HomeThe Best Paint ColoursPaint and Colour How to'sNo Fail Neutrals? Why They Don’t Exist

No Fail Neutrals? Why They Don’t Exist

Posted on April 11, 2017 by KylieMawdsley


Exposure, Reflection, and a Lil’ Thing Called Metamerism…

You’ll see a lot on Pinterest about ‘No Fail Neutrals / The Top 10 No-Fail Paint Colours…’ and I’m here to burst your bubble and tell you, ‘there is no such thing as a no-fail neutral’.

Why? Oh Lordy, where do I start?


Well, the first place I’ll start is with YOU. And there are 2 types of ‘you’.

The Easy to Please You: You want a great paint colour, but not at all costs. (Men often fall into this category).

  • You quickly narrow it down to 2-3 colours, pick one and run with it – no paint samples, no muss no fuss
  • You may notice that it looks a bit different from wall to wall, but you aren’t too worried about it

The Anal, Head-Bangin’ You: You absolutely AGONIZE over picking the right paint colour and it can take weeks, if not months to come to a decision and even THEN you second guess yourself.

  • You pick up dozens of paint samples and have them taped to or painted on your walls
  • You agonize over how each colour changes on each wall – more green there, more orange there and maybe a bit pink over there!
  • There are empty wine bottles on your floor and dents in your wall from all of the headbanging

Yes, my lovely, this article is for you.


So, take a deep breath and realize that sometimes you are up against Mother Nature and a wild assortment of other things that can make it challenging to pick the PERFECT colour for EVERY corner of EVERY wall. That is reality.


The Illusion

The idea behind a ‘No-Fail Neutral’ as that they will work in any room, in any conditions – hence the ‘no fail’. This means that no matter what your exposure is, your carpet, your countertop or your personal tastes – these colours won’t fail. But many will…



Metamerism is the cold hard fact that paint colours will change depending on their environment. Exposure, reflection, artificial lighting – these things WILL greatly affect how a colour may look in your home. And yes, there is MUCH MORE SCIENCE involved in all of this than ANY OF US really care to know about, so this is about keeping things a bit more ‘KD and box o’ wine’, rather than ‘quiche and caviar’.


Some colours will be more affected by metamerism than others. Gray, gray-blue, gray-green, lavender, mauve and taupe (basically the cooler side of the neutrals) are the colours that are the most affected by this and seriously, if you try to work around it you’ll wind up spinning in circles.

Also, the more ‘colours’ that a paint colour has in it, the more susceptible it can be to metamerism. You’ll find that paint colours that are made up of only 2-3 colours mixed together will be a bit more predictable than colours that are a blend of 5+.

Are you bored yet? I AM! Just joking. Kind of.

Let’s take a look at some of the different parts of metamerism (OH THE JOY!!!)

Read more:  The Best Gray Paint Colours


That beautiful off-white that looked subtle and warm in your south facing room may look cold and grayish in your north facing roomWhy? Because paint colours can be greatly affected by your exposure.


  • North facing light: Gray with a blueish cast
  • South facing light: Yellow
  • East and West: Well, they are a hot mess as they change drastically from morning to afternoon, so we may as well not even go there

You can’t expect a colour to act the same way on every wall in every room (particularly lighter and more neutral, cool colours) as they are easily affected by the quality of the natural light coming into the room.



I hear this ALL the time with my Online Consulting clients, ‘Every colour that I’ve looked at looks green in my room’ – and most often these are colours that simply have NO green in them! One look at the photos they send shows me WHY every colour is taking on a green hue – reflection. Outside those windows, there are usually expanses of bright green grass, landscaping that is close to the window or a large bank of trees.

I had another client who didn’t understand why samples were looking pinkish in her room – there is no such thing as pink natural light (unless you get an epic sunset). One look at her photos showed me a deck that was stained in a lovely rich red – the same lovely red that was reflecting on to her walls!

So, while the best intentions might pick the perfect beige that ‘seems’ to be as neutral as neutral can get, this same neutral can change more than a chameleon as you go from one end of a wall to the other.

BTW: There’s not much you can do about this, short of shutting your drapes…or your eyes.

Why can’t you do anything? Well, for example, if you had a lot of green coming in the room, a natural way to combat this would be with red – to balance things out a bit  What does red become when it’s lightened? Pink.  And while pink has it’s place, it’s usually better on ham than on walls. Sure, the walls that pick up the green reflection might seem a bit more neutral, but on the other walls and in the evening, you actually have to LIVE with this pinkish colour that you’ve chosen.

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Artificial Lighting

Funny enough, this is one of the trickiest parts. The type of light bulbs you use can greatly affect how your paint colour looks. And sure, this is something you ACTUALLY have control over, however, sometimes the type of light bulb that lets a paint colour look it’s most authentic is the one that you don’t feel the most comfortable living in.

  • Incandescent bulbs: Tends to be a warmer light, enhancing colours like red, yellow and orange. Dulls cooler colours
  • Fluorescents: A cool light that enhances blues and greens. Dulls warmer colours
  • CFL’s: You have to watch these ones as it all depends on the Kelvin rating. A lower rating = warmer bulb. A higher rating = a cooler light, more like natural ‘daylight’.
  • Halogen: Can enhance colours slightly, resembles daylight to a degree
  • LED’s: The light that will make most paint colours look their most authentic.

I will be doing a blog post in the future re: light bulbs, so stay tuned. For now, let’s check out some lamp shades…


A big part of the lighting is the colour of the shade. White shades give off a more clear, bright, cool light. Amber shades or coloured shades will reflect a tinted light on to the walls as the light filters through it – regardless of the type of bulb (even though the bulb will still influence things).


Read more: The Best Warm Neutral Paint Colours Benjamin Moore

So, you can stop wondering why you can’t seem to find the perfect paint colour, take a deep breath and find the paint colour that fits the bill most of the time. Sure, it might look a bit grayish here or a bit yellowish there, but as long as it has the bones you are looking for then go for it!

And if all else fails, you know who to call (wink wink).

Check out my affordable and FUN Online Paint Colour Consulting

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Chat soon,

Kylie M Interiors, decorating blog, e-design, online colour consulting expert. signature



  1. Excellent and timely post on choosing neutral grays as I am in the process of doing just that and experiencing all the issues about colors changing a bit on different areas of the room. Trying to decide between SW Agreeable Gray and BM Pale Oak (also called Athena). As both are gorgeous gray/greige colors, both look like a cool blue in certain spots.

    1. Hi Marian, well that would be Metamerism doing it’s job as those are quite ‘not blue’ paint colours 🙂 You’ll find Pale Oak to be slightly more feminine looking and lighter, whereas Agreeable Gray is more ‘gray’ with a passive greige undertone in there.

      Chat soon!

  2. Oh, you have totally described me… banging my head over choosing paint colours. Great article! I’m happy to have someone who can dissect colour as well as you do. Keep up the good work.

  3. Truer words have never been spoken! After months of sampling paints along with repainting our family room in a color that did nothing for our north facing room, I have found your advice to be true. No color looks great all the time! At least the 100 samples that I tried didn’t. So after your help, I have found a color that works most of the time. Great article!

  4. Ditto Deedra’s comment. It took us 17 paint samples to find “the perfect” light gray for the interior of our house (west and north-facing ). We did not find a perfect color, so ended up choosing 2 of the safer options and alternated those around the house depending of which ones looked better accounting for metamerism. It was exhausting!

    1. It can be exhausting, can’t it! And good for you for finding 2 colours that you could alternate to balance off the different lighting situations in your home. Thank you for sharing!


  5. Awesome! Different paint shades without the hassle of painting and repainting. I’m about to start painting and I think I’ll just embrace the everchanging tones! 🙂

  6. I have so many windows in my living space I could probably run a greenhouse for plants. I’m taking 12′ to 18′ walls that are entirely windows. And all are east and west facing. So your definition of natural light made me laugh and kind of cry. Cause my quest for a greige has become all consuming. And full east and west lighting is havoc.

    1. I know, it can be very frustrating when have a multitude of exposures and lots of natural light. That’s when it’s best to just sit back and take a deep breath. Find the wall that is kind of ‘in the middle with regard to the intensity of natural light it gets and start there…

  7. Thanks for another informative post, Kylie. I know exactly what you are talking about. I have 9 paint samples up right now. Almost all of our walls downstairs are connecting at one point or another so I am looking for one colour to paint all of the downstairs. Each colour looks different on every wall. Sometimes lighter, sometimes darker. Looks grey, looks creamy. Oh my! I am just going to pick one that you have reviewed either BM Edgecomb Gray at 50% lighter or BM Winds Breadth and go with it. And after that forgive myself if once it’s up it doesn’t look perfect in every light. Cheers, and thanks so much for all the great tips on your site! Lori

  8. Thank you for your excellent posts. We are having a home built and I am in search of a neutral color to put in the living areas of the house and hallways. Your video on Accessible Beige helped a lot, including your tip to lighten it, as that might be better in our East and West exposure rooms.

  9. I came across your blog while looking for “SW Wool Skein” and got hooked to your website. Thank you!!
    Interesting article. Metamerism!! Now I can understand why my new river white counter tops and clear glass back splash look green. I have tall green trees all around family room/kitchen. it has North/East/South exposure. We redid our kitchen with white/grey cabinets. All white surface have green hue in them. Painted family room Behr Sage tint, which I think is very close to SW Sea salt and the color is lost in the room. I am thinking of going to beige route and painting it SW Wool Skein. have to get sample and see it.

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