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.

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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

chac-stronglittlegreen

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.

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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.

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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.

chacalilla

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

illusion

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.

chac-turqwithdog

 

 

Fashion Editing

January 1, 2017

market

Greenery. Shadow. Poised Taupe. Shrubbery. Dado. Bumbling Beige. (The last three are mine.) 2017 is  upon us so paint companies have rolled out their colors of the year. Every time this happens I suffer a bout of ambivalence mixed with understanding imbued with annoyance. I get all paradox ridden. For a paint company, the mercantilism of this trend-setting is obvious.  Many designers also embrace the unveiling because it generates excitement, which is both fun and good for business.  Let me be the first to say that color design should be fun and I am always gratified when a client ends a session proclaiming how much fun it was however,  trends exist solely to stimulate consumption. Color forecasting is a cabal.

Designers might be quick to point out they are not advocating painting your living room once a year but rather that using one of these special colors will make it easier for you to accessorize, since other companies like textile manufacturers are following the same trends. Colors of the Year perhaps provide an entree  for  homeowners, a starting point from which to embark on color design themselves.  There is a tension though, between the desire to empower clients to make decisions and  trust their preferences, and the fortifying of the knowledge that they do indeed, for the most part, need professional color design. Paint companies do not care how their paint is sold.

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Color is a language that all human beings understand. All those who can see color, of course. We use color to navigate, identify danger and its opposite, create energy, and stimulate the senses. Color acts immediately on the nervous system through the optic nerve. In other words, people experience color all day long. In my last post I touched briefly on this: as opposed to other disciplines or sets of skills/knowledge, people often assume they have a total command of the subject.

My main objection to trends has always been that they disregard the effects of color. If I paint my dining room Greenery, what am I creating, and what other elements will be necessary to complete and balance the design, in order to drive the desired effect.  Yes, we all know how we respond to a given environment but how was that environment devised? The effects of color are not at all common knowledge. Nor humane design principles (such as visual ergonomics), the science of color, the effects of lighting, exposure, etc. (By the way, this can apply to designers.) Though anyone can have a go at it, likewise anyone can recognize an exceptionally designed environment that exemplifies the aforementioned knowledge.  I am not demanding you hire me or all is lost. A lot of lay people are excellent designers for themselves. Speaking generally, it pains me a little when I encounter a space that is not as fantastic as it could or should be; this is based not only on my aesthetic sensibilities but on my belief that people deserve the utmost beauty.

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There is, in fact, no color  without space, form, line, scale, value, and texture;  For example, in any composition (of 2 or 3 dimensions) there is positive and negative space. Escher made hay with this. The viewer seeks a principle form within (a) space and from this positive orders the rest: assigns the negative space around the principle form(s), determines what is foreground and background, etc. Density or diffuseness of visual information also balances a composition.

I recently consulted on a living room in a small house where, typical for many San Francisco houses of the period, the space is immediately upon entry without the relief of a foyer. The clients had bought a sort of cerise-burgundy velveteen to upholster a boxy loveseat. They requested neither extreme tastefulness nor extreme hippie-ness (being former hippies themselves) with sufficient boldness of color. We came up with three designs but the one they loved the most absolutely required ditching the fabric or buying a new couch, something about which they had a niggling feeling anyway. The fabric color was so strong, heavy, and dense that the wall and trim colors had to be softened and neutralized, at least to some degree, in order neither to be competitive nor evoke the bohemian chic they wanted to avoid. All elements of design must be considered, not just color. If you pick a fabric like that it should in most cases command the room. There must be a focal point around which the composition revolves.

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With all the yearly fanfare, one would suppose that color design is solely about hue. I choose beautiful Blue #1 to go with gorgeous Green #5 with Whistler White for trim and so on. A  client told me recently that he chose to work with me based on my portfolio, and that he hoped I would not be offended to learn, that he is color blind. What a great compliment! I told him.  Many properties of colors  produce a successful design, where harmony, contrast, unity, and variety are properly balanced for a desired effect. Though it is rare to have the neurological condition requisite to see no color at all, imagine designing in gray scale. When you remove color, you understand the adage that a good designer can design anything.

 

 

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People tend to trust their eyes. An HOA that is finally being painted called me to check samples, and perhaps, make changes. The property is a run of thirteen very large A-frame houses in a gated community atop a hill; they currently alternate between pale earthy yellow and pale earthy creamsickle.   Our design has greater variation in both hue and value, earthy still yet modern, so the houses cease to be a horizontal monolith but will appear to vary in size and depth.

Homeowners objected to some of the colors because they did not look identical to the presentation boards I delivered at the end of the original color selection process. The samples were painted ninety degrees to the facades, on one wall, and at the same horizontal level: i.e. each successive sample was farther toward the back of the building. Rolling Stone looks grey and dark and lacks the complex green of the chip, he reported.  He took the paint back, had it reformulated and tested it on the chip, where it matched perfectly. The color did indeed look greyer and darkish on the building.  I pointed out that the sample was not only going back in space, but more importantly, was opposite a giant  orange wall.  While we were talking the sun passed over and the color flashed its original green. It will be fine, I assured him.

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If you ask someone what color is the person will likely respond with something about frequencies, absorption/reflection, and a nod to black bodies. When I studied with the International Association of Color Consultants,  Frank Mahnke defined color as “sensory perception.” Color is always relative, as I have stated many times. Relative to what? The most obvious is to other colors. In the case of our Rolling Stone, at least two phenomena occurred that changed the rendering of the color. First, the sample was painted on the yellow building. Yellow makes any neutralized color appear greyer. This is a demonstration of relative contrast. (Complementary colors also bring each other out; purples make yellows appear more yellow, for example, etc.) Second, the sample was painted opposite an orange wall; any light, direct or ambient, will bounce off one surface and reflect color onto others, like overlaying a gel. Reds and oranges neutralize green: i.e. make it look grey.  It is as if the orange light had mixed with Rolling Stone in a bucket, exemplifying the reductive properties of color. The homeowner asked me to select a greener color to sample, which I did, with  a caveat:  the sample will satisfy the homeowners who originally selected the color, because it will look more like their presentation board, but it will ultimately look too green and our design will suffer. Better to resample on the facades before making an assessment. (They did this and the colors were approved.)

eyes

There is a reason presentation boards are grey. A true, middle-tone grey will more or less control for  relativity: that is to say,  you will see the colors relative to one another only, as the design intends, with extraneous information removed. We often use renderings/drawings or presentation boards to communicate the effect of a color design. It is important for the client to remember that these are tools and representations only. I strive very hard to color match my digital renderings, for example. Pitfalls remain. One I described above, where a presentation board does not mirror what is happening to a real life sample, but rather presents what will happen.  This is hard for the layperson to understand.

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Color is  a function of light and surface. For example, a digital rendering uses illuminated light (from the monitor) instead of reflected light, which is what happens when you perceive paint on a chip or  building.  Even the best 3d renderings have a glowing artificiality about them that does not quite communicate reality,  because light is not truly being absorbed or reflected. I have chosen to make my renderings more painterly for this reason, a combination of photo-realism and pastel drawing.

Color changes under different lighting conditions.  Exposure, therefore, also determines perception. Just as the adjacent building threw orange light onto the samples, a color in Eastern light will look completely different on a North-facing facade. The ideal and most successful approach is to design color on site under actual lighting conditions. There is no color without surface. Salty Brine in the same sheen looks different on wood, stucco, and a piece of foam core. (Of course, Salty Brine also looks different in different sheens.) For example, the rougher the surface, the darker the color will look. This is why, particularly for exteriors, it is mandatory to sample. It is not a question of whether the color is correct but rather, do you like the color on the surface? The two are inseparable.

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Scale effects perception. The most common mistake I see people make is to choose colors that are too light. This applies to both interiors and exteriors. The greater the surface area, the lighter a color looks. Outside this is amplified because daylight can be up to four hundred times brighter than any interior light source. I once had a painter detail me on his method for addressing  all this: he explained that he would darken or lighten a color he wanted to use based on its application: for example, floor, interior wall, exterior corner building, etc. (This struck me as strange coming from a painter, since changing colorant ratio can effect performance. ) I explained that I select a color  anticipating how it will look; in other words, I extrapolate.  I do not need to manipulate a color but  simply choose the correct one from the outset.

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This extrapolation applies to light, scale,  surface, and effect, the whole of color design. It is an ability forged by my training as a printmaker and honed by many years of experience at this particular craft, and, an understanding of the properties of color. This is not to say that I am not surprised by outcomes from time to time, but in general, I know what a color or design will do. I am passionate about aesthetics but adamant about efficiency too.

I have a friend who is a professional physicist. We joke that people  always talk to me about color because it is part of their daily lives and they have a sense of understanding it; physics is also a part of our daily lives  but no one dares engage him in conversation! Even though I am hired for my expertise I sometimes meet resistance, mostly incredulity. I might repeat over and over that a color someone prefers to my selection is too light, too bright, too this, too that for the application or desired effect. We might stare at it together before the job  gets started (or repainted!) and the client will confide, “I had to see it to believe it.”

 

Balancing Act

August 15, 2016

Decalcomania, 1966

To light a candle is to cast a shadow…
Ursula K. La Guin

Many fandecks are what they call a “let down.” I find humor in the term but what it means technically is that a page will have the same hue at various values, usually the lightest one on the top and the darkest one on the bottom. These ratios are made by dropping basically the same formula into different bases, which allows for different depth in color without sacrificing performance. Some people design color in the same limited way:  choosing a white trim, for example, from the top of a page that seems to correspond to a similar color farther below, because they are clearly related (e.g. both cool). This is a kind of shorthand. A language, to be sure, but an unpoetic one.

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In nature there is wide and varied spectral distribution, as I have mentioned in a previous post. Color theory is the codification of the natural way we see. A while back I was giving a talk at a design conference in Canada and the designer before me said that warm and cool colors should be used separately. I was flabbergasted. Cool and warm, light and dark, dense and diffuse should and do coexist. This applies to design  because it is the natural order. Even within the most striking scene is an element of quietude.

 The proper proportion of predictability and surprise (even calculated) provides the most optimal and beautiful architectural environment. When the scale is tipped too far in either direction the result  is either monotonous or disturbingly illogical. There are myriad ways to balance a design. Color theory lays out a few: the principle one is harmony versus contrast. Harmony gives an artwork or color design coherence and unity. An example of color harmony is a complementary color relationship: green with red or violet with yellow, in the most basic terms.  These are pleasing and orderly to us because of the after-image effect and because they are also commonly found in nature as we perceive it. Contrast refers to how colors diverge. Saturated  as opposed to neutral, or light as opposed to dark, for example.

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Once in India I bought a scarf. I wear it every winter (and San Francisco in the summer). It is flame orange and bright turquoise, and yet, where the two thread colors come together you will see a shimmer of grey. Within this vibrant color relationship a neutral color emerges because our eyes do the blending, as if mixing paint. Our natural inclinations draw us in certain color directions. A  client might favor intense over subdued colors but I will always argue for at least some relative neutrality in a design; this is, in fact, the only way to  see truly the saturated color in its splendor. The balance between saturated and neutral color is probably the one area that most designers comprehend to some degree. Usually the more saturated color is relegated to pillows or small objects. I have discussed previously that accent colors are usually used on small surface area because this reflects nature however, this also demonstrates a limited understanding of what it means to balance a design. The strongest color in a design can and often should be on the wall to drive a desired effect. If the color is well formulated this is never a problem. But color itself (hue, saturation, value) is not the only way to balance a design.

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Synesthesia refers to the brain’s ability to conflate the senses and other neural pathways. Perhaps when you were a child you assigned colors to numbers, for example. Most adults’ brains develop out of most synesthetic connections but many remain. Colors trigger certain sounds, smells, and other sensory output for almost all human beings. For example, earthy greens are sonorous and can be used to muffle high pitched sounds; astringent yellows and oranges to mask narcotic, sugary scents; and warm tones  to make people feel less physically cold. Of course, the colors do not change any given physical properties present but rather trick the brain into changing its perception of the environment. Colors have textures. This is easy for most people to see when it is explained.  Neutralized ones for example, seem heathery and soft; some saturated colors seem smooth and glassy. Once I was called in to specify walls and a cabinet for another designer’s work; everything she had chosen from paint to textile in the room was basically the same color and had the dry look of burlap. It was boring:  the hues and values lacked sufficient contrast and color texture was likewise limited. A successful and beautiful design should balance  all aspects, not only the materials used, but the colors themselves. This is especially true for a monochrome palette.

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A client might ask for an ethereal and airy design. As you can imagine, a pale blue feels light and an oxide red feels heavy. The former feels slight and the latter seems to have mass. Warmer colors appear weightier and cooler ones the opposite but these properties exist in colors of the same hue too. A dark blue can anchor and even feel warmer than a lighter blue of the same temperature.  The proper distribution of gravity and levity provides dimension to a design. The deepest darkest mancave needs a hint of grace somewhere.

Scale and weight are related. The relative proportion of colors also drives effect. As I alluded to, red on a pillow and red on four walls engender  different responses. There is a video ad on Wayfair where the designer explains that a successful/easy/good way to design is to make all the walls of your main areas the same, with the same accent colors carried throughout the dwelling on different objects.  What this does is prescribe the same scale to every room: all large surfaces areas are  null and void with bits of color scattered about. The result is monotony again.  Too much predictability certainly looks designed but it creates stasis. Colors, be they soft or loud, should move you through a space and in any given space, move you.

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I used to be an actor. I was also a scenic designer for the theater. Many minute and seemingly convoluted decisions go into a performance that transforms an audience. Any piece of art should feel effortless, no matter how much work was involved. Clients are continually surprised at the amount of thought and strategy I put into a design.  Every single paint line is important so the many machinations result in a beautiful environment that seems to have appeared magically. Ironically, the designs with the least or most automatic thought behind them look the most effortful and even stilted. There is a misconception that architecture (and in particular, interiors), I suppose because it is man-made of angles, must look excessively or perceptibly systematic. Architects by and large favor white because in their minds it most clearly reveals or maintains their design. (Data from an informal poll…) I have written a long essay that I am sure, based on my experience, must be true on all counts. We are all susceptible to bias and these biases lead us to habit and preconceptions.

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I just worked on a lovely Moorish building nestled between five story apartments on either side in the Marina District. When I arrived the house was white with brown windows. It was unremarkable and lost among a run of other white buildings of all sizes on that side of the street.  Working with couples is always a blend of art, mediation, and diplomacy. In this case, each person had strong and differing opinions but admitted flexibility.  At our design meeting I had explained that anything but a white would change one’s perception of the building, including its size, but that a richer color would make it a jewel.  Together we agreed on a strong mocha-colored pastel for the stucco, a hard-to-pin-down greenish putty for the decorative elements, and a dark tobacco for the windows. It was uniquely subtle and celebrated the architectural period while avoiding staunch traditionalism. The design satisfied all goals as stated at our meeting. The house was painted. The scaffolding set to come down.

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Then, one member of the couple called me back to select a white and essentially revert the building to its original state. When I arrived she told me that the house looked small (as reported by a neighbor), she did not want to be a “target” by standing out in any way, and some other  things. Though more petite than its neighbors, the house actually now looked taller than buildings of the same height on the street, due to the relationship between body color and the roof. As we worked to find a  white, a couple of strangers walked by and told us “what a beautiful building!” Aside from the  aesthetic and other struggles some couples might have (which I am quite skilled at negotiating), it became clear to me that she was simply and fundamentally averse to change and/or unable or unwilling to look with fresh eyes. I am here to make you happy and pick a great white but I am not going to agree with you, I said to her cheerily. Now, for those of you who know Yiddish, these folks were mespucha and I could speak to them in this kind of loving yet unvarnished language. I mourned a little for this gorgeous house.

I always design for the user.  This goal is tempered by a few factors, including the imperative to make the best art possible. Sometimes there are limited solutions due to light, material, or scale;  a building ends up looking about the same as it did before but with finesse. We call this “color correction.”  Not everything can be an innovative,  jaw-dropping masterpiece.  Good art  does require an element of risk however, and a willingness to change perspective. My best designs are achieved when  clients can let go enough to get what they always wanted but could never quite imagine.

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