What Makes Architectural Color So Confusing?

ColorIQ ScholarshipThere’s a lot of people searching for the magic answer to easily select color for their homes, and even more people telling them how to do it. The problem is that all this free advice is based on generic color theory which has little to do with architectural color! While some of it is correct (in a sense) trying to apply basic color theory to architectural color just doesn’t work because there is another component. The paint itself.

Hopefully, I can clear up some of the most common myths or misconceptions about color to truly make color selection understandable and at the very least manageable. Learning to identify characteristics of color in architectural coatings is simply a new way of looking at things.

Perfectly True Gray

Here’s a fact, there is no such thing as a perfect neutral or “true ” gray in architectural color. It doesn’t exist! Yet, homeowners and even color savvy designers are forever trying to hunt down this elusive color.  Here’s the problem. First, pure paint (base before any colorant has been added) already has a secondary color of blue due in part to the Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) in the paint. TiO2 provides high coverage as well as the ability to tint the base in a wider variety of colors. Secondly, there is no such thing as a true black colorant. In reality black colorant is actually a very dark blue. Think of a black ink pen. Have you ever dropped liquid on a note written in black ink? If so, you may have also noticed that the ink turned blue as it was diluted. This is the same case with black colorant. So if we assume that black (tint) and white (paint base) would make a true gray, we would be wrong. What you will really have is a dull blue color. In natural light this can appear to be quite blue with even though there is not blue in the actual formula. The following illustration shows a gray that( in theory) would be neutral, an architectural gray with black and white colorant+ the inherent color of the paint base it’s mixed in and last, the same paint as it would appear in natural light. Some of the most beautiful, sophisticated blues in fact have no blue colorant in them!

Neutral Gray

Warm and Cool Colors

In grade school we begin learning about the color wheel and the characteristics of color. Purple, blue, green or one half of the color wheel are considered cool colors and yellow orange and red are considered warm colors. While this is true on a color wheel, it is not true in architectural color. Working with architectural color simply requires a shift in our understanding color. Yes, you can call me a color anarchist, but I promise you if you put your color wheel aside for a moment and approach this with an open mind you might be pleasantly surprised!

In architectural color there are warm and cool versions of every color. Yes, there are warm blues and there are cool oranges, warm greens and cool reds!  These characteristics are all derived by the colorant used to create each color. An expert colorist knows and understands the combinations of colorants that will produce warm or cool versions of each color and can easily put colors together in a context that will look and feel right. Just because that beautiful paint chip you’ve been eyeing for your master bedroom says blue doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a cool color! Color schemes start going awry when warm colors are mixed with cool colors. Keeping the temperatures equal in a color palette will always be soothing and feel “right”

warm and cool colors

Neutrals and Achromatics

What is a neutral color? Well, in a broad sense most people would describe it as a beige or tan. Actually a neutral is a color that has an equal amount of color characteristics so that no one characteristic is obvious or stands out. An architectural neutral is completely derived from the colorant used in the formula + the characteristic of color from the actual paint base. For example the color Taupe is not necessarily a neutral because it has a discernible characteristic of red.

Achromatics on the other hand are defined as “lacking color” and according to the color wheel that would be black or white. In architectural color however, achromatics are defined as a paint color that derives it’s color from what is surrounding it. You could call it a “chameleon”. Often these colors are complex or full-spectrum and can be composed of up to 12 tints which makes these colors perfect for bridging disparate colors such as carpet, trim, wood cabinets, etc. Because they are composed of so many tints, achromatic colors make easy transitions and are pleasing to the eye. Achromatics are often described as “muddy” colors but can be quite beautiful on their own especially when paired with a contrasting white.


Undertones vs. Nuance

This is a  concept that has fooled even the most experienced color consultant. Again it is simply a matter of trying to apply color theory to architectural color. As we discussed above, mixing a gallon of paint in a desired color is not the same as mixing artists color on a palette. In the tinting system there is a finite # of colorants (10-16). These colorants are dispensed in a quart or gallon of paint (that we already learned has a bias of blue) to create a color. Tints create only four undertones, red, yellow, blue and green. It would be incorrect to say that there is a pink undertone or a purple undertone to a paint color. There is however what a color designer calls “nuance” that will further describe the color. Think of nuance as a color personality. For example I may have selected a brown color with a red undertone and a pink nuance. But I wouldn’t say I have a brown color with a pink undertone because pink undertones just don’t exist. Why is this distinction important? Because it would be nearly impossible not to mention frustrating to match nuance within a color scheme, but matching undertones would be quite easy. Also, the nuance of a color can be subjective but the undertone is always the same and this gives us infinitely more color combinations to work with.

undertone - nuance-01

Hopefully this clears up some common misconceptions about paint color and makes your life a bit easier. If you are looking to expand your color knowledge to a true color professional level, please check out the ColorIQ complete training for color professionals and join one of our certification classes either online or in the classroom. If you have a question or would like professional color help for your home, please email me at teresa@businessofcolor.com

* The above illustrations are meant to simulate actual paint colors. If you are interested in the names of actual paint colors that you can preview in person, please contact me teresa@businessofcolor.com

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