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What are the three true neutral colors?

Colors can evoke a range of emotions and associations in people. When designing anything from a website to a painting, color choices are incredibly important. Neutral colors are often used as background colors because they don’t draw too much attention away from other elements. But what exactly counts as a neutral color?

Defining Neutral Colors

Neutral colors are those that don’t strongly associate with any one emotion or meaning. They provide a backdrop which allows brighter, bolder colors to stand out. Neutral colors are often thought of as being black, white, gray, and brown, but there are many more neutral shades across the color spectrum.

Specifically, the three true neutral colors are:

  • White
  • Gray
  • Black

These colors do not elicit strong reactions or associations in most people. They sit in the middle of the color wheel, not warm or cool, not bright or subdued. When used together in design, they create a monochrome, minimalist aesthetic.

The Color Wheel

To understand why white, gray and black are considered the most neutral colors, it helps to examine the color wheel. The color wheel arranges colors by hue, starting with primary colors red, blue and yellow. Secondary colors orange, green and purple lie between the primaries.

color wheel diagram

Image source: Adobe Color CC

Tertiary colors fill in the gaps between the secondaries. Complementary colors sit opposite each other on the wheel. Analogous colors are side by side. Color wheels also show tints, tones and shades.

White, gray and black sit in the center of the color wheel. They contain equal parts red, blue and yellow. This makes them neutral since they don’t lean towards any primary or secondary colors.

The Neutrality of White

White is considered the lightest neutral color. It reflects light evenly across the visible spectrum without absorbing any one wavelength more than others. White can provide a clean, open feeling with lots of negative space.

In design, white is often paired with brighter accent colors to make them stand out. It creates contrast while remaining neutral. An all-white background won’t influence the feelings evoked by other colors. White represents innocence, purity and freshness.

The Neutrality of Gray

Gray is also considered a true neutral. On the color wheel, gray sits halfway between black and white. Tones of gray contain equal amounts of light and dark. Thegrayscale goes from nearly white to nearly black with countless gray shades between.

Light grays have a very subtle cooling effect while darker grays are slightly warming. But no shade of gray elicits strong reactions. Gray creates an elegant, sophisticated look. It works with any color scheme since it harmonizes with all hues.

The Neutrality of Black

Black is the darkest neutral color. Since it absorbs all wavelengths of light, it is the opposite of white. Black is bold, powerful and mysterious. But it does not provoke strong emotions like color hues can. Its darkness makes colors nearby seem more vibrant.

Black adds contrast without visual tension or dissonance. It works well for typography and as a background. Black can be elegant, formal, and sleek. Black represents power, sophistication, and mystery.

Comparing Key Attributes

Here is a comparison of some key attributes of the three neutral colors:

Color Light Reflectance Shade Variations Use in Design
White Reflects all light Tints by adding black Backgrounds, negative space, pairing with colors
Gray Reflects some light Tones range from light to dark Cool neutral backgrounds, elegant accent
Black Absorbs all light Shades by adding white Bold contrasts, typography, formal looks

This table summarizes some of the key differences and similarities between white, gray and black that make them neutral. All three can be used as backgrounds or accents for colored elements.

Using the Neutral Colors in Web Design

White, gray, and black are ubiquitous on websites for good reason. They are versatile and work with any color scheme.

White space helps focus attention on content while preventing visual clutter. Gray contrasts with white space but is easier on the eyes than true black. Dark gray can substitute for black text on white backgrounds. Black accents and typography add boldness.

For example, many websites have a white or light gray background, with black text and headlines. Blue might be used as an accent color for links, buttons and icons. The neutral background colors allow the blue to stand out.

Using the Neutral Colors in Logo Design

Logos frequently incorporate white, gray or black. A white or black logo can be placed on any colored background. Gray text or icons look sophisticated against white, black or colorful backdrops.

Black and white checkerboard patterns symbolize neutrality and balance. Logos with all neutral colors create a minimalist, modern aesthetic. Shades of gray also keep logos looking current across changing design trends.

Using the Neutral Colors in Interior Design

For interior walls and decor, white, gray and black create an elegant, unfussy look. White or light gray walls make small spaces feel more open. Dark gray walls or finishes provide depth and contrast.

Black accents, frames and candle holders add subtle drama. White or gray bedding feels clean and fresh. Neutrals make rooms relaxing, while accent colors in pillows, art and flowers provide pops of color.

Using the Neutral Colors in Fashion

Black and white fashions never go out of style. They offer timeless looks. All black outfits feel bold and sophisticated. All white feels angelic or fresh.

Gray clothing like suits and dresses has a refined, professional vibe. Pairing black and white together creates visual interest through contrast. Neutrals allow the wearer to add color through accessories.

Psychology of Neutral Colors

Neutral colors don’t evoke strong emotions or meanings so they:

  • Provide rest for the eyes
  • Create balance
  • Allow brighter colors to take center stage
  • Convey calmness and tranquility
  • Appear unbiased and objective

Too much white can feel stark and empty. Large amounts of black may feel gloomy. Gray that is too cold can look dingy. But overall, neutrals project an airy, clean aesthetic.


White, gray and black qualify as the three true neutral colors. They sit in the center of the color wheel, reflecting and absorbing all wavelengths of light evenly. Neutrals provide the perfect versatile backdrop for embellishing with other colors.

Neutrals can also take center stage to create an elegant, minimalist look. White connotes purity, gray refinement, and black power. But all three neutrals effectively recede into the background, providing needed contrast without overpowering.

Understanding the role neutral colors play in design helps create aesthetics that are balanced and harmonious. The right neutrals allow other colors to shine.