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How To See Colour Like An Expert | The Maria Killam Way

Having worked with some fantastic designers from around the world and also now undertaken hundreds of projects both online and real life, I was pretty …


How To See Colour Like An Expert | The Maria Killam Way

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Table Of Contents

Having worked with some fantastic designers from around the world and also now undertaken hundreds of projects both online and real life, I was pretty sure I knew a thing or two about colour!

I thought that my knowledge and understanding of light complimented everything I knew about colour and as an architectural and interior designer, I was pretty good at choosing colours and making sure buildings of all shapes, sizes and types looked great both inside and outside.

When I moved outside of London and started travelling to and from work, I found myself reading for hours a day on the train. It was during this time that I began to read a blog called “colour me happy” by Maria Killam ( After almost 20 years of working nearly 7 days a week in this industry, this lovely lady finally opened my eyes to a new way of seeing colour, and I was stunned. When I read her blog, I realised that I didn’t see colour like the expert I thought I was and I definitely hadn’t trained my eye to see it in the way she saw it!

Maria explained colour in a way that finally made sense to me and in a way that was useful to interior design and architecture.

In today’s world of blogs and the internet, it’s very easy to forget what kind of information we had access to back before the world was on our smartphones. I had every book about architecture, art and interiors and they all said pretty much the same thing, so I thought I knew everything there was to know!

As someone who had worked on 3D modelling and CGI renderings of architectural projects, I knew I understood and used colour theory at an advanced level (I now even teach it!) In architecture, I had been using it in complex buildings and interiors for my whole career to that point. For that reason, I genuinely thought my eye was pretty well trained, especially when it came to seeing colours in a complex light.

But no one had pulled apart how to see colour in the way Maria did in her blog and books and her blog was one of the only ones that I had read consistently for over five years. Maria had created a colour system that is perfect for interior designers, architects and decorators and although she created it to help describe paint colours, I found her system even more useful for helping to pick out other finishes, like tiles, quartz and natural materials such as stone. Thank goodness for my earlier clients that I found Maria before I started out on my own!

I grew my interior design business during those first few years by predominantly providing online interior design services, and I realise how invaluable Maria’s colour system really was. I remember working for architects and designers and having to choose colours and finishes for a scheme. We would lay out everything on a table and then, the director would come and change a thing or two and then after a few days we would keep adding, taking away and editing our choices. In most cases, it took us quite a long time to create an excellent colour or finishes scheme. What I didn’t realise back then, however, was that we had the luxury of time and because that was the way it had always been done, no one questioned it.

We really made things look great (of course we did) and yes we had many years of experience and training to back that up, but I genuinely just thought we were talented and skilled and that we just had that all-important ”eye for design”.

The truth is, that those schemes didn’t just magically fall into place. We were using our intuition, seeing how the finishes and colours worked in relation to each other at different times of the day and also probably just winging it a bit.

When I worked on my first few projects for my first few paying clients, I had no one to bounce ideas off of and no one to fix my mistakes! I had to get it right because my mortgage and career depended on it. The pressure to earn money paired with the fact that I no longer had the luxury to spend days mulling over design decisions, meant that I had to choose colour schemes and get them perfect much more quickly and confidently than I had ever done before.

Back then I bought Maria’s ebook about colour, and I can honestly say it saved my life! It helped me make choices that had some basis in fact rather than just testing millions of options or using the same colours over and over again (which is what I realised many experienced and older designers do). It also helped me justify my choices much more confidently in seconds rather than days!

So How Do You See Colour Like An Expert?

I suggest training your eye to see colour in the way that Maria teaches. Her system for specifying colour uses  9 useful neutral undertones that help you categorise the basis of a colour, which then helps you to predict how the colour will work in a space. When you see colour in this way, you'll be able to categorise every element of a property, including furniture, fabrics, paint colours and natural materials such as stone and timbers into an undertone category.

Training your eye to see the pink beige in the Karndean flooring that your client has just installed (and are referring to as "light grey"), which you now can't ignore in your design scheme, gives you that expert edge that your clients are paying you for. Training your eye to see the difference in porcelain tiles that have blue-grey, rather than violet-grey undertones will help you make the right decisions for your clients, every single time! That is how you see colour like an expert, with confidence.

As a professional in the industry, each year I try to go or see something different and learn something new. Sometimes I’ll go a bit farther for a trade show or get some extra coaching in a specific area such as marketing. This year, I finally made it onto Maria Killam’s colour expert training in Toronto Canada.

If you have been following me for years (over on my personal blog on or in my articles for the beautiful Empowered Wellness and Living Magazine), you’ll know that I have never endorsed products (let alone written a whole blog post attributed to them). But this course was so unique that I wanted to share this way of seeing colour with my readers (who are mainly interior designers, architects, DIYers and decorating enthusiasts), because it is more relevant to the daily tasks of an interior designer or architect than colour theory has ever been (and I know that that is a big statement).

Maria created a system for specifying colour, and it is the best system I have ever come across for understanding colour for interior design, and it is the best system to train your eye to see colour like an expert.

Her system describes the nine undertones to help describe neutrals and to help you to categorise the colours you're looking at in a way that makes sense in the modern world! It's useful for choosing fabrics or picking paint colours and for me, I mainly use it to help me identify the myriad of colours that are already in my clients' house that I often have to work with (not by choice!)

This system helped train my eye to see colour in a way that finally made sense, and I can honestly say that after all these years in this industry, I would classify myself as someone who can now see colour like an expert.

While in Toronto, I received Maria’s new colour wheel, and I can finally say that I have a secret weapon to help me to make super-quick colour related decisions in my business. I also carried home her VIP large paint sample set back to Blighty (yes, people at Toronto airport, that was me). I have to say I am very impressed with how these simple tools have positively impacted the way I work and the speed at which I can make the perfect decision, easily and every time.

Something Maria said while in Toronto made me laugh out loud (and cringe at the same time). "When you see colour in a particular way, once you see a colour mistake, you can never unsee it". How right she is! Learn more about Maria Killam here:

I am not an affiliate or have any connection with Maria Killam. I have not been paid for this post or received anything in return for it. This is just my honest opinion about a system I believe in and that helped me to train my eye in a reliable and straight forward way.

Jo Chrobak

Jo Chrobak

Jo Chrobak is an architectural and interior designer and mentor at the Interior Designer’s Business School that trains interior designers to set up professional and successful interior design businesses and gain experience working on real projects. She is trained in architecture, interiors, business and life coaching and runs her architectural and interior design studio just outside of London in the UK.
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