Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On color

Many of my friends consider me their color guru, and I'm the one they call when they have dilemmas and/or paralysis about interior painting. They'd say this is because I'm good at it, but I'd say that it's really because I'm not scared of paint and I have a process. My friends know that A) I've painted the interior of every place I've lived in since college, landlords be damned, and B) to those who know me best, it's the color that makes my living spaces look like "mine." So I'm on their figurative color speed dial, and I'm cool with that.

Being such a color person, moving into this house was actually a huge challenge for me. My tried and true color palette simply didn't work here. The rooms were too full of light, too open (except for the, um, current living room situation), and too vibrant for the super-saturated colors of my past homes. Obviously, these "problems" make for fantastic features of the house, but they really did force me to entirely rethink my decor color palette. And so I believed in my process, and it didn't fail me. In color process, I trust.

In general, I think many folks are afraid of paint, and I've never quite understood why. I see paint as the quickest fix out there, an immediate and inexpensive way to completely change a room. Even better: if you don't like the results, you can just paint over it again. So easy, right?

Well, no. Over the years friends have told me that paint intimidates them, or that there are too many paint colors to choose from at the store. I've heard stories of buying a gallon of paint in a panic, then coming home and realizing that it's all wrong. I've heard stories of endless trips to the store with the intention of buying paint, but paralysis preventing a purchase every time.

I tell these friends my paint color process. Often they still want an in-person consultation. I've helped friends paint in the past, but this gets harder as time marches on and we scatter. So here, then, is my paint color process, posted for eternity. So that I can send them a single link next time. And so that maybe you can benefit, too, if you're also stricken by paint phobia.

1. Relax and gather inspiration. If you have paint phobia and are therefore reading this, I'm going to assume that you need to take time to make a good color decision. So that means no impulse paint buying at the store, then feeling like you have to coat your entire house in said horrid color in order not to waste $40. We're taking it slow. We're noticing rooms in magazines and catalogs, on tv shows and movies, and in friends' homes that inspire us. We're looking into our closets and noticing the colors that are there, or out in our gardens. We're thinking about color in a relaxed manner. We are breathing.

2. Bring home paint cards. No, I didn't stop at 'paint.' At this level in the process, we are simply going to the paint/hardware store with our inspiration ideas in mind and collecting every color card that looks like it might fit the bill. There's no limit to the amount of cards you can stash in your purse, so go for it. Anything and everything that peaks your interest in that big color card display needs to go home with you.

 View from my paint card drawer, this morning. 
I told you I know how to fill a purse with these things.

3. Tape paint cards to the wall. Here's where you'll begin to make an informed choice about a color you're bringing into your home, and you're going to do it slowly, over the course of a couple of days, minimum. Remember how I told you this is a slow process? You're going to do nothing but live with those cards and notice them, at all times of day and in all different light, for days. I can't tell you how many times I've been certain of the right color in the store, then gone home and watched it turn into something terrible on the wall. Every room and every home is different, and most of those differences are due to light. The colors that looks amazing in your aunt's kitchen could look like mud in your kitchen, and that's okay. You'll find the right color if you go through the process. In our current house, we have rooms where the same paint color looks entirely different on three walls. Light was absolutely our biggest challenge with selecting our colors, and we never would've gotten it right if we didn't live with rooms full of paint cards for weeks on end. Here's another reason why living with paint cards is important: you might completely change your mind about what kind of color should be on the wall, but this inspiration won't strike until your mind is responding to what's taped up there. This happened in almost every room of our new house, by the way.

 Early hallway and dining room visioning

4. Buy paint samples of your favorites and put them on the wall. Nope, we're not buying quarts or gallons yet - hold your horses. Before you commit to a color, it's crucial to buy as small an amount as you can of your favorites and see the real deal color on your wall. Home Depot and Lowe's sell paint samples for less than $3. It's some of the best money you'll ever spend. Again: light is a tricky mistress. So many times, I've loved the color on a card, but as soon as paint touches plaster, it's a reject. Por ejemplo: we tried to paint almost every wall in our house a version of light yellow, which I loved on the paint cards, but every time we put it up on the wall it looked abysmal. Our house simply didn't want to be light yellow, no matter how hard I tried. But I'm so glad I figured that our with samples rather than gallons. Another reason paint samples are so important is that if you've fallen in love with the second shade down on a paint card but it's not quite right when you paint the sample, you might surprise yourself by buying a sample one tone deeper, that based on the card alone seemed too dark. I'll repeat a point from #3 here, too: sometimes you'll surprise yourself and decide on an entirely different color than what you intended. And I'll repeat again: this also happened in almost every room in our house.

 Kitchen wall, covered in paint cards and splotches... first I had yellows up, then grays, then greens, then reds, then blues. And finally, I stumbled upon the perfect blue-green (BM Azores) that looked fantastic with all my bright kitchen accents. It took a month to get there.

Dining room accent wall. Was it going to be Chestertown Buff, like the wall behind it? A beige or lighter yellow? Olive Branch, like the rest of the dining room? Eucalyptus Leaf, like the mantel wall? Nope. It turned out that the wall wanted to be red: Behr's Dozen Roses, to be specific. After weeks of staring at splotches, we finally got there.

5. Buy your paint! So you're pleased with a splotch on the wall and you're ready to commit. Maybe it took you a day to get there, maybe it took you a month. But whatever the timeline, following this sort of process ensures you won't make mistakes. And as long as you're willing to live with cards and paint splotches everywhere for a while, the payoff is huge. I'd suggest buying more paint than you think you'll need, and consider going low- or no-VOC, too. I'll talk more about that soon.

Happy painting!


  1. I am so with you on the process! I was certain I wanted to change exterior paint color on my 105-year-old farm house from its strange, faded shade of mustard yellow to charcoal grey. But once I slathered some paint samples onto the garage, I realized that would just not do. I believe my exact words were, "We'll be killing the happy soul of our house."

    I decided to go with Behr's Bleached Denim, for what it's worth. It's not nearly as '80s as it sounds: http://www.homedepot.com/catalog/productImages/300/56/5681b0b9-1139-4c7a-81e5-e61a28ff12b3_300.jpg


  2. Great tips! I'm bookmarking this for future painting projects.

  3. Great tips! People just need to paint and not be so scared of mistakes, they can easily be fixed!


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