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Interior Color - The Big Picture

Tackling paint colors for a whole house at once might seem intimidating. There are so many things to consider and a lot of false information out there. Where and how to start is the big question. This episode is your primer -- Color 101 -- how to choose a color palette for your whole interior. We walk you through the what not to do, what to consider and how to tie the colors together.


Krane: Welcome to Let's Talk Color.

Woolf: I'm Amy Woolf, principal designer at Amy Woolf Color and Design.


Krane: And I'm Amy Krane, founding designer at Amy Krane Color. We're both professional color experts who specialize in architectural color. We met while training and years later the conversation is still going strong.


Woolf: We both live our lives immersed in color and design. We often agree, but sometimes we don't because color is personal. Color truths, however, are universal.


Krane: In each episode we'll unravel the mystery of choosing color for your home or business, both inside and out. Woolf: Hey, great to be back. Today we're going to talk about choosing color palettes for your interior. First, we're going to zoom way out and kind of look at some overall philosophies and techniques for thinking about how to pick a palette for your whole house, inside. And then we're going to zoom in on some of the details together. Usually we save our pet peeves for the very end

of the podcast episode, but today we're going to start off with some of those things that we know don't work - some of the common misconceptions. So what do you think in Amy? What's the one that stands out the most in your mind as what not to do?

Krane: Well, I have to say, out of all the crazy information I've heard out there, the one that makes me most nuts is when people say to look in your closet or just think about the colors you like to wear. It just doesn't relate to the colors that you want to surround yourself with in an interior environment. The colors in my closet run the gamut - tons of black and white and neutrals. And then there are tons of bright colors. And that's not what my home looks like. When you think about what you like to wear, you think about your body shape, skin tone, where you're going and your own style. And that just has nothing to do with the colors you want to surround yourself with in your home. It's just a different set of parameters, different colors. And I think you need to think about it in a different way. You have to attack it from the standpoint of what colors do I like to surround myself with. That's the way to go. Not what you like to wear.


Woolf: Well, it's funny to think about how many people open their closet and see a sea of black. Are we going to have those people paint all their walls black? Absolutely not. There's not a chance. So yeah, I would agree with you on that. Back in the early days when I first got into the color game I was kind of learning to think about color and one of the shortcuts that I saw bandied

about was this notion of opening a fan deck and picking a whole bunch of colors from the same position in the fan deck. So you open your fan deck and you pick colors from the second spot from the top and supposedly that's a safe choice. And nothing could be further from the truth. We were taught in IACC that we need to have some warm, some cool, some light, some dark colors. So if you just stick to that second spot on the fan deck everything's gonna be kind of the same value and... Yeah, no, that is not a winning formula. Also, those colors don't necessarily go together just because they have some shared geographical location on a fan deck for crying out loud.


Krane: Yeah, you can't just go, like you said, to spot number two or three on the fan deck and say, "Hey, problem solved, they're gonna work together" because they're not.

Woolf: Those kind of shortcuts, I think are always a problem. That's one of the things I've been saying probably for all my years in this business, there are no shortcuts, so...


Krane: Also, I think a similar concept is when people say to create a monotone house where the walls are all the same color but maybe different values of the same color. Or maybe it's suggested to go with all cools or go with all warms. I think what's really important when attempting a successful palette in a home is to create an environment that mimics the natural world to some degree. What we see outside are lights and darks, bright colors and muted ones and colors from all different color families. So you really need to mix it up, but with thought, not in a chaotic way. Mix it up so that your interior surroundings to some degree are like the outdoors. Don't stick with all one thing because it's boring, and it's bland. It's just not interesting to spend a lot of your interior life in a home that's all same, same.


Woolf: I think a lot of people also fall back on the painting all neutral shortcut. I've been saying for years and years that neutrals are the hardest... Combining neutrals is tricky. I did a house years ago, 9000 square feet. That's a lot of rooms, and my client wanted everything neutral. And they didn't want to repeat any of my selections. So every room had to have its own neutral and that was a challenging job. It really was. We pulled it off and I snuck in a few colors here and there, but yeah, that's something you best not try alone without the help of a professional. All neutrals is not a shortcut.


Krane: Yeah, I agree. And you compound the problem even more so when not only the walls are neutral but so are all of your furnishings and decor. It's like we said in our episode about neutrals, they're the hardest to combine because they're lacking colorful-ness. You've all these different, really muted grey'ed down colors, or grey along with whites and beiges, creams, blacks -- all of these neutral colors and they're really hard to put together well. So variety, I think that is the key. That's the word, variety... but like everything else, with moderation, right?


Woolf: Yeah, I really like that notion you have Amy of mimicking the natural world, of looking to our natural surroundings and trying to replicate that degree of variety in our interiors. It feels very human. I think that's a great philosophy. So now that we've talked about all the things that don't work let's talk about how we actually do this. What happens when Amy Krane or Amy Woolf walks into your house and starts to talk to you about picking colors. So where do you start, Amy?


Krane: Well, I actually start with the written word, even if it's an on-site consultation because I send a pretty in-depth questionnaire and in it I ask a lot of questions. I ask, "What do you like?" (staying away from your pant and shirt colors) "What colors and kinds of colors do you like to surround yourself with in an interior environment?" And if you have a little bit of a hard time coming up with that list, maybe work backwards because process of elimination is so effective. Sometimes if you start with the colors you know you don't want, "I don't want brown walls, I don't want orange walls, I don't want pink walls," (whatever it is that's right for you) you can start to really

narrow down the colors that you like. So think about what you like, and also think about not just the hues but the characteristics of the colors.


So here we are back to the famous three... Hue, chroma and value. Do you want light colors on the walls or dark, pure or muted? Are there a lot of windows? Is the space light? Do you want dark colors or mid-tone ones and a very important question in terms of the nature of the colors... Do you like clear colors or muted ones? So that's a really good place to start... What do you like, what

do you not like? How about you Amy?


Woolf: I look a lot at the lighting: the natural and the artificial light, what direction the rooms face, and I think a lot about the function of a space. I think that a den that you retreat to at the end of a long day wants to have a cozy vibe. Your kitchen that maybe gets a lot of sun or doesn't, is a great place to energetically start your morning. So I'm looking at light and I'm looking at function. What is the inherent light situation, what is the function of that space, how do you want to feel in that space, and how can we use color, both hue and to some degree, lightness, darkness - the value of that color to kind of carry the mood that is driven by the function of the room. I think that's really

important.


And everything about color really ties back to one's personal relationship with color, and that goes back to your very first step, Amy, which is determining what colors you like, what resonates with you, never mind the closet or your clothing, but... what's your personal relationship to a color? One person's happy, yellow-y green is another person's yuck. Another person's hell. And I also want to circle back to what you said about figuring out what you don't like. I often tell clients that there's so much information, there's so much data in the things that we don't like. We are so clear about

the things that we don't like, and often much less clear about the things that we do like. So... I totally agree with you that the process of elimination offers a huge amount of data in that... So that's good.


Krane: Yeah, yeah. Another thing to think about is how large or small the room is. Your tolerance or acceptance or delight in having a certain color or kind of color in a space is going to be or should be affected by the size of the room. If you want to use a dark color, the height of the ceilings, the amount of natural light and the size of the room will affect how it feels to be in that black or charcoal or navy room. You might like a dark color in a tiny little powder room but in a large living room that might feel like too much. So a lot of it is also about proportion. A room might be very small but have really high ceilings and that might allow you to use a different kind of color than you

would have if the ceilings were your average eight feet or even shorter than that. Other things to think about are the other colors there. There are fixed colors like your floors and fixed finishes in a kitchen or a bathroom like countertops, tiles, cabinets and things built in. And then there are the colors in your furnishings. If you're starting from scratch and you just built the house or you just rented it and just moved in you might be starting from absolute zero and you have nothing. But more likely than not, you're painting and you already have some rugs and furniture and things like that and you really need to take those into account. Not just because they have to blend nicely with the walls, but also because they'll affect how the wall color looks based on what those colors are.


Another important thing is, as we've always said, context. It's so important. We should not, and don't in fact relate to colors in isolation. You may love this one color, but it's really about not only how that one color looks in that room but also how it looks as you move through the house and in relation to the colors next to it or nearby. That's all about combining colors.


So another thing to think about in terms of what you like, is what kind of color combinations do you like. Do you like subtle blends? Do you like to use variations of colors that are close to one another? Do you want a more energizing space so you'd want contrast? Did someone tell you to have a monotone house? No! Or like just a few of us out there, are you into power clashing?


So power clashing... I don't even know when I first heard that term and I think that it was first coined in reference to fashion. But it certainly relates to interior design as well. I would say power clashing is when you put together or combine items that common etiquette says don't go together.

When you're mixing patterns and colors there are some guidelines that are pretty tried and true and are not ones that you'd want to ignore. One is when you're mixing patterns, mix patterns of different scale (or size). Meaning they shouldn't all be large scale or all small. You have to mix it up... A big with a small, a medium with a big... And I think because different patterns inherently

cause a little bit of chaos, once you have different sized patterns your brain creates a sort of hierarchy or order. It creates some kind of order to the room and makes it acceptable to be in a room like that.


Another important thing when mixing patterns is that they should share some colors that are the

same. That will tie the patterns together. But that's not really what power clashing is. I'm talking about something wilder and more adventurous. For instance, you keep the scale different because that's really a must, but the colors and the patterns are completely different, and there's no stylistic

relationship between them. They're just different.


There are some designers that do this masterfully. Heidi Caillier in Seattle, is just an absolute master of this. She creates so much tension from mixing different colors and patterns and it creates excitement. It's really fodder for the mind, fodder for the senses. But we all have a different design voice, different tolerances and proclivities for mixing colors and patterns and I think there's very few people who like to power clash. I do to some degree. But I would not foist it upon a client at all. You'd have to see that a person is into that kind of thing.

Woolf: Are we talking about from room-to-room in terms of wall color? Moving from one space to another when you're talking about power clashing? I get it in terms of pattern mixing. I get that that can happen within the space of one room. Do you think power clashing can work from room to room? With the paint colors?


Krane: Well, I'll tell you, I think that for certain people, done really carefully... It can work. I can think of two examples. There's a house here, a country house up here in Columbia County where I am. It's owned by a designer who lives in Seattle and the entire house, this little country house is white and green. So many greens... In fact, really high chroma, bright greens, and they used semi-

gloss on the walls... (Okay, no comment there). But they made the whole house a wild mix of greens and white. Some people would say those greens clash. So that's an exciting house to some people and not to other people.


I had these clients who moved from the country to a condo in DC, and the wife was an art teacher and a fine artist. When they moved into this condo I helped them with color remotely. And she said "I want the house yellow and blue." And they were not really muted either, they were just on this side, the good side, of being too bright. She didn't even want neutrals in her hallways. It was color next to color, and she chose a warm yellow for a big dining room/living room. By warm, I mean an orange yellow and then adjoining was a stairwell running upstairs to a hallway and that was a green yellow. And I said, "Are you sure?" And she's like, "Yeah, this is great." Someone would call those clashing yellows. So yeah.

Woolf: Interesting. I mean, I kind of feel like... I don't know, when I think about this, I totally get what you're talking about. And I have seen when I've designed a room that I've been a little too tight with a palette, and a little too careful. My eye is so good at putting the colors together just right that it can be a little boring. And so I think the beauty of power clashing is to throw in a zinger and something that kind of is shocking and a little surprising. That makes for an interesting space.


And at the same time, I feel like... I feel like that's something I'm probably more comfortable doing with fabrics and rugs and art and having the foundation, which are the wall colors from room to

room, be less clash-y and a little more harmonious. But yeah.

Krane: I'm in agreement. I'm in agreement in terms of my personal taste. I like that better too but I'm just saying I've seen it done and it works for some folks. It all comes down to personal taste. What you like.


Woolf: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, because I think if there's one four letter word that begins with an "F" that I hear more than any other in a consultation, that word is Flow. Not what you thought I was gonna say, is it? But anyway, I think that flow is important and I think power clashing with a pillow for instance, for those of us who are not Heidi Caillier, is probably a safer bet.


And I want to circle back real quick to that thing that you were talking about with size and scale of a room relative to color because I think a lot of people say... How many times have you heard somebody say about an inherently dark, dreary room, "I wanna make it bright and cheerful." And you just can't do that with paint. People will say, "Can we paint it a light color? Can't we paint it white?" And the truth is, you can't really change the inherent quality of a space or a room with paint. I'm often inclined to just embrace what it is and paint it dark.


Think in terms of that dynamic experience of walking from room to room and having a shift from lighter to darker, cooler to warmer, and that kind of thing. That's what I'm looking for. So if for instance, somebody has a really small low ceilinged, tight, cramped, inherently dark entry. I can tell you right now, we're not gonna paint it a light color. They're trying to bring light and spaciousness to that room but they cant and I'm gonna absolutely just load that space up with a dark color. That connects also to the notion of compression and release from Frank Lloyd Wright. If any of you have ever been to Falling Water, which is I guess probably his most famous structure, it's a house in Western Pennsylvania. The hallways in that house are really, really tiny, and the experience of that as you move through these tiny hallways and then you emerge into a larger room, relatively speaking. …that room feels giant. Like you just got released. And so I think you can kind of use paint in the same way, as you're moving through smaller spaces and into bigger open spaces. Color can really help manipulate that experience from space to space.


Krane: So... yeah, what you're talking about definitely is flow, you're referring to how we progress through a space. As you walk from room to room, you want to feel a natural progression and a rhythm to the colors and the types of colors there, for sure. I think repetition helps flow as well.


Woolf: Yeah, I think there's a subtle line we have to walk between flow, which in its worst incarnation can be boring and a dynamic experience, which in its worst incarnation can be over-stimulating.


Krane: Another important factor to think about, that goes with flow, is cohesion. So how do the colors work together? And I think that that's really helped by using recognizable color relationships when you choose your colors. So we've talked about color theory before, there are two really key

color relationships that are really helpful in plotting out the colors of a home. One is using complementary colors, which are those across one another on the color wheel, and the other is analogous colors. Colors that are next to one another. So blue with green would be analogous, a yellow-green with a green would be analogous too. And compliments are combinations like blue and orange. And you don't even have to know color theory to walk into a space that employs these relationships and feel the effect. So I think cohesion is all about knitting the colors together and creating a real sense of wholeness and oneness in the house. Even with variety there's still a knitting together of the colors in the palette, and that's really important.

Woolf: I just want to talk about knitting because I think... I use the term threading or cross-threading. So when you talk about cohesion and flow, one of the techniques I like to think about is how do we pull colors from an adjacent space into the space we're working in. So in other words, if you've

got a living room and there's, let's say green on the walls, then in the next room over, there's going to be a different color on the walls. It's gonna be its own universe and it's gonna have its own palette. But let's take a little bit of that green and cross-thread it over into the adjacent. So I think that's another thing that really helps create flow.


I read about somebody who said they could pick up a pillow out of the living room and take it to any room in the house and that pillow would work there. And I think that given the house has enough variety to be interesting and stimulating, if that technique still works where that pillow still moves from room to room and looks okay I think you've achieved flow. It's not easy to do, but that cross-pollination, that crossing of color, I think is something to think about and to plan for. That helps make it happen.


Krane: That pillow thing is a great idea, and I think actually, if that works, that actually achieves cohesion even more so... And lastly, balance. So balance is more about an even handedness in the colors that are chosen. So if you have a room painted dark, don't have one, have a few... And the same with light. If there's wallpaper, don't have it in one room, have it in more than one room. You want to have even handedness in the house. You want to have a balance. You want to have a balance of colors and a balance of kinds of colors in terms of value and purity.

Woolf: I've talked to clients also about this notion that... Let's take, for example, a center hall colonial. You walk in, there's a center hall, you have rooms to either side, both at the front and the back of the house. So when you're standing in the front right corner of the house, you can't necessarily see the back left corner of the house. But I still think that on some deep level

psychologically we've internalized what that kitchen color is in the back left side of the house. So when we're standing in the front right in the living room, we still have a sense of that house in its wholeness and that whole color palette. So when we think about that balance issue, I want that balance to be not just what we can see, but what we feel in a house in its entirety, and what

we know to be true, even if we're not looking directly at it... So I agree, and I sometimes use the analogy of scales or weighted-ness or about tipping scales. I will stand in the middle of a house with a client and say, we can't have that living room tip like that with the navy blue paint without giving it something somewhere else to even it out.


Krane: So I think if you keep flow, cohesion and balance in mind and try to employ some color relationships and take into account all the different factors that we talked about: The size of the room, how do you want to feel, what you like, what kind of bulbs you have, what kind of natural light is there? On and on and on you will have done it. You'll have a gorgeous house. Easy peasy,

right? Just like that.


Woolf: Well, I would say not so easy peasy, but if we are parting ways at this point, and we've left you with all of these truth bombs, my painting advice would be to think about your house floor by floor, in its entirety. So many times people paint one room and then they move to the next room and as they work their way around they literally paint themselves into a corner. I think when you think about these three big factors, flow, cohesion and balance, think about the whole simultaneously and how you can employ all three very important variables to come up with a whole palette that works.


Krane: And one other note. I do make a distinction between public rooms and private rooms. I give people a lot of leeway to do something different if they want to in bedrooms and even bathrooms. If it's a room that doors are kept closed often or they're private rooms then I think you could step away a little bit from the cohesion and do you what you want.


Woolf: Oh, I totally agree. Yeah, I totally agree. To me, upstairs is a whole different universe, you can do whatever you want, especially when you're painting kids bedrooms, which may be the topic of another episode, so...


Krane: Yeah, yeah, go wild. Paint those purple walls with stripes and stars! Yeah, absolutely. Okay, so I think that wraps it up for today. We hope you've learned a lot about choosing colors for your interior and tune in next time for more insight about color for the built world.


Woolf: And if you have any questions or any topics you'd like to hear us discuss, you can find us at... Let's Talk (paint) Color.com. We'd love to hear your comments, your thoughts, your insights, and know a little more about what's on your mind in the world of color. Alright, thanks for listening. See you next time.



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