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How do you tell if a color is muted?

How do you tell if a color is muted?

Colors can be described as bright, vibrant, dull, or muted. But what exactly makes a color muted? Here are some tips for identifying muted color tones.

What are muted colors?

Muted colors are colors that have been toned down or grayed. They are not as bold or bright as pure hues. Muted colors are created by adding gray, white, black or by mixing a hue with its complement. This reduces the saturation of the color and makes it appear more neutral and soft.

Some common examples of muted colors include dusty pink, sage green, taupe, mocha, mustard, lavender, olive, mauve, rust, and peach. Muted colors are found abundantly in nature like rocks, bark, fallen leaves, and shadows.

How to tell if a color is muted

Here are some ways to determine if a color can be described as muted or neutral:

  • Compare it to a pure hue – Muted colors will appear less saturated, bright, and intense than a pure primary or secondary color.
  • Check how much gray it has – Muted colors often contain some amount of gray, black or white added to them. This desaturates the color and makes it less vivid.
  • See if it leans warm or cool – Neutral muted colors are neither extremely warm nor cool in tone. They fall somewhere in the middle of the color wheel.
  • Observe value contrast – Muted colors will have lower value contrast with other colors meaning darker muted colors are not too dark and lighter ones aren’t too light.
  • Notice lack of brightness – Muted shades don’t feel as bright as a color with high chroma. They absorb more light rather than reflect it.
  • See how colorful it is – Vibrant colors feel very colorful whereas muted colors appear less colorful against other shades.

How muted colors are created

Muted color tones can be produced in the following ways:

  • Tinting – By adding white to a pure hue. For example, pink is a tint of red.
  • Toning – Adding gray to a pure color. For example, mauve is a grayish tone of purple.
  • Shading – Mixing a hue with black results in a muted shaded color like hunter green.
  • Complementary mixing – Combining complements like red and green makes a neutralized brown.
  • Desaturating – Removing saturation from a bright color to make it more muted and dull.

Characteristics of muted colors

Here are some key qualities and traits of muted color tones:

  • Subtle and soft – Muted colors have a subtle look and feel smoother and softer than bright colors.
  • Natural – They resemble colors found naturally in earth, rocks, trees making them feel organic.
  • Neutral – Being less saturated, they are more neutral than primary or secondary colors.
  • Versatile – Their versatility allows them to be paired with many shades and work well in any space.
  • Sophisticated – Muted palettes have an elegant and refined look compared to bright mismatched colors.
  • Cohesive – They effortlessly cohere together to create a unified muted color scheme.
  • Calming – Lacking vibrancy, they have a calming and relaxing effect on eyes and mind.

How to use muted colors

Here are some tips for effectively using muted colors in design and decor:

  • Use as a neutral base – Muted natural hues work beautifully as foundation colors in any scheme.
  • Add subtle contrast – Layer slightly darker and lighter muted shades together to create gentle contrast.
  • Combine muted and bright – Use muted tones as a background to make vivid colors stand out more.
  • Unify a color scheme – Muted analogous colors harmonize seamlessly for a peaceful unified look.
  • Highlight with neutrals – Make bold colors pop by pairing them with muted neutral shades.
  • Consider undertones – Match cool muted colors with other cool shades and warm ones together.

Muted vs. Bright colors

Here is a comparison between muted and bright color tones:

Muted Colors Bright Colors
Subtle, soft Bold, vivid
Contain gray, white Saturated, pure hues
Less intense Highly intense
Absorb light Reflect light
Neutral, dull Colorful, bright
Calming, relaxing Energizing, stimulating
Found in nature Man-made, artificial

How to make a color muted

You can take a bright vibrant color and mute it down by:

  • Adding gray – Add a gray with the same undertone to desaturate the color.
  • Mixing with complementary color – Complementary colors neutralize each other when blended.
  • Adding white/black – White tints down and black shades a color to make it muted.
  • Lowering saturation – Reduce the saturation significantly to take away the vividness.
  • Mixing analogous colors – Analogous muted colors combine well without vibrancy.
  • Using a muted filter – Apply a digital filter to a photo to mute the existing colors.

The amount of gray, white or complement added will determine how muted the end result is. Start with small amounts and keep adding until you achieve the desired muted look.


Muted colors have a soft, subtle quality that allows them to work beautifully on their own or as part of any color scheme. Identifying muted colors involves looking for their neutrality, lack of saturation, and toned down nature compared to pure vibrant hues. When using muted tones, keep their versatile yet calming effect in mind. Experiment with different ways of creating muted versions of colors by adding gray, white, black or complementary colors until you get the perfect muted shade.