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Neutral gray is a characterless, indifferent, achromatic color, very readily influenced by contrasting shade and hue. It is mute, but easily excited to thrilling resonances.
—Johannes Itten, The Art of Color

Neutral in Context

When I’m not thinking about color, I’m likely thinking about words. Lately, I spend much of my time writing and editing science content for students from third grade through high school, and when talking about science, it’s necessary to distinguish general definitions of words from context-specific definitions. For example, consider how force and power are used in everyday speech and how they are used in physics. Force as strength or military might is a correct definition of the word, but it’s not correct—or helpful—when calculating or describing an object’s acceleration. Wait! That’s the extent of the physics analogy! Let’s look at some knitting.

The Rothko Sweater.

The word neutral has multiple definitions, each of which is suitable for and helpful in certain contexts. There are two primary definitions for neutral when speaking about color. First is what I call the Interior Decorator, or everyday, definition: without, or appearing to be without, color. To define the term, some design websites just list “neutral colors”: beige, black, brown, gray, and white, then go on to discuss “warm neutrals” and “cool neutrals.”

When I teach color theory, I provide an alternative to this definition to help students understand and work with color. Technically, only white, black, and all the grays between are without color. Really without color. As in, possessing no hue. Having nothing from the color wheel in them. A synonym for this meaning of neutral is achromatic, and I’ll refer to this as the technical definition from this point on.

So let’s talk about these browns.

In the MDK Shop

Neutral vs. Achromatic

Color-aid cards help separate the everyday definition from the technical definition. By looking at the backs of these brown Color-aid cards, I learn that from left to right, they are: red-orange with a lot of black added, yellow-orange with gray added, and orange with gray added. They’re colors that can be described as neutral because due to the amount of black or gray added, they’re closer to truly neutral black and gray than to their base hues. They’re neutral according to the everyday definition, but they’re not achromatic. Colors like these are often called near neutrals on the more meticulous design websites, and I think this is a helpful term.

These gradient sets from Neighborhood Fiber Co. are a helpful example of near neutrals versus neutrals. On the left is Shades of Umber, the colors of which are dyed using increasing concentrations of brown and black. Because brown is not without color, these aren’t neutrals, but they’re close. Although there’s some yellow or orange in there, these colors don’t read as yellow or orange because there’s so much gray or black in them. On the right is Shades of Gray, the colors of which are dyed using only increasing concentrations of black. There’s no color in there, so these skeins are achromatic.

Returning to the Rothko Sweater picture above, the only neutral in the project is the semisolid black. The brown is probably orange with a lot of black added, and the gray has hints of both brown and blue—the yarn is HazelKnits Divine, and the gray is Quill, which is described as “varying shades of gray to black with a hint of brown and a final dusting of blue.” Both are near neutrals.

I’ve used near neutrals, particularly near-blacks, in a lot of my designs. For the original version of The Sermon, I used a series of five cool blacks dyed by Neighborhood Fiber Co. Each color was first dyed in a jewel tone, then overdyed with black.

I have more near-black designs underway, inspired by the Rothko Chapel and Ad Reinhardt. I affectionately refer to these designs as the Unmarketables.

Working with Neutrals and Near Neutrals

I don’t provide this information just to be exacting, although I love being exacting (and it’s my job). Using the technical definition of neutral will improve your ability to choose colors. Choosing an achromatic color will not create a new interaction (contrast of hue, complementary, or warm-cool, which I’ll discuss in Part VI). It will just create light-dark contrast and be “excited” by the surrounding colors. I talk about this in more detail in Part III.

If you add a near neutral to your work, you’ll create new interactions among your colors, although the interactions will be more subtle than they would if you added colors that contained less black or gray. Design websites often mention “warm grays” (that contain a little bit of yellow or orange) and “cool grays” (that contain a little bit of blue). Here’s an example of a warm gray from the Ralph Lauren paint collection, with the informative name of Mercer.

To differentiate these from true gray, I recommend using Color-aid cards, which contain several shades of gray. You can hold a skein of yarn next to these grayscale cards to determine if there’s color in there. By identifying near neutrals and differentiating them from true neutrals, you can use both to their best effect in your knitting.

Using Near Neutrals as Complementary Colors

Because the root of most browns is orange, yellow-orange, or red-orange, their complements are tones, tints, or shades of blue, blue-green, and blue-violet. You can achieve the power of complementary colors by pairing your near neutrals with blue! If you love browns, pull all the blues off the shelves of your yarn shop, and you’ll find a combination that pops. Here are three pleasing brown-blue combinations using Color-aid cards (each of which also has light-dark contrast).

I bet Mercer would look great with Tackroom White (blue with lots of white in it).

I’ve used brown and blue in several pieces, including my first published design: Neiman.

Knowledge is power, and practice makes better. Be exacting, be technical, and watch your color choices sing.

About The Author

Ann Weaver lives in Baltimore, where she works as a freelance editor and writer and spends her free time volunteering and working to bring change to her community. You can follow Ann on Instagram and find her designs on Ravelry, where her username is weaverknits.


  • Now, that was a very informative discussion of neutrals. When and where is your next color theory class?

  • Once again you open my eyes! This explains why some yarns sit in my stash, confounding me. I know I like the fiber, but now realize it’s the color that’s my problem. Eager to read Part 3. Thanks for sharing your insight.

  • I have really learned a lot in this series – thanks very much for posting these articles.
    The info is presented in such an interesting way!

  • What Marilyn B said!!
    And (memory time) Back in the Day – decades ago – my interview/wedding/funeral suit was very dark blue (navy but not true navy) with brown pumps and a brown silk shell. I love brown and blue.

  • Love your columns on color! And in a surprise (to me!) synergy: I have Rothko in my favorites on Ravelry. I’m planning to use my very special MDK colors of Jill Draper’s Rifton to make it.

  • Well, that was revelatory. Thank you!

  • From the thumbnail photo in my RSS feed, the skeins looked at first like weathered cedar roofing. This was a great article and very informative and inspires me to go back and re-read the others in the series. It’s also timely and helpful to me as I am in the process of selecting interior paint colors for a new house. Thank you!

  • I always learn so much from you Ann! Thanks for more great useful color info – particularly helpful for knitters who want subtle contrasts and/or are cautious about color exploration.

  • I love color, and play with it all the time. I would say that I am exacting in my color choices, but not technical. I’m definitely more seat-of-my-pants. You know, “Oooh, pretty! Or “No, that doesn’t work.” However, your use of yarns, finished garments, and paint chips help me see that “technical” does not have to mean boring! Thank you!

  • Ditto what all the other commenters have said. These articles by Ann are very informative and interesting, especially for those of us without any color theory background. I’ve always been pretty hit or miss with colors – I can usually tell when I get a good combination, but I, too, own many skeins (and items of clothing) that sit untouched because the shade is off and not quite right. It helps to know the “science” behind it, and that there is hope for getting better at it with practice and with tools like color cards.

  • Thank you! That was very helpful. Wish I could take a color class from you!

  • Very helpful. I’m knitting starting point right now and am continually fascinated by how different each color looks depending on what is next to it.

  • I love this! I feel like I’m pretty good with colors, but it’s more of a case of “I know what I like,” not really understanding what’s going on – but I feel like with each of your posts about color, I understand more! Thanks!

  • Super post and series. I’ve read color theory articles before but this so helpful to read all this *in relationship to knitting and yarn.*

  • really great articles on color! I enjoyed them all!

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