Color: The Return of Dirty

10 Rooms Design | Blog | Color 101 | The Return Of Dirty

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You’ve probably heard industry folk use the terms clean and dirty when referring to color. Another layer of designspeak to add to the noise. It can be so overwhelming to try and sort through all of this terminology when all you want is to figure out what color paint to buy, right? Since I get monthly questions about this, thought I’d break it down a little.

All colors are made up of pigment and or white/black. Some colors, like those below, are simply a hues found on the color wheel. These are considered “clean” colors, because they have not been mixed with any other hue, simply left pure or tinted with black/white.



10 Rooms Design Clean Color Via This Is Glamourous

10 Rooms Design via Apartment Therapy Clean Dirty color post

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In contrast to all this clean, when we take a color from the color wheel and mix it with another color from the color wheel we are changing the the base hue. It now becomes a more complex color.

So when does a color go from clean to dirty?

***If we mix a color with another color/colors that are complimentary (across the color wheel) or close to complimentary, the result ventures into the dirty category.***

Why is this? Any compliments mixed together create brown. When you mix these hues you will be, in effect, “dirtying” the color by adding brown. Think of it as layering in warm tones to each and every color.



Here are a few examples, to illustrate.



This is what it looks like in interiors..


10 Rooms Design via Wit and Delight Clean Dirty Color Post

10 Rooms Design via Popsugar Clean Dirty Color Post

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Why do you care about this? When choosing a palette for your home, this is what you need to remember:

Clean color works especially well with cool greys, because neither contain brown.

Dirty color works well with warm greys and warm neutrals because they both contain brown.

Helpful, yes?

The past several years, cool greys have reigned supreme. That meant the colors we paired with grey were clean. The pendulum has begun to swing, however. It seems we have recovered from the overwhelming dark brown trend of the late 90’s and early 00’s and are ready to accept earthy tones back into our lives. There is a marked return to camel and rust in fashion, and the interiors trends are never far behind. That means we are going to begin seeing more complex color edging back into our homes in the near future. Dirty is back, people!


1 Comment
  • Rubana

    March 28, 2017 at 8:16 pm Reply

    I like the idea of dark colours used here and there as you can pair it with other strong colours easily. Love this post!

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