My Joy and Torment

February 27, 2019

The property possessed by an object of producing different sensations on the eye as a result of the way it reflects or emits light.


Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet.
Paul Klee
Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.
Oscar Wilde
You put down one color and it calls for an answer. You have to look at it like a melody.
Romare Bearden
All colors will agree in the dark.
Francis Bacon
I saw a sunset in Queretaro that seemed to reflect the colour of a rose in Bengal.
Jorge Luis Borges
Yes,’ I answered you last night; / ‘No,’ this morning, sir, I say. / Colours seen by candle-light / Will not look the same by day.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The color of truth is gray.
Andre Gide


My skin is kind of sort of brownish
Pinkish yellowish white.
My eyes are greyish blueish green,
But I’m told they look orange in the night.
My hair is reddish blondish brown,
But it’s silver when it’s wet.
And all the colors I am inside
Have not been invented yet.

Shel Silverstein

Double Indemnity

February 3, 2019

I admire the French who see fashion, in part, as the recognition that we are all part of one another’s aesthetic experience.  Even a nicely tied scarf can do the trick. My former husband was from Peru and had a similar point of view: “Nanita, why does everyone here dress in their pajamas and sweats?” He was incredulous that people who could afford at least one nice outfit would be seen in public looking like shlubs. When choosing color for an exterior, people often look to buildings they admire. If your house faces East you might look at other East-facing houses that you like, etc. This might be a fair way to start. I have written before about the nature of my own color work: how I view art and the artist; and that I strive to capture the essence of what is desired and apply it to your architecture, so what you truly appreciate-the overall effect- is realized. Why am I so adamant about not copying anything or anyone, including myself? I am doing it (or not doing it, in this case) for you.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. This adage must have been coined by a serial duplicator. While it is true that a designer might want to emulate what a client deems beautiful and successful (usually) in order to satisfy him or her, this approach in the end, serves to mollify: for the imitator, to deflect from and soothe against a lack of originality; and for the imitated,  to feel less robbed. The latter actually refers back to the first designer who can then feel less like a thief. Consider this in the context of a street,  a neighborhood, or city. What happens when you copy your neighbors’ colors? How do they feel? How would you feel? Not that feelings are exactly my main concern here.   I am questioning notions of proprietorship and of desire too.  What are my responsibilities? Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. No one owns colors however, the designer and client have worked together to create something one hopes, is unique and fabulous. In an important way, that design belongs to them. What I design for you is ours together.

Fences make good neighbors. A house in San Francisco cannot exist in any kind of isolation.  Almost all our buildings are attached, and if they are not, are very close together. Our perception is always relative. I cannot see my house without seeing yours and everyone else’s. My work in  St. Helena or anywhere more rural takes into primary account the natural surroundings. The majority of the landscape in our dense city is other buildings. When I design here I am considering the entirety of your building’s context: how it looks unto itself and in relation to its neighbors so you and they can appreciate its full beauty. The whole street plays into the composition and design; what color temperatures are missing there, for example? I will not deny you a blue house if you love blue but too much repetition renders your building invisible. We see a haze of uniformity. The landscape dulls.

There is nothing new under the sun.  There are finite musical notes within a certain scale but their arrangement  makes for a novel or derivative piece of work. Regardless of originality, is it good, beautiful, or at least interesting? Can a copy be any of those things? Most buildings have a body, casework and sashes of some kind. They have shared characteristics. Color theory describes relationships that are pleasing to us. Harmony and contrast, to name a couple, are qualities that make a design successful so these relationships are repeated to varying degrees. Picasso was notorious and upfront: “If you have an idea worth stealing, I will steal it.” His friends and contemporaries ended up hiding their paintings when he came for a studio visit. He took other artists’ ideas, as well as so-called Primitive Art, and spun them through his elevated gears, out of which came the work of a master. If you want to be original be prepared to be copied.

Endurance Test

December 13, 2018

Standing the test of time is misunderstood. Classic  does not mean grey. It does not mean conservative either. The primary definition is: serving as a standard of excellence; of recognized value. I just completed work on a funky three story HOA on top of Nob Hill. Built in the late 60s, it is a mod anachronism to this swanky block. The current paint job is meek: a pale peach with white. The colors are much too retiring both for the architecture itself and its position of being nestled between and recessed from its two Victorian neighbors. The building appears ashamed almost, what beauty or charm it might have, undervalued and misunderstood. It is funny to talk about buildings in these terms. At least for Westerners. Feng Sui practitioners do charts of houses much as they would do for people, revealing strengths, weaknesses, propensities, and all points to be balanced. This building must assert itself.

For smaller HOAs, I usually do my designing in real time with the color committee or HOA members present. This is efficient because I get reactions immediately and can respond; but also because it compels people to invest in or divest from the process, which acts as a tacit agreement in the end result. I have discussed this before in my post, Fight Club. When I met with the three owners who were available, I covered the points I made above. What this building needed were colors and a design that were bold enough to transform the simple architecture but neutral enough to belong in one of the toniest neighborhood in the city. We chose three designs. The main body colors were all rich but neutralized (somewhat greyed out); some trim was subdued and other accentuated; the color combinations were surprising. This element of surprise was a nod to the period: the building had to swing a little bit.

Later I got a call from an owner who was not at the meeting. She was very concerned that the colors I chose were, well, too colorful, and agitated hard for recognizable greys.  She went so far as to manipulate the process, creating a lot of acrimony. I am not telling this story to gossip. Exterior color is not private; I recognize why someone would feel so strongly however, she was misguided. Despite San Francisco’s reputation as one of the most colorful cities in the world, we have a lot of grey buildings here. I am not talking skyscrapers but Victorians, Edwardians, and new construction too. People in tech like grey. So do architects. I once worked with an architect in town whose every building is grey. It is his calling card. I do not have a problem with grey or white or taupe per se. It is easy to place some designs in time.  That looks like my avocado green refrigerator from the 70s! (Or my Danskin jumpsuit.)

Aside from the accumulation of dirt, there is no way to discern when a building I designed was painted.  Colors that serve the building first and the human second (the order is more important than the proportion here) appear atemporal, aside from the period in which they were built. Take a column or a pyramid from any part of the world. These are not beautiful because they are old or because they are neutral (most were originally bedazzled in vibrant frescoes, by the way); their proportions and scale make them transcendent. If you did not know when Chichen Itza was  built, for example, you would still marvel at its construction and solid grace: the design itself is durable. Architecture is fashion too. It goes through cycles and styles. Color design is the same.  Recalcitrance makes any innovation commonplace: the definition of cliché. That looks like it was painted during the tech boom of the 2010s!

Performance Anxiety

August 8, 2018

A client called me warily after having a bad experience with another consultant. She has a cottage two doors down from her house that she uses for guests. It is filled with her husband’s vintage French posters. The ones in the bedroom  were in  lurid greens and blues and hung on  a sort of presentation grey, which made the prints appear stolid and stiff. We wanted to create an environment, rather than a display, so I chose a milky but vibrant aquamarine; a color not quite present in the pictures but  a blend, as if you threw the pigments into a vat. Finally, she satisfied my curiosity and recounted her experience. The designer came with a small booklet, a la Farrow and Ball, and gave her a single option: “This is your color,” she declared. “That is too dark for me,” my client replied. “Do you have another suggestion?” “That is your color,” said the designer with nothing more to say. (Drop mic.)

Almost all professions involve some level of performance. I am not talking about Plato’s Maya (the shadow on the cave wall) or various philosophers’ citation of the supposed masks we all wear. I am talking about shtick.  We are selling something. A doctor must exude enough compassion and expertise that you will submit to her counsel; this might not be her natural state outside the office and you have no way of knowing.  When you hire me  what you get is Nan, but, Work-Nan. I am at once real and on stage. In a previous post I discussed how I am called as an authority. I would say this is true insofar as I know a lot about color,  have decades of experience with it, and  know what I am doing and talking about however, you have never met me. I have to convince you to execute my decisions. How do I do that?

I was a professional actor. I sang in musicals and did both improv and straight theater. This comes in handy. In one of my previous incarnations, as a teacher, I taught drawing at the county jail. I had to command a “pod” of sixty men at one time. They could easily discern that I understood my craft but  I used a combination of charisma, knowledge, and fibbing to maintain control. I might tell them I was performing that night-something everyone there could respect-and  could not risk shouting and tiring my voice. (I was not performing.) I would code switch. This is a linguistic phenomenon where one changes lexicon or accent, for example, to assimilate into a group; it is a natural survival mechanism but can also be  deliberate. I never changed my vocabulary because people who hustle can recognize fraud but I let my my Okie twang surface to seem more down home. That was all part of Teaching-at-the-Jail Nan.

When I consult I have a patter: a quiver of stock phrases I pull out to be charming and to fill empty air. “I am remiss on my filing…” “I taught art for twenty years and my favorite thing to teach was color.” “Colors have synesthetic properties.”  There are other things I say and do.  They are all true and demonstrate both capacity and approachability (i.e. personality) but are superfluous really. When conducting a performance you are simultaneously present and detached: completely aware of what you are saying or doing, its effect on the audience, yet at the same time,  unequivocally consumed by the creation, whether a play or a musical number or whatever. I could be quiet. I am not for a few reasons. First, my energy is gregarious and people can sense that; if I were too taciturn people would perceive me as fake. Second, my excitement about design is palpable but I decide to think aloud. I reveal my thinking in this way so people are confident in my recommendations. They trust me.

I heard the author Philip Roth being interviewed. He described the difference between art and craft in a way I had never heard but strikes me as utterly accurate, having done both. I am paraphrasing: “A contractor knows what the house is going to look like; when I write, every sentence is a revelation. ” I am completely authentic in the artistic process. My designs are spontaneous and unique.  I do not know what will come next. No matter how much artifice I might employ, these are the truths running through my work that everyone can perceive.

Fight Club

March 1, 2018

Color design requires mediation: conflict arises because it is both subjective and objective in its application.   I have blogged before about mediation through existing architecture, exposure, relative perception, and the like. These all influence design decisions. Here, I will concentrate on people. The most obvious definition of mediation would be between or among more than one party. This is the primary reason I am called to do HOAs, for example. Usually for such jobs there is a color committee, whether formal or informal. Still, wrangling even say, five people to agree on a set of designs takes  certain skill. Folks anticipate a continuation of their same aesthetic clashes  and have trepidation about a prickly, uncomfortable process. I mix diplomacy (and authority) with aesthetics, reasoning and practicality. Persuasion is not manipulation: it is the ability to illuminate.  When presented with something beautiful and workable, it is obvious to recognize.

Residents surely want the best design possible for their enjoyment and investment however, this is superseded by the desire for an independent third party for counsel,  deferral, and even culpability. It is true you cannot please everyone (though I often do or come very close). The presence of an expert ensures that both satisfaction and dissatisfaction of disparate desires can be cast outside the immediate community.

A parent should be able to enter his or her child’s room without revulsion, of course, but basically the kid should get to choose. When I consult I always engage the child if he or she is present. One of my greatest rooms had soft black walls and cream trim because I pushed the parent to “let” us (the teenager and I) do what we coined “Gothic Chic.” Even kids somehow recognize that the color of their rooms is their internal state mirrored onto the environment and writ large; that is one of the reasons they have strong opinions.

In a nexus of therapy and kid centered design, I recently dealt with a couple while consulting at the paint store. The two were bickering so much that the whole place felt tense. I went out to help them. Each member of the couple had strong and recalcitrant ideas about what was appropriate for the space, and, in general. As you can imagine and forgive me for saying, it was palpable that this color argument was somehow endemic to how they relate.  Because color is so important, it amplified their dynamics. They also insisted that the kids did not care that much. (This is almost never the case.) I first and quickly identified how each of their ideas did not quite serve the space adequately; this was true but had the benefit of preventing the outcome of a “winner.”  I did  not use smoke and mirrors but rather presented an accurate assessment of the failings of such calcified positions. The second thing I did was ask the children what they wanted. After speaking directly to the two girls, we wrapped up the design in a matter of minutes.

Listen first. My job as I see it is to create the desired effect in the most beautiful, successful, and original way possible. This is one of the reasons I do not have a discernible style nor work on only one type of architecture.  My specialty is color. (See post “Invisible Woman.”) Checking my Yelp account I saw I had a one star review.  The person found me condescending and a slave to trends, two things I eschew. There is a solution to every puzzle. I am there to give you what you want, basically.  Another part of my job is to know my audience; this is a hallmark of good communication. I must say things in a way that can be heard. I  pride myself in being accessible and diplomatic in my process. Clearly I miscommunicated (a funny sentence in itself). All that being said, it is not my job to give you something that will not work in the space by rubber-stamping an idea you have about specific colors.  I might need to modulate or adjust your notion to create the effect you want in that specific space. I can be quite adamant about this.

Our ideas do not exist in a vacuum. Our perception of color is affected by light and surface, rods and cones, obstinacy  and flexibility, evolution as a species, and our childhood bedroom. Humane Design Principles are those that recognize and integrate how people react to color. For example, our eyes feel stress when a contrast ratio is much greater than 3:1. What this means when I design is that even if I want to create a graphic effect I will not choose a color that is much more than three times darker (or lighter) than an adjacent or nearby color. (As an aside, 3:1 is considered the Golden Ratio, so this fact pleases me.) If reflected light will turn your preferred green into split pea soup and split pea soup makes you queasy, I will let you know. Dispelling a preconceived notion is important because habit inhibits both good art and the success of our design, which directly effect your enjoyment of the environment. How we operate as human beings is my overriding concern.

Silent Treatment

July 6, 2017

Actors often joke that they are never a director’s first choice. I am fortunate that I am usually a client’s preference. Occasionally though, I come after another colorist on a job. The design has not worked or personalities have clashed. I do not railroad clients: my work is not about imposing my aesthetic. There are many answers to a puzzle and my main focus is to extract  kernels of desire and beautifully realize them in the architectural space.  I am not beyond criticism or questioning. Indeed, these are integral to the artistic process. I have good reasons for the choices I make and do not hesitate to state them.

I am working on the Palms hotel, a refurbishing of a Budget Inn in Corte Madera. The firm needs a working palette to present to the city Planning Department to approve construction and renovation. The first colorist’s work was rejected. I admit that I did not understand his choices, which did not at all fit or complement the environment nor juxtapose interestingly with it. I pressed the architect for the reason the colorist was fired: he refused to speak at the meeting. Since privacy cannot apply here we can only conclude fear of incrimination that none of his answers would be acceptable.

Hypothetical Answer #1

I should not have to answer any questions about my work.

Art should speak for itself. This is mainly true however, there are many instances where revelation is necessary or informs appreciation. When I visit a museum, for example, I often let a piece beckon me: if it is not engaging enough on its own why should I bother to walk over to investigate? Knowing something about the picture plane or the history of African-American quilts or whatever, allows me to see more and therefore, admire more. Knowledge can only enhance beauty and interest. Even an auto-didact has something to say about her process, subject matter, or choices; it is not a question of being traditionally educated or being especially articulate. Conversely, if a work can only be understood through exposition  there is a problem; but talking about art cannot in any way spoil it because, in fact, it ultimately must stand on its own.

Architectural color design is, of course, different than painting or sculpture or theater even. First, the impact of the architectural scale is magnified; the effects of the colors must be known by the designer, and often communicated, particularly if the selection is atypical. Sometimes I have to convince clients that my choice is the best because they can only envision what they have seen before, for example. Second, in the case of a public or commercial space (by the way, any exterior is public space), I must account for the general public to some degree and/or am dealing with multiple decision-makers whom I must corral  into some kind of consensus. If an artist can say nothing about her work at all one of two things is happening: she feels superior or has no clue (see below). Feelings of superiority stem from insecurity; in other words, the artist might be discovered.

Hypothetical Answer #2

I don’t know why I make the choices I do.

Everyone knows the adage about the proportion of perspiration to inspiration. Saying that the spirit moves you (a term I use occasionally) or that you are channeling some creative flow  is hooey. I would argue that inspiration (like intuition) is just the instantaneous cataloguing of knowledge that outputs a unique solution. Further, what we call the transcendent is really the nexus where pattern meets surprise. Humans are attracted to and actually require pattern. The repetition of known relationships (shape, color, sound progression, etc.) binds us to an artwork but the point at where the pattern diverges is what transports us. We call this the spirit. Yesterday I went to the de Young to see a survey of African American art of the South. I stared at a (mostly) turquoise and brown paisley quilt from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. It basically repeated, with tiny bits of purple, green and stripes thrown in. All the piecing was askew from ninety degrees just a touch. I wanted to throw myself on the ground before it and declare, Sweet Jesus, it was that beautiful. And I am Jewish.

Think of how ten authors can have the same command of a language yet come up with original sentences.   An artist who practices well his craft has integrated the requirement of originality (i.e. divergence from pattern): this  quality is present in his “catalogue,” along with color, form, effect, etc. Creative flow is the connection an artist might have to physical principles (e.g. color theory as it relates to the human eye/brain) or to universal consciousness (e.g. evolution of color and human response).

I am not saying that artwork should be explained away until the ineffable is snuffed out. It is worth noting that  even though I throw around the word “ineffable,” I see that quality too, as a retrieval of universal or physical attributes, just like inspiration. A response can be  as simple as “I like dogs” or “blue transforms me.” You will not find an accomplished artist in any medium who has nothing to say about his or her work. Someone who refuses to answer thus cannot be considered an artist.

Hypothetical Answer # 3

I make the same choices all the time.

This is perhaps the worst of the three answers and surely underpins the other two. I came after same colorist again a couple days ago for a fairly simple 1940s stucco house. The beauty of the building was its unusually graceful profile and rustic hand troweling. There was a typical single window in the middle of the house over the garage that had thinner casing and two little columns inset in the sashes, which were also on the slender side.  He wanted the same ornate treatment of the minimal woodwork, which he regularly uses, even though the house had nary any trim in proportion to the  body. Likewise he wanted to call out the frame and panel of the garage. An exterior in San Francisco is like a painting:  it is essentially a two-dimensional plane because most of our houses are attached.  His fussiness, where every single detail is highlighted,  detracted from what is beautiful about this house.

I have not even mentioned the color choices themselves. If you constantly repeat yourself, either in approach or palette, it is either because you do not care or because you cannot see. You are essentially making widgets. This factory mindset  is designed for optimal speed and maximum production. You can tell I am offended by what I consider to be such hackery. There is nothing inherently wrong with it unless a client is under the impression that the colorist is paying individual attention. I am quick to admire other people’s work. Skill and talent are never a threat and there are a couple buildings I have seen by this colorist that I do like. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

South of the Border

March 7, 2017


Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic and world view centered on the acceptance and even reverence for transience and imperfection. Wabi denotes simplicity, rusticity,  and quietude, and includes an element of happenstance or even a small flaw, which gives elegance and uniqueness to the whole. Sabi refers to the beauty that comes from the process of aging: the patina of bronze, for example, illustrates the concept that time and use make an object more exquisite and valuable.

I just returned from a month in Mexico. I stayed in a small beach town of about five hundred people. Many buildings look dilapidated or in disrepair, like not-so-ancient ruins. There are piles of rubble around: brick and stone seem to sit at every doorstep and re-bar sticks out in all directions. What looks like a crumbling to the ground is, in fact,  a construction boom. The whole effect is somehow wabi-sabi in reverse: gorgeous, with raw material waiting to be cut or installed next to or even part of buildings that are finished and new.


My apartment was on the lower floor of the lovely Casa Colonial, hastily yet lovingly finished practically as I walked up to it. The periwinkle stucco is exhilarating. I have been traveling internationally since I was thirteen years old.  Aesthetic and other preferences are borne of culture, economics, and necessity. Contemporary design in the US mostly seem to favor newness, though distressed finishes and reclaimed material are more and more popular. As I have written previously, this culture also seems to equate monochromaticity with  beauty and disfavors frisson. This is the opposite of many cultures. Choice of color also comes, of course, from the quality of light in a given place, dyes originally available from local flora or minerals,  and even ontology or specific spiritual practices. All the above can influence the effect of the chosen colors too; in other words, culture may drive perception.

There is no sense in Mexico of dissonance between old and new, finished and unfinished, or strong and soft.  The intensity of  paint color combined with raw materials is astounding. In the building below, there is a density of color and the palette is over-ridingly warm, yet the variegation and texture of the ceiling tile temper the marigold yellow.


In my design work, when paint color  is the major consideration, I  capture this effect through the juxtaposition of neutrals with more saturated colors. In fact, I have been hired specifically because of this: most designers stick to one or the other, mostly neutral. This color relationship occurs naturally in la arquitectura Chacaliya, because exposed brick, wood or concrete act as the neutral. Often, when a client asks to highlight lots of natural material we choose a strong and modulated white; this works well but it should be noted that much of that selection stems from clients’ and architects’ (cultural) preferences.

Luis Barragan

Design (and Art) needs the illusion of spontaneity. This is undeniably true however, many designs (designers) here eschew this fact. I wonder if it is a fear that the work will look like a mistake; that somebody was absent-minded, lost control, and thus neglected to design something. While there are many ways to create this illusion, saturated colors feel inherently spontaneous. They are a bolt of energy into the body. Pink next to orange is surprising for its graphic tension. I am thrilled when someone “lets” me use pink, or purple, or tangerine. Mexicans, Indians, Palestinians, West Africans, and Guatamaltecos do not consider pink feminine and therefore anathema, for example. A pretty color is a pretty color.

Paired with raw plaster, Barragan’s color design transcends a mere combination of painted and unpainted surfaces. Density and sparsity of color create this sense of happenstance. The inclusion of what seems unfinished completes the design’s power; the naked concrete acts both as the flaw and the reverence for time: is the stucco yet to be painted or has the color worn away? Of course, all parts of his composition are balanced and intentional, and the plaster is not a lump but a geometric shape honed by a human hand. Stone bricks are fashioned by masons but the beauty of the workmanship and the stone are equal.

When Toni Morrison’s book Beloved won the Pulitzer I was excited to read it. I had read many of her books previously. I was disappointed. It was so polished and perfect in every conceivable way that I was bored. It was bereft of surprise. Some of her other books, Sula comes to mind, are equally well-written but they contain some element- no matter how small- of unwieldiness, a sense that a character, a plot twist, or turn of phrase escaped her control and took off on its own. That quality makes art come alive.

imagesChristof Niemann

Netflix has a great documentary series called Abstract, which highlights designers from different fields. Design is the communication of an idea or ideas through functionality: abstraction becomes material.  Two designers particularly struck me. Christof Neimann is an illustrator whom you might recognize from his many New Yorker covers, and Es Devlin, a set designer for projects as varied as The National Theater and Kanye West. Niemann explains that after many years of having it backwards, he learned to become “a careless artist and a ruthless editor.” We set a design goal: in Niemann’s case, the magazine gives him a concept to convey.  We must then allow ideas to flow unfettered, after which, we pare away to determine what is essential to communicate the idea and edit out any remaining superfluity. This process cannot be done in reverse. If you edit beforehand, you close off the mind to the novel and possible. You cannot plan everything in advance of or during the creative process. You squelch the exuberant.

Devin’s medium is spectacle. Her and Niemann’s aesthetic completely diverge. While he deals in the spare, she piles on, but nothing she adds detracts from the essential idea; this is because her work is about creating a three dimensional and enveloping experience. For her, there can be no such thing  as beauty for its own sake.


When I compose a blog I do not worry about the perfection of every sentence or the composition as a whole. I belabor nothing, at the beginning. I get every idea on the virtual page:

unforced unpremeditated

ideas take hold practice observation


concise expository poetry

human hand

Design is communication. Simple or complex.

the way a line is drawn

Essential stripping away information adding information

density v sparsity

Heavy next to heavy balanced by flora and and natural finishes

Juxtapose natural material with strong colors

construction everywhere

mirror image of wabi sabi

Likewise when I design, though I know the  effect I wish to communicate, I do not presume to know in advance the best or most beautiful way to create this communication. Through the process of designing (listening, experimenting, throwing ten chips on the wall) the best answer(s) reveals itself. The revelation works through elimination and modification. I edit my writing too many times to count but I hope the liveliness of my thinking is evident. What makes so much of Mexican architecture fascinating to me is the  balances struck. I have mentioned many related to actual colors and materials used but the most impressive thing, which no doubt is due in part to these, is the way the act of creation remains apparent. Everything is not wrapped up in a stultifying  little bow. Yes, the artwork is finished and complete, but somehow it is ripe for the possibilities the user will bring. Past, present, and future are made visible.