Color consultant Renate Ruby’s discerning eyes slid past the stripes of color I’d swiped onto the entry wall of my home—kaleidoscopic evidence, in hues ranging from eye-popping saffron yellow to mealy nonwhite, of nine months of color indecision. She patted the thick white trim framing my living room—the very thing I fell in love with when I first walked into our three-bedroom 1908 Ballard house—and told me its presence meant we could have fun with interior color. “You’re lucky,” she said. “You’ve got beefy transitions between rooms. This house has what I call a ‘pretty face.’” Like a starlet who never tires of praise, I soaked up the compliments to my house as if Ruby were actually speaking about my cheekbones.
Perhaps it’s the fact that a house feels so much like a part of ourselves that so many of us find choosing paint colors the most daunting of household chores. We want to feel good when we look in the mirror, and at our walls, and we want others to believe we’re neither trying too hard nor hopelessly out of date. Yet without an artistic eye and a strong understanding of the color wheel, most of us are doomed to live with our mediocre paint choices. (Or, if you’re like me, no choices, just months spent swiping sample pints of not-quite-right colors on the cheeks, er, walls.) That’s where good color consultants like Ruby come in. In 60 to 90 minutes (for $100 to $350 per hour), they can eyeball an interior, sniff out a client’s color comfort level, and choose the hues that would take weeks (ahem, maybe years) for most people to select on their own.
Robin Daly, interior designer and co-owner of Daly’s Paint and Decorating in Wallingford, says one reason it’s challenging for the layperson is that many paint colors for sale are simply ugly on any wall. “Some paint companies just do a buckshot approach,” says Daly. They offer 2,000 colors to give the illusion of choice, when only 100 of them actually work. Daly believes the best paint colors have multiple pigments, which cause the color to subtly shift as light changes throughout the day. Another challenge is that color is more than a visual experience. “Color affects you beyond what you see,” says Daly (as anyone slogging through a murky gray February Seattle day can attest). “As the light is hitting color, it’s affecting your body, because it’s hitting you with rays, even if you’re not looking at it.” Which is why you might find yourself calmer in a cool room, or revved up in spicy or red rooms. Sometimes really revved up. Daly says a woman at a color-consulting event spoke so enthusiastically about the earthy red paint she’d used in her bedroom that Daly impulsively asked her if she was having more sex as a result. The answer was an effusive “Yes!”
But back in my entry hall, I was more interested in welcoming guests than in front-door seduction. Ruby established my color comfort level on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being a fearless color lover; I picked 7). She also explained that she would be choosing her colors from the palette of one paint brand, Authentic Home Color Paint, a line of 75 colors with an eco-friendly no-VOC (volatile organic compound) base developed by local interior designer and fellow color consultant Kathy Banak. Seventy-five sounded limiting to me, but after Daly’s tip about the glut of bad paint colors, I figured there was sense in winnowing to only the best.
Ruby said we should start by picking colors for “the room with the most constraints.” We moved into my kitchen, where the yellow and slate checkerboard linoleum, blue-green tiled backsplash, warm wood cabinetry and black stove make a wall color choice tricky. Ruby says how colors play off each other is probably the most important thing to consider when selecting them. “A lot of people make the mistake of choosing their favorite color, rather than considering how it will look in context,” she says. My kitchen’s range of tones is apparently unusual—many of the kitchens Ruby sees are designed within one tone, with counters, floor, cabinets and appliances blending together. In that situation she might select a color with more depth, perhaps using a very dark hue echoing the richest tone in the wood to “pop” the cabinets, or whatever the client chooses as the star of the room. “Start there and build around it,” she suggests.
I had originally shied away from adding a new color to this already busy room, intending to paint the walls white. But Ruby explained that many of the colors in my kitchen are “heavy,” and light walls would make it harder for the eye to differentiate between them. She pulled out a large persimmon red paint sample. It was the last color I would have chosen, but when she slapped it against the cabinets, I saw immediately how it enhanced the warm wood and complemented my lively floor. It was right for the space. From there, Ruby moved quickly to the dining room (for which she chose Storm Blue), the living room (where she played off the kitchen and dining room colors and my sage couch with Leaf), and the entry hall (Lemongrass). When she handed me the stack of swatches, the colors looked harmonious and not at all bland.
Those solid transitions she’d first noticed were part of what made mine a good house for using different colors in each room. By contrast, new homes often have curved rather than sharp lines, called “radius corners,” between rooms, which makes it hard to change paint colors from one space to the next. This is also sometimes true in 1920s houses with coved ceilings and archways. In that case, Ruby says, it’s best to use all one color, or tones of the same color.
Among my paint swatches were darker and lighter versions of a champagne color. The first was for my ceilings, and the second for trim throughout the house. Ruby explained that if my house had little or unattractive trim, she would have painted it closer to the color of the walls, to avoid drawing attention to it. If I felt like being a little more adventurous, Ruby also suggested I could try chocolate or charcoal for the trim, which would intensify my wall colors. Woody Allen, she noted, had used dark trim for many of his movies’ Manhattan interiors.
So with the right paint I could end up looking a little like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall?
Oh, right. We were talking about my house, not me.
Choosing interior paint colors? Start at the top: Seattle color consultant Renate Ruby says ceilings should rarely be stark white, since it makes other colors look dingy. If your trim is white, the ceiling should be a slightly warmer white. Robin Daly of Wallingford’s Daly’s Paint and Decorating recommends home offices be painted in mid-value colors—not too light, not too dark. That will create less contrast—and lessen eyestrain—when your eye moves from the computer screen to the walls. Daly also says midcentury and newer homes with open floor plans are good places to play with accent or “feature” walls, where only one wall is painted a vibrant color. “People are afraid of dark colors,” says local color consultant Kathy Banak. Especially in Seattle, many people assume that dark colors will make it hard to see in a room. But if you paint a room in mid-tones or darker, the light will land on the people and things in the room, rather than on the walls.
Authentic Home Interior Design, Kathy Banak
Interior design and color consultation (and her own line of paint colors):
$350/hour (can create a palette for a 3,000-square-foot house in that time). 206.937.3070; authentic-home.com
Daly’s Paint and Decorating, several consultants available, including Robin Daly
Color consultation: $100/hour.
Renate Ruby Design
Interior color consultation: $250/90 minutes. Exterior consultation: $250/first meeting, $125/additional hour. 206.499.6220; renateruby.com
Queen Anne and Magnolia
Paint and Interiors
Color consultation: $150/hour, $60/
additional hour. 206.283.0880; queen-annemagnoliapaintandinteriors.com