Basic colours and neutral colours

What are basic colours and neutral colours?

Are basic colours and neutral colours one and the same? 

Well, yes, and no. A lot of people use these words as interchangeable terms, and we can, if we're making broad sweeping statements, but they are actually not exactly the same. 

I help clients with capsule wardrobes, and I get the most interesting questions from them and also from the subscribers of my monthly emails (click here if want to join).

A question that comes up from time to time is why I focus on neutral colours as the basis for a capsule wardrobe.

The answer is I don't.

Those who have enroled in my online course about building Capsule Wardrobes will know how we approach this, but it is a fair question, so this article is about neutral colours and basic colours.

It is perfectly OK to build a capsule wardrobe with "colour" colours as the core, rather than neutral colours. In fact, as I will explain later, for most Seasons choosing colours as their basic colours will be more in tune with the essence of their Season.

Neutral colours

The colour wheel

Neutral colours aren't found anywhere on the colour wheel.

Strictly defined, neutral colours are colours that are not colours, true neutrals by this definition are called achromatic.

Black and white

Easiest to name are white and black, and when we add increasing portions of black to white, we get variations of grey, dark or light grey. These are the most neutral of neutral colours. Colour is light in specific wavelengths. In physics, black and white are not listed as colour because they're not found on the colour spectrum, as they do not have specific wavelenghts. Black is the absence of light, and white is the mixture of all light. Black absorbs all visible light. White gathers and reflects back all visible wavelengths.

Most Seasons are not their best in pure white and blackest black, because these are way off their ideal contrast range. The clarity and intensity of blinding white and pitch black is not flattering to people of the gentle Seasons of Summer, Spring and Autumn.

For colour analysis Seasons, the three Winter Seasons can find many of their most compelling basic colours in this most pure range of black-grey-white, and the Winters have a need for high contrast, so can make use of both ends of this contast scale with dazzling effect. For the other three main Season groups, we will do better if we tone down the contrast in order to make black, white and grey work, using whites and blacks that are blended with colours in order to make them harmonize with their palettes.


(Grey is the dominant spelling in Europe and Britain, in the US the spelling is gray)

Grey in its purest sense is a blend of black and white, a cool and steely kind of grey. Being achromatic, grey is also not found on the colour wheel. One would think that Summers, being the other cool Season group might also wear this kind of grey, but we find that grey that is softened by some kind of beige is much better for the Summers, or grey that has a nuance of some other cool colour mixed in, like blue-grey (dove grey), or the beige-grey that we call oyster. This is probably because of the hazy softness that Summers need in order to be their most radiant selves. If you want to an in-depth guide to Neutrals for the Summer Seasons, look up THIS MINI-COURSE.

Brown and beige

We also put shades and tints of brown in with the neutral colours, these are the earth toned neutrals. Brown and its lighter versions that we call beige, are also defined as neutral colours even though they have varying wavelengths of visible light. Brown is nowhere to be found on the colour wheel, just like black and white, and why is this?

Brown is a composite colour.

It's made up by mixing other colours, as anyone who has watched toddlers splatter a paper and the walls with a set of paint can attest to. We have blended colours in the colour wheel, but these are blends of two neighbouring colours, such as orange (between red and yellow) and turquoise (between blue and green).

Blend any number of more than two colours together, and you end up with brown. Try it. Or give your toddler a paint box, stand back and watch.

Because brown is a composite colour, we usually talk about brown or beige in terms of lighter and darker versions, and we don't refer to brown as having high chroma (intensity).

Said in other words: there is no such thing as pure brown. 

Perhaps it is for this reason that we don't see a lot of browns on the palettes of the Seasons that are under the influence of Winter, because these Seasons need relatively high chroma (chroma is how intens or pure the colour is).

If these Seasons use brown, the darker versions, like 70% cocoa or dark coffee espresso, are best. This is probably because the Winter Seasons have a relationship with the darkness in these.

I often recommend darker tones of brown as a better alternative for black for Autumns. I can't think of a more magical set of neutrals for the Autumns than a range of earth toned browns (bark, earth, coffee, cocoa) and beiges (sand, camel, ginger). And I find caramel or milk chocolate browns totally mesmerizing as neutrals for the Spring Seasons.

Basic colours

Basic colours is a wider concept than neutral colours. Basic colours are the basis or foundation of your wardrobe, and as such, basic colours can be neutrals. And you can certainly use neutral colours as the basic colours of your capsule wardrobe, as described above. 

Here are some examples of blues used for some core items of a capsule wardrobe, and also some basic pieces in the neutral colours of beige and grey. 

blues and browns as basic colours

Collage created with the wonderful

Investment pieces

Basic colours are the backbone of your wardrobe, the colours that you sink the most money into. 

It is certainly easier to find evergreen, durable, high quality, timeless pieces in basic colours that are neutrals, not "colours", but it's actually worth considering using colours as basic colours.

And in many cases, it can result in a much more exciting and personal wardrobe!

For clothes in colour instead of neutrals to qualify as investment pieces, just make sure you pick the colours because they are absolutely right for you and your Season according to your palette, not because they are the trend colour of the season.

For most Seasons it is more desirable to pick a bundle of basic colours that are not neutrals when building a capsule wardrobe, in order to take full advantage of their Season.

I'm looking at you, Springs, Summers and Autumns. 

Use your Season palette as your guide. 

Are there colour groups that stand out there as likely candidates for building your wardrobe around?

For Summers, blues are a no brainer. Denim is easy to be found in a range of blues, and also navy is an excellent alternative for the darker end of your basic colours. 

But dare to think out of the box. A hazy dark pine green might be an intriguing basic colour for a Summer, and a refreshing change from the more common blue.

For Autumns, study your greens, with the range of gorgeous olive and moss greens, in addition to browns and beige. Some Autumns might also build a capsule wardrobe using a deep rust as a basic colour! 

Springs can pick "colour" colours so easily, and of all the Season groups, I would most strongly advise the Springs to build a lighthearted and spirited wardrobe out of basic colours that are not neutrals. The delightful Spring greens and apricots or corals can be super used for basic pieces in the capsule wardrobe. And of course milk chocolate and caramel brown as great neutral alternatives (browns are colours, not strictly neutrals, remember?). Click here for an example of a colourful 10 item wardrobe.

Summed up

Basic colours and neutral colours are sometimes used interchangeably and it is entirely possible to do so, but knowing the difference puts you miles ahead of every other woman in the room when this is discussed. You can comfortably lean back knowing that you can pick your basic colours with confidence, whether they are colours or neutrals.

About the author, Jorunn Hernes

Jorunn is a Certified Personal Colour Analyst, founder of Nordic Simplicity and Scandinavian Style Academy™, the fresh, simple, Scandinavian approach to getting dressed. Jorunn will avoid social settings with more than three people but can be lured out with snacks and the promise to talk about books.

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