If you’re at all given to speculative thought, you’ve probably mused on the sad fact that many — perhaps most — brilliant notions wither in the blighting light of reality. I’ve whiled away many a commuting hour reflecting upon why Stalin gave Marx a bad name, Microsoft turned computing from a delight into drudgery, and the spare elegance of Modernism ended in an architectural wasteland devoid of proportion and ornament. Philosophies, technologies and aesthetic movements that promise liberation all too often end in bitterness and destruction.
Alas, paint schemes are subject to the same failings. I’ve lost count of the brilliant conceits that have sent me and the Painter off hot-foot to the neighborhood Sherwin Williams only to concede after hours of frenzied labor that we’ve been in the clutches of a Very Bad Idea. In other words, once you’ve created a working palette — whether for a single room or for your whole home — you’ll need to subject your ideas to critical scrutiny, and to a few empirical experiments.
Here are a few factors to consider:
1. Get samples. I know I keep saying this, but it’s really true — neither abstract notions nor teensy paint chips will settle a question easily answered with $20 worth of samples and an hour or two of painting time. I once stood in our Sherwin Williams for 45 minutes while a woman debated the merits of several shades of cream. “I want it to seem warm and inviting,” she murmured. “I’m not sure. What do you think? Is that one too yellow? Maybe I don’t see colors well. Maybe it should be a little cooler.” Don’t drive paint salesmen to drink and your fellow customers to rolling their eyes behind your back when it’s easy enough to subject your ideas to the experimental method. If you can’t tell from samples, either your swatches are too small, there’s no meaningful difference, or you can’t see colors well and therefore it doesn’t matter.
2. Do you like the colors themselves, separate from your brilliant theoretical notion? Others may ask themselves this question first and always, but I remain remarkably subject to delusions on this point. For months I fixated on the idea of turning the office into a Midcentury Room. When I confronted the the muted oranges and avocado shades this actually entails, I recoiled in horror. Don’t condemn yourself to looking at a wall in a color your dislike, even if it’s the one color that will really set off an accent that you love.
A case in point: once we discarded Very Bad Ideas involving rococo and Midcentury modernism, the painter and I hatched a scheme to create a brilliant red accent wall in the office. Two weeks and many samples later, we admitted defeat. The reds we chose all entailed ugly consequences: either a bluish, industrial gray or an icky “flesh” tone. (To me, nothing in decorating is more disgusting than the idea of using a flesh tone for paint or soft furnishings. Think about it: would you want walls made of flesh? Do you want to rest your head on a pillow of meat? There’s a reason why no one has named a shade of paint “dried blood” or “baby’s bottom.”)
3. Along these lines, the palette you select should solve problems, not create them. If integrating that gorgeous accent color involves the sort of tortured logic and compromise that goes into Federal budget legislation, you’ve got the wrong color.
4. Consider transitions between rooms. Depressing gray aside, our red accent wall would have ended in an unfortunate Christmas effect when the Painter sat at his desk and looked from the office into the master bedroom. When you apply samples, put them near any transitional areas, and be sure to study the effect as you walk from room to room. If the balance is wrong, the colors clash, or the effect reminds you strongly of a major holiday, put down the paintbrush and back away slowly.
5. Live with it for a few days, and observe it under different types of lighting. That sprightly yellow may look feverish at midday, and a pale blue may seem funereal when winter arrives.
6. Think long and hard before you saturate your home in any one color. Do you want your neighbors and the pizza delivery guy to refer to The Green House? More to the point, different rooms are used for different purposes, and require a variety of moods. If your whole house is a cool, meditative blue, you may find yourself dozing off in your office. Worse yet, the moody, romantic pink that you love may give visitors entirely the wrong idea as they sip coffee in your living room.
If the colors you’re considering meet all of these criteria, congratulations — your concept should withstand cruel reality.
Posts in This Series
- Choosing Your Wall Colors I: Pleasure and Pain
- Choosing Your Wall Colors II: Editing Your Good and Bad Ideas
- Choosing Your Wall Colors III: Color Theory for Amateur Designers