better with other clean colors.  Muddy colors look best with other muddy colors.  Below is an example of a dirty green with both dirty pink and clean pink.


You may have to look very closely at those to see the difference.

In general, muted colors will look more sophisticated.  Clean colors will look more cheerful, but can border on youthful if you aren’t careful.

Clean colors should be off-set with a healthy amount of white.  White helps them to make sense in a space.

Below are a few examples of green in spaces where the general color palette is very clean.   Personally, I am drawn to clean colors most, but not too clean and over-saturated.  I like a little bit of gray mixed in so that it’s still vibrant, but not too bright.  However, many out there love their neutrals and soft palettes.

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If you are wondering about an example of more muddy tones, see the image below.  And, as you can see there, you can sprinkle in various tones of the color to blend it some.


Below are some various tones around the green spectrum that you could put together in a room.


And, just for fun, since I didn’t show a lot of dirty/ muted colors, here are some fabulous rooms featuring more muted colors.  But, remember, these are terms of comparison, so it’s all relative.

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Basic Rules:
1.  Balance bright saturated colors with lots of white.  Not only does it help them to make more sense but it keeps them from getting overwhelming.
2.  Clean colors create a happier room, but also can be more youthful.  Dirty or muddy colors tend to be more sophisticated.  Both can be wonderful.
3.  In general, keep clean colors with clean colors and dirty (or muddy or muted) with other dirty colors.
4.  When choosing a color, make sure it works with the fixed elements your home – anything that will not be changed.
5.  Compare different shades of one color to begin to see the undertones and to see if it’s clean or dirty.

These are just basic rules.  Rules are made to be broken.  But, they also must be known so that way you can purposely break them or know what may be wrong if something is bothering you.

I hope that is helpful!   What do you think about emerald green?   Would it work in your home?

What tips do you have?  Are you drawn mostly to clean or dirty colors?



  1. I’m glad to hear you’re not quitting blogging. Sometimes real life takes priority to blogging! Love all these inspirations using emerald green and the topic of undertones in whites. I have an unfortunate countertop very similar to that pinky one you shared, I like to refer to it as “bologna”. Painting our cabinets a creamy white (BM Dove White) definitely made the color seem more terra-cotta vs. pinky/orange/puke. I’m afraid green would emphasize it too much, like you mentioned. I love these color posts, keep them coming!!! Best wishes for all that’s on your plate right now too :)

  2. I’m not a big green fan…I do like it when it is used sparingly with a lot of white.

  3. So glad to see you again! Real life should definately always trump blogging in my opinion, but it’s best when blogging just enhances our daily lives. I am so inspired to see the pantone color of the year is emerald. I’ve used it several places in my home and have been debating painting my vintage nightstands that color for several months now. One is round and one is rectangle so I think it would be a fun way to unify them, but I’ve been reluctant to take the plunge because I also love their wood. I’ve also been kicking around the idea of painting a settee that color. Now I’ve got some food for thought for today…great info, as always. Loved the detail on muted colors–something a lot of people don’t really understand and very well explained!

  4. I’m a clean color person all the way. I very rarely prefer dirty colors.

    I like that emerald green, but I’m more of a kelly green girl, myself. But it would be fun to play with it in different combinations. What do you recommend with it, other than white?

    • Any other clean color. :) I love pink and green in a little girl’s room. I love yellow and green in a sunroom. I love black and white with it in adult spaces.

  5. I love to use green in my own home. I like a slightly dirty mix – still vibrant but not too crazy!

  6. I love your color posts! I reference them all the time when I start thinking about painting something or need to choose some color. Awesome job!!!!!

  7. I just discovered your blog and I’m in love! My Mother is excellent at decorating and I am still learning. I tease that the decorating gene skips a generation. I do know what I like when I find something and I have had that feeling that something about a piece just doesn’t work right in the space. Now after learning about the colors being dirty vs clean, some things have become much clearer. When it comes to green I love the clean shades better then the muted dirty ones. I love a good kelly green. I did notice when it comes to blue I love the muted blues like the example of the bedroom. I have a bulkier chair and ottoman in my living room and something about it didn’t sit right with me, even though it is a neutral color. I now understand that the tones need to complement the style of the furniture, muted color – more sophisticated – delicate furniture. I discovered my chair and ottoman are too bulky to be used with the muted tones, a wing back style chair in a deep teal or blue would look better! Thank you so much! I’m off to read your other posts on colors!

    • Thanks for the awesome comment! That is exactly why I spend time writing posts – so that they are helpful to others. I’m so glad to hear it was helpful! Thank you!

  8. I think I’m more of a dirty girl, gray and aquas that are a little muddy. Great post Kristy!

  9. This is a super informative post Kristy! I’m pinning it to share because, seriously, EVERYONE should at least be aware of these kind of details. Sometimes people don’t realize why something’s not quite right, and it could be this very reason! Thanks for sharing!!!

  10. Great post Kristy! Love the photos you have as inspiration. I love the color in carefully used doses. Then there’s always a pretty green plant if nothing else as you mentioned. Thanks & so good to see you here again.

  11. Lightbulb moment! Thank you for this post! I had never heard or thought about clean vs. dirty colors before, but it makes total sense. It took about five seconds of looking around my house to see that I prefer dirty colors, and your explanation instantly helped me see why a few random pieces aren’t working.

  12. Peggy Rothmanfreeman

    I truly don’t like these colors that are predominately green. I tried. I do, however, really like the first kitchen. Personally I am not very confident with color, but I am drawn to clean, primary colors , yet at the same time I LOVE black with taupe and neutrals. A kick of red makes me happy and causes me to feel young. On another note, I love your site, your ideas and especially your painting tips.

  13. I lean toward clean colors and love the emerald green. I especially love the ceramic plate display in the one picture. So fun!

  14. Great post! Very instructive and informative. I am also not a big fan of mixing clean and dirty colors although I have seen it done nicely. I think my use of emerald green will primarily be in foliage…except on St Pat’s!

  15. I’ve always had a passion for green. So happy it’s on trend this year. With any luck, I’ll sneak some into my guest room reno.

  16. Hope all is well Kristy… how you put a post together……so informative:)

  17. Your timing couldn’t be more accurate – considering I just used your chair tutorial to paint my wingback chairs bright green. Thank you so much for such a great tutorial and blog with helpful info. This post on color is helping me to rework my design so that that green chairs compliment the design, rather than take it over. Thanks. – Christie Denson.

  18. Amy Helterbrand

    You have demonstrated the Clean versus Dirty rule better than any other website. Thank you ! Just in time for my Preteen’s dream bedroom remake- Kelly green with confidence. Amy

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