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Color Wheels and Paint Strips

Updated: Feb 11

(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)


Even the great masters were stumped by color choices. “Color is my day-long obsession,” said Claude Monet. The next time you’re fanning through a paint deck wondering what to choose for your space, remember that you are in good company. Your eye, like Monet’s, can perceive millions of colors and paint stores offer 2,000 of them. No wonder Default White is so tempting.  


Color plays a powerful role in setting the tone of a space. Not only does it influence mood and ambiance, it also reflects your personal expression — as if you weren’t already feeling enough pressure. 


Take a deep breath and ask yourself what you want to convey and how you want to feel in your space: tranquility in a bedroom, introspection in a library, activity in a kitchen, drama in a dining room? These adjectives are the first clues in determining your color palette. 


Next, look at large elements in your room such as flooring, banks of cabinetry and even your fireplace. Lastly, zero in on specific colors in your upholstery, draperies, and countertops.If you’re starting with a clean slate, the sky is the limit. Color is merely light carried on different wavelengths separating into assorted bands, thus creating the color spectrum. 


Instead, let’s talk about favorite colors. Mine is orange. Before you gasp, think of beautiful sunsets, candlelight and childhood orangesicles. Within the family of oranges, I can find a soothing honey for my bedroom, a cheerful sunflower for my kitchen, and a soft summer squash for my living room. My dark hardwood floors lend sophistication while ivory trim and molding create a warm fresh glow. 


Now it’s  your turn. If you don’t have a paint deck, bring any samples of fabric, carpet, tile or a cabinet drawer to the paint store to help you choose sample strips. If you’re starting from scratch, choose a few of your favorite colors. Tape them to different walls in your room and once you’ve narrowed down the likely candidates, purchase quarts to paint test patches. The best areas to do this are on the edges of walls. That way you’ll have at least one side of the patch that is not influenced by the existing wall color. 


Live with the samples for a couple of days and look at them in different lights. Do at least two coats. Deeper colors will require more. Wait until the paint has completely dried before making your final critique. Also keep in mind that when entirely painted, walls will appear lighter than the test areas.  


When painting doors and trims a variation of white, let your wall color be your guide. There are warm, cool, pink, green, gray and yellow whites. The easiest way to distinguish these differences is in natural sunlight. For a contemporary look, paint trim the same color as your walls. For a dramatic look, try a dark wood stain.  


Just when you think you’ve made your final decision, you will be asked to choose the paint’s sheen. The shinier the finish, the more intense the color will appear. (Paint chips are shown in a flat sheen.) Typically, eggshell is used for walls, flat for ceilings, and semi-gloss for doors and trim. Kitchen and bathroom walls are usually painted in pearl, satin, or semi-gloss to give them more protection. There are exceptions to these guidelines. To minimize decorative molding or heavily textured or flawed walls, opt for a flat sheen. 


Still feeling Monet’s torment? Perhaps a condensed version of color theory will help. Think of the color spectrum as a rainbow of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet — ROY G BIV if you’re old school like me. Join the ends of a rainbow to form a circle, or what Sir Isaac Newton defined as the “color wheel.” Pure or primary colors are red, blue and yellow. Pair them with each other to get secondary colors green, orange, and purple. Pair primaries with secondaries to get tertiaries. 


Today, most color wheels have 12 colors divided into segments like a clock. If you place red at the top, then colors from noon to six o’ clock are considered “warm” and colors from six to midnight “cool”. Calm and receding colors are on the cool side of the wheel. Stimulating and advancing colors on the warm side. Adjacent colors can loosely be thought of as tone-on-tone or even monochromatic. Opposite colors are complimentary and magnify each other’s hues.


Color equals hue. Intensity equals saturation of color. Value equals lightness or darkness of color. Tone, shade and tint equals the addition of grey, black, white respectively to a color.

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