The complexity of color
The Sheridan Press, Dec 29, 2012
BY BILL LAHAY
Colors are among the most easily changed elements in any decor, yet many homeowners feel intimidated when choosing them. Part of that experience is just the sheer number of choices; after you whittle it down to the basic hue, other decisions await. What intensity? How light or dark? Warm or cool tones? How much surface area will that color get? Will it be in paint, fabric or some other material?
While the decision shouldn’t induce decorating paralysis, there’s good reason to tread cautiously. Why? Because the impact of colors changes with their context, either in small, nuanced ways or with such drastic differences that you’ll swear you chose something else entirely. Those changes shouldn’t be equated with failure; they simply mean you should expect some trial-and error lessons until you succeed.
Let’s start with the obvious. Assume you’re picking paint from samples on small color chips and under in-store lighting. The personality and impact is likely to be substantially different than seeing an entire wall or room that enjoys abundant natural daylight and two different lamp sources at night. And instead of being next to a few close shades of the same hue on a sample card, the color will be seen amidst the flooring, ceiling and furnishings in a room in your home. Its “true” look will appear there, and even that will change with varying light sources.
All this complexity isn’t a reason to retreat to a safe palette of neutrals or offwhites. Even most design professionals don’t get every color right on the first try, but they know how to get in the ballpark and then refine their choices from there, and that’s what most people can do with the right coaching. Here, the coaching comes from the Better Homes & Gardens publishing group in its new, simply titled book, “COLOR.”
Ever hear the old expression, “I don’t know a lot about art, but I know what I like”? This guidebook encourages you to start with that approach. That is, readers are encouraged first to indulge their gut instinct preferences for color and then refine them with sound theory and practice — not the other way around. The book’s first chapter deals with discerning color preferences you already exhibit in your favorite clothing and furnishings, as well as those inherent in period architectural or decorating styles that you might like. Arts and Crafts designs, for example, feature mostly muted earth tones of green, brown and yellow, whereas modernist styles tend to highlight crisp contrasts of black and white and the intensity of bold, bright colors.
From this personal exploration we get a primer on color “moods and meanings,” where primary (blue, yellow, red), secondary (green, orange, purple), and neutral colors are considered individually for their abilities to impart emotional overtones. We also get a sense of color complexity here. For instance, a vivid blood red can convey brightness and energy, but as red tones move toward blue, they turn magenta or burgundy, taking on a more mature or formal personality. Likewise, lightening red to a pink softens it and subdues its energy. Some of these explanations reflect commonsense observations, while others are subtle enough to have eluded the grasp of non-professionals. All, however, are accompanied by numerous photographs and paint samples that help drive the point home.
If there’s an underlying lesson in all of this, it’s about the aforementioned relationship of color to its context. Fittingly, the book turns here from the abstract and singular examples to how to use colors in actual room settings. A home’s entry, for example, not only bridges the flow from outdoor spaces but also establishes some of the key color cues and moods to be found throughout the house.
Some greens and earth tones, as well as a mix of textures, can make the transition more seamless while still allowing for other colors to be included in the mix. Similar strategies can be found for living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, kid’s rooms, bathrooms and porches.
Before the book wraps up with the obligatory chapter on color wheel theory and nomenclature, it offers a great section on adding color in stages. A series of room makeovers reveal the step-by-step progression of going from bland, neutral spaces to personalized festivals of color.
It’s a useful treatment that takes the learning from abstract to in-your-heart immediate, and it underscores the value of the book as a hands-on tool for readers who want their homes to both reflect and inspire their lives.