Why Decorating with White Can Be So Tricky
Ever notice that your white subway tile is a slightly different shade from the white curtains over the kitchen sink? Pure white is very hard to come by, especially when we’re talking about your home where there is differing lighting and other influential colors to deal with. Plus there are hundreds of different kinds of white.
If you’ve ever experienced a white that just didn’t work, read on to find out what went wrong.The Science
There’s a debate whether white is a color at all. Technically, it’s an achromatic color, which, if you’re up on your Latin, means it’s a color with no color—no help there in settling the debate.
In physics, white is the mixture of all light frequencies. White takes light and scatters it. If you are outside in the sunlight (which is a white light) that’s about as white as things are going to get. If you’re inside, you’re likely not getting pure white light because contemporary light bulbs don’t always have all the colors in the spectrum.
Recreating the brilliant white of Florida’s Pensacola Beach for your white kitchen tile is not as easy as it seems. White pigments are made from natural minerals like calcium carbonate, and gypsum (calcium sulphate). Early artists used lead carbonate—a toxic compound. By the early 20th century it was replaced by safer zinc or titanium compounds.
Recently, chemical compounds that absorb ultraviolet light, called optical brightener agents, have been added to pigments. These look very bright, almost whiter than white. That’s about as close as humans have come to creating pure white.
Even the tiniest bit of color takes pure white and makes it a shade of white. Lighting, and surrounding colors—like on the furniture—can visually tint white. The paint that had the slightest hint of pink in the store might look purple under the blue tinted light in your house. There are a lot of things to consider to be successful with white in your home.
Matters are complicated when you start to combine different white elements in your space. Though all shades of white are considered neutral colors, combining different shades of white can quickly make your design feel slightly off unless you pay close attention to the undertones.
Think what cream (which has a hint of yellow) and eggshell (which has a hint of brown) would do in the same room. Sometimes, you may not even realize what it is about the room that doesn’t seem to fit, that’s just how subtle the difference can be. But yellow and brown don’t go together in your sub-consciousness, which is why it doesn’t look quite right.
Here’s a brief list of some of the more popular shades of white and their undertones.
• Cornsilk—yellow, pink
• Old Lace—yellow, orange
• Beige—yellow, brown
• Antique White—pink, brown
• Champagne—pink, brown
• Dutch White—brown, yellow
• Bone—brown, gray
• Mint Cream—green
• Flax—yellow, green
• Navajo White—orange
• Ecru—gray, yellow, brown
• Lavender Blush—purple
So what do you do if you don’t want your white subway tile to clash with your white cabinets and floors? With the clever names of paint, tile, and fabrics, it can be difficult to tell exactly what you’re getting into and there are no guarantees. Here are a few ideas to harmonize your whites.
Get samples of everything and test it out in real time in your home. Buy the little cans of paint, take home the tile chips, and bring swatches into your home. Check them out in all the different lights that your home experiences throughout the day—natural light and electrical light.
Notice how the samples interact with each other throughout the day and night. Observe how the undertones of each white work—or don’t work—together. Look at each combination of whites for a full 24 hours before trying different combinations. It won’t take long for the winners to step forward.
Interior designers have a knack for sniffing out white clashes. They’ll be able to tell you right away when something isn’t working and why. They’re your failsafe.
Bring a designer in at the start to avoid making white mistakes. Or bring one in at the end when things have gone awry and need fixing. A designer provides the experience and knowledge to do it right and save you all kinds of hassle and money.
Look for products that include quartz, limestone, calcium carbonate, and chalk—nature’s whites. Some materials include these sorts of ingredients to achieve a purer white. Or just go with natural white stone on your floors and countertops.
Keep in mind that natural stone includes graining and veining that introduce other natural color to your space. Be sure to observe samples of natural stone or consulting a designer before committing. If you still have your heart set on pure white, try a white quartz countertop. This surface is a composite of quartz and resins and achieves a smoother look, often without as much of the natural veining and grains of natural stone.