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Paint Chips: Life of a different color

January 24, 2012

I like looking at paint colors. I am drawn to those displays of racked samples in hardware, home improvement and paint stores. Of course I enjoy the variety of shades. I see a nice one and think of using it in a room, and reflecting on how life might be lived differently within my room of a different color. And I like awful colors too—yellow so bright it makes your eyeballs ache; greens so pinched and toxic they cause indigestion; a purple or red so lush, full and gravity heavy that if you stood between walls of it, it would crush you utterly like a black hole.

The whites fascinate me. Such a range! And stepped so subtly its almost impossible to tell one from another. I guess this vast range of hues is called Neutrals. The paint makers, (designers? colorists? huematologists? ) must start with the cleanest shade possible and then tint it drop-by-drop with brown to create their spectrum of off-whites—cream, ivory, sand, nude, ecru, eggshell—until they arrive at something that can’t pass for anything but beige, then go back to their ur-paint and start again with another tint.  (I want to call this perfectly bland paint achromatic, but I know that black is the negation of color while white is the sum of them all).

Building up the range of neutrals based on the primary and secondary colors leads to the other aspect of paint samples that so fascinates me: the names. How do they come up with all those names? What a job!

"Which is better, honey, "Falling in Love" or "Fainting Princess?" And don't tell me you can't tell the difference!

This is how I think they do it. There are five basic categories for the names: Food, Geology–including bodies of water, Botany, Zoology and emotions plus combinations of the same.

Let’s start with animals. What would you call an energetic orange? “Tiger.” There could be a really sleek, deep, grey called “Panther;” a warm, tawny tan labeled “Lion;” an icy white named “Snow Leopard.” The animal doesn’t have to match the color in real life: a restful blue meant for the nursery could be called “Sleepy Bunny.” The name, after all, is meant to market the paint and all marketing sells satisfying end results. No surprise then that you’ll see colors like “Popularity,” “Success,” “Gathering Place” and “Missing Mother-in-Law.”

A happy yellow might be “Sunshine,” “Buttercup,” “Arizona Ochre” or “Nacho.” Although all the paint lines use all the conventions and you aren’t restricted to use just one company, I have found that a person choosing a palette will tend to names that all fall into one family. Our house is painted in foods: “Ginger,” “Shrimp,” “Milky Way” and “Roxbury Caramel” among them. While our friend Judy is all emotion: “Bashful,” “Satisfaction,” “Dreamland.”

Speaking of food colors, Spencer showed me a shade (of a pair of pants) that can be called “Umami” because it was unlike any color we’d ever seen. In fact it didn’t seem to be any one color at all. It modulated between brown and eggplant purple with intermittent stops at a kind of formal grey with olive undertones. What might one do in a room like that?

Going through the tunnel between United Airlines' two O'Hare Airport terminals is like walking through a giant rack of paint samples.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2012 11:28 am

    Complete agree, how DO they come up with the names?! “‘Which is better, honey, ‘Falling in Love’ or ‘Fainting Princess?’ And don’t tell me you can’t tell the difference!” – loved this caption. Great post. Also, that last picture is gorgeous, and you’re right, definitely looks like giant paint swatches!


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