What are Neutral Colors and How Can They Work In Your Home?

updated Mar 29, 2024
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(Image credit: Ellie Arciaga Lillstrom)

When it comes to interior design, neutral colors sometimes get a bad reputation for being too safe or too blah. But in your living space, that lack of edge can actually be a good thing. First and foremost, you want your home to be your haven, a place where you can relax and retreat from all the stimuli of the world. There’s no better way to create chill vibes than surrounding yourself with quiet neutrals like taupe, beige, ivory white, and more. 

Moreover, when you choose a neutral for your walls or your furniture, you’re giving yourself a blank slate to build on those pieces with pops of pattern, bold color, and texture. And the beauty is, because neutrals go with everything, you can make changes frequently without having to replace all of your living room decor

Intrigued by neutrals’ versatility? Here’s a primer on neutral colors and how to use them successfully in your home, from neutral and white paint color recommendations to tips on what goes with neutrals and beyond. 

(Image credit: Elissa Crowe)

What is a Neutral Color?

A neutral is a color without much intensity or saturation — a color that’s lacking in color, if you will, which generally goes with everything. Examples of neutral colors include:

  • Tan
  • Beige
  • Ivory
  • Cream
  • White
  • Black
  • Gray  

These shades are visually quiet in interiors, almost receding into the background of rooms and spaces, even when used on walls or major pieces of furniture. For that reason, neutrals are a great backdrop for pretty much any design choice, simply because they will not compete with it. In fact, a neutral backdrop will allow the eye to move around a space freely, letting the true focal points in a room shine.

Neutrals aren’t on the color wheel, per se, but certain neutrals can have undertones of colors from it, and pretty much all neutrals play well with primary and secondary colors. You should take those potential tints and tones into account when choosing a neutral, whether its for your walls, carpeting underfoot, a major piece of furniture, or a decorative accessory. Keep in mind that some colors, like navy, forest green, or terracotta, as examples, are sometimes referred to as neutrals in interiors. While they may function like neutrals from a design perspective, they’re not neutrals by definition.

Credit: Apartment Therapy

What Kinds of Shades Make the Best Neutral Paint Colors?

Both pure neutrals (grays, blacks, browns, and whites) and near-neutrals (a pure neutral mixed with a primary color; ex. tan) make great paint color options that you can use to create a backdrop for a variety of design aesthetics, from boho style to warm minimalism or Art Deco to contemporary design.

The above colors represent some editor-approved shades to consider across a variety of different paint brands. Always swatch a color before committing to painting with it, which will give you a more accurate picture of how it will interact with the light and existing furnishings in your space. But know that, in general, a neutral palette can balance out a space and create a sense of calm simply by being easy on the eyes.

(Image credit: Marie-Lyne Quirion)

What Neutral Colors Are Best for Living Room Walls?

White has been one of the most popular living room wall colors as of late because it goes with all. the. things. Literally. You can take more risks with color in art, furniture, and accessories when your background is basically colorless. But not all whites are created equally. It’s important to take your natural light situation into account when selecting the right white or neutral: 

  • If your home gets a lot of sunlight: Try a bright white that has cooler undertones. 
  • If you have few windows and rely on lamp light: Choose something with a little more warmth — a taupe, cream, or greige with a little more pigment and movement — so your space doesn’t end up looking sterile or flat. 
  • If you want to make a larger room fee more intimate — or just lean into the coziness of a smaller space: Try something deeper and bolder, like a dark chocolate brown or a charcoal. 
(Image credit: Marisa Vitale)

What Neutral Colors Make a Room Look Bigger?

Lighter, brighter neutrals are going to throw more light around a room, thus making it appear larger. If you don’t want to go with white and prefer some pigment, consider a dove gray or a soft beige to open up a tiny living space. 

This could also be the time to also try a color in its lightest, most neutral state: 

  • Blush pink
  • Soft mint
  • Lavender
  • Light powder blue 
Credit: Yesi Laver

What Colors Go With Neutral Colors?

All colors go with neutrals, even other neutrals. That’s the beauty of decorating with neutrals. They’re a great starting point for any room because they can be updated often just by switching out accessories and textiles.

If you want a visually serene space, consider a neutral-on-neutral color palette, or, to supercharge your environment, begin with a neutral paint color and add in a few vibrant hues with furniture and/or decorative accents. Bright, bold colors always pop more against neutrals, and you really can go with any palette, warm or cool.

(Image credit: Nasozi Kakembo)

How to Pair Neutral Colors With Other Colors in Your Home

Wondering how to make neutral colors work for your space? These neutral color parings can help to create just about any vibe you’re looking for in your space. Remember: Neutrals are classic and nondescript, so they are a great foundation for any decorating style.

Neutrals With a Bold Primary Color

Add vibrant shades and patterns alongside neutrals for an eclectic mix for a funky, boho or maximalist look. 

Neutrals + Black and White = a Minimalist Moment

Mix just about any neutral tone with lots of black and white for a minimalist vibe. Here, tan textiles become focal points in this classic, high contrast neutral scheme. 

Credit: Haley Poling
A shot of my couch that pulls out into a sofa bed and has extra storage.

Neutrals-on-Neutrals

Use a tone-on-tone, neutral palette for a sophisticated look. In a room of all neutrals, though, be sure to vary the textures of your furnishings, adding in nubby knits, fuzzy rugs, something woven, and even some hits of shine to stave off a boring feeling. 

Credit: Yesi Laver

Neutrals and Metallics

A sleek grey neutral, stark white, shade of black, or rich brown can serve as a backdrop for modern design, especially when metallics are mixed in. 

Neutrals with Pink

A neutral painted gray floor pairs well with soft pink walls. Pink can hang with either warm or cool neutrals, so don’t be afraid to try this chameleon color.

Credit: Cass Smith

Neutrals with Green

A darker neutral, such as gray, can create a cozy, enveloping feeling in a space. This is particularly effective in a bedroom or a room with lots of natural light. Play up the earthiness by introducing a hit of olive or forest green.