Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, White.

Hiya.

Have you folks seen Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House? It’s a great movie from 1949 about an ad executive from New York City and his family that move to the “wilds” of Western Connecticut, and the adventures they have building a house there. It’s great fun, and still has a lot to offer the modern viewer. The foibles are universal, and the relationship between the owners and the contractors really hasn’t changed much in the intervening fifty years or so.
There’s a scene in the movie where Mrs Blandings (Myrna Loy) collars the Painting Contractor, and goes over the color scheme for the interior of the house. It’s priceless. Benjamin Moore liked it so much they made the scene into a television commercial a few years back. Having been on the receiving end of the same transaction countless times gave it the frisson of recognition you get with something familiar in a movie, well portrayed.

Mrs. Blandings recounts to the contractor, who never says anything more than a few mumbled words and grunts of agreement, the litany of adjectives, moods, and elaborate examples she has for the colors in the house. She describes butter, and a certain apple, and supplies him with a piece of thread, and points out a tiny dot on a scrap of wallpaper, and so forth. The descriptions are so involved and specific, in the vaguest sort of way, that the contractor seems barely able to drink them all in. Of course the white for the kitchen is “not a cold, antiseptic hospital white, but not to suggest any other color than white” to Mrs Blandings.

The woman leaves, and the contractor’s previously solicitous face grows blasé, and he turns to his foreman, and asks: “Got that Charlie?” The man points to all the rooms, one after another, and reels off: “Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, White.” They exchange “Oh, Brother” looks. Priceless.

Look, they’re just colors. They name them after things, and moods, and so forth, but trust me, when the contractor goes to the paint store, it’s still “give me a gallon of #285 in the flat latex.” The fact that you call it “Essence of Euphrates Washed Babylonian Sand of Ninevah” won’t change that. It’s just tan.

Houses are getting to be big plastery spaces. The amount and complexity of the millwork and flooring shrinks all the time, and people are relying on color more than ever to differentiate rooms, and add interest, so it’s important to choose them wisely. And it’s not all that easy.
The human eye is the most sensitive in the animal kingdom to minute differences in color. I doubt that ability is some vestigal leftover from Paleolithic times to see berries on bushes far away. Humans are constructed to be sophisticated animals. And what you look at affects how you feel. So paint your walls pleasant colors, in good combinations, or you’ll be sad, perhaps miserable. And if you’re miserable already, painting your house like a Goth Rocker’s dungeon is unlikely to help you any either.

Let’s take it from the top, shall we? Everything you think is a “warm” color, generally speaking, is as about as warm as Pluto in winter, at night. “Warm” used as an adjective for color has become an absolute good, like everybody’s children being “above average.”

Black’s cold, and any grey made with it usually is too. Red’s cold, usually although everyone will tell you it’s a hot color. Hot ain’t warm. Most pastels are cool tones. Neon colors are called hot, but usually are cold looking too. You’ve got to get those earth tones in there, or the color is cool to the eye.

I remember a fellow I used to work with, many long years ago, that taught me how to mix colors with pigments. The rack of pigments was different than what an artist uses, and I’ve noticed that artist’s brushes are way too small to get your living room done in time for that dinner party you’re throwing too.

As I was saying, the fellow amazed me, in that he could make most anything, colorwise, out of most anything else. He knew his color wheel, and more important, he knew how to make it work with the traditional palette of pigments that painters use.

I lived in a dilapidated but architecturally interesting apartment. I wanted to paint the built in shelves in one room a rich, dark grey color that I saw my coworker making. He said sure, I’ll make you some, and scanned the mismatched mess of half-used cans that were left from failed samples proposed to the owners of the large house we were working at. He picked up a can of light rose colored paint.

This I had to see.

Thalo Green, the opposite on the wheel, and all the red in the pink disappeared. Light grey now.
Raw Umber darkened it, and gave it a richer tone.
Raw sienna warmed up the color, which was flirting with a kind of purplish tone.
He pondered a moment.
A drop of burnt sienna, and we were done.

Really rich, warm color. Not “warm” like everyone bandies about for things like blue, which is pretty much glacial, by the way, but earthy, complex, sophisticated…

Okay, I almost lapsed into Myrna Loy territory there. But it was a handsome grey. It must have been, Jimmy Carter was President back then, and I still remember it to this day and wax poetic about it.

And so I learned how to make those colors, and what makes them tick. And I’ll give you some easy advice on how to get rich, interesting, um, well, warm colors for your walls: Throw away all the color brochures you’ve got. There’s generally upwards of 2000 colors in those color wheels, and they’re nothing but trouble on roller skates, I’m telling you. Just because you’re sophisticated and don’t decorate like you live in a trailer park doesn’t mean you’re ready to navigate through that, any more than having a driver’s license means you know how to weld a monococque automobile chassis. You need an editor, and fast. And if you think that you’re always going to get good advice from your decorating magazines, go to the library and look at the back issues from just five years ago. They look pretty terrifying when the bloom is off the rose, generally.

Instead, go to a paint dealer that sells exterior paint, in any brand that has something called “Historical Colors.” Some have interior colors, but get the exterior colors too. they'll work, and the colors can be mixed in any product.

Ben Moore’s good, and familiar, but many other manufacturers will fit the bill. Cheap paint generally has two problems with it. The paint itself is fine, but the materials the manufacturers supply with it, like color selectors, stink, and the pigments they use are plastic looking and used in overly simple formulas to make unsophisticated colors. The trouble with cheap paint is that it’s just as good as good paint, and so will last a s long as the good stuff, and look bad the whole time.

Pick your interior colors out of there. They really are all warm in there, because back when they were making the paint colors that are mimicked in the Historical Colors, the pigments needed to make electrifying colors were scarcer than good advice is now, and they got interesting effects by juxtaposing interesting colors next to one another, not by tossing in screeching pigments like chrome yellow and candy apple red and so forth.

Get a quart of anything you’re thinking of buying more than a gallon of. Paint a portion of the wall, say, three feet square, and look at it for a couple of days. Forget the postage stamp sized strips of colors you get at the displays in the Home Depot I warned you about yesterday. Even an experienced pro has trouble using those to pick colors appropriately, and the presence of several closely related but different colors on the card can throw you way off. The exterior color selectors generally have suggested color combinations too, and you can find related colors to paint your millwork, and to thrust in front of the person who’s asking you what color your couch pillows should be too.

I worked at a very old house when Ford was president, and it was painted a medium grey, with a sort of dull coral pink front door. It poked you right in the eye, but each color taken alone was almost somber. It was the juxtaposition that made them jump out at you. It’s hard to achieve that kind of sophisticated and subtle interaction, so let someone else do the legwork for you, someone that knows what they’re doing, and studies colors for a living. Like all good executives do when making decisions, have a few excellent choices placed in front of you, and choose from those. Just don’t tell the designers that you’re using the exterior chart for interiors, or they’ll excommunicate me.

But I assure you, the clerk in the store will just nod and smile when you specify exterior colors in interior paints, and the formulas work just the same.

I bet he’s mumbling, under his breath the whole time he’s mixing them, too: “Red, Green, Blue,Yellow, White.”

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