Color pros

Flipping through a stack of paint color chips, it’s hard not to focus on the names: What color is “Carolina Parakeet?” Can you describe the particular shade “Mesmerize” is meant to represent? Could you live with “Warm Muffin” walls?

“I think they must have wine parties where they come up with the paint color names,” says Christine Frisk, owner of In Unison Design in Minneapolis when she talks about the often ridiculous monikers paint companies assign their hundreds of hues. “I hesitate to give clients the color names because of how they misrepresent the color, and I want them to enjoy it for what it is, not what it’s named.”

Silly names are just one way people get tripped up when it comes to choosing the perfect paint colors, a process that intimidates even the most decisive of homeowners into sticking with plain white walls. “Everyone knows the potential color has: It can create an intimate environment, a formal environment; it can enhance architecture, and it’s supposed to be a reflection of who you are,” says Molly McKinney, a color consultant and owner of Molly McKinney Palettes in Minneapolis. With such weighty expectations, it can be hard to trust your own instincts, or know which elements of a room paint color should play up — or, for that matter, hide.

Calling the consultants

Many homeowners dealing with a color conundrum turn to professionals like Frisk and McKinney for guidance. Typically that means a color consultant comes to the home to assess the room or rooms (or even exterior) in need of a colorful update.

“I like to talk about what a homeowner’s desires are from function and design perspectives,” says Frisk. “They might say they have kids, so that’s a factor, and I look at what resides in the space: furnishings, carpeting, draperies. I use those items to inform the direction of the color.”

McKinney similarly describes the color selection process as “collaborative.” Clients point out a specific piece of art they want to stand out, or tell McKinney they absolutely positively can’t stand any shade of yellow.

She also incorporates the colors of adjoining rooms to make sure the palettes make sense together. “You want to keep building on the color by making sure to you look at what’s been done in connecting spaces so it looks like they belong together,” McKinney explains.

Frisk likens the process to one many women will find familiar: “If you’re looking for a dress, you run your choice by a girlfriend just to get their reaction,” she explains. “It can be difficult to settle on the best decision for yourself without feedback. With a consultant you can solidify your design concept instead of waffling back and forth.”

Consultants are also conscious of encouraging clients to experiment with color while respecting that not everyone can pull off a cherry-red kitchen color. “If someone is reacting in a certain way, I tone it down, but I explain why taking a risk can pay off,” says McKinney.

The increasing popularity of channels like HGTV and the DIY network have also led to more adventurous clients, which makes the job more fun for both McKinney and Frisk.

Go bold

A year ago I bought a home in Kingfield that had previously been a rental property, which meant every wall was painted the same bland shade of cream. The overwhelmingly neutral palette inspired me to immediately paint the kitchen two shades of green (Grass Cloth, a lime color, and Grapevine, a darker green accent wall) with red accents. “Skinned Kermit” is probably more accurate.

And that’s as far as I got.

Despite my early motivation with the kitchen colors, I wasn’t sure what to do in the dining and living space; there seemed to be too much to consider. Should the colors complement the bright greens? Play off the furniture? Accent the unique arch between the two rooms?

Enter McKinney, toting stacks of fan decks and an air of decisiveness. She immediately started asking questions to help guide her selection: “Do you spend a lot of time in here? Is it usually in the evening only? Is this the furniture you’ll be keeping in the room?”

I suggest that the chosen wall color should highlight the home’s natural woodwork, and McKinney gets to work. She selects shades of eggplanty purple and walks around the room holding the swatches next to the woodwork, furniture, and in different dark corners and brighter walls.

“The wrong color will make your woodwork look orange,” she says, holding up a gold-hued shade that instantly made the wood sallow, emphasizing her point. Moving slightly down the palette, McKinney holds up a lighter version of the same color that instantly invigorates the room. “What do you think?”

Could I go that bold? McKinney senses my hesitation and jots down both the eggplant color and the gold hue for me to consider, then suggests tempering the living room by considering a grey shade in the adjoining dining room.

“You can bridge the color in your living room and the bright color in the kitchen with this kind of neutral,” she explains, putting the swatch next to my dining room table to show how the safe color worked well with the piece. I nod.

After nearly two hours of talking, holding up swatches and turning on various lights to see how they affect color, McKinney is ready to write up her color palette prescription for me: My year of hemming and hawing is boiled down to four color suggestions. Could it be this easy?

“Well, you have to paint it yourself,” laughs McKinney.

DIY Color Tips

1. Don’t follow trends

Both McKinney and Frisk say trendy colors aren’t a factor when they assess a space. “I know color trends are forecasted every year, but I don’t pay attention because I want to work in color and design that feels more timeless,” says Frisk. “I use information from the client to determine colors instead of a trend board.”

2. Test the color in more than one spot

McKinney recommends painting your prospective color on a sample board (paint stores sell primed boards that are ready to go) so you can move the color around the room and see how it looks in different light. “Painting a swatch on the wall doesn’t let you see the color in different places,” says McKinney. “And a painted board can be put away, while you’re stuck with the paint on the wall.”

3. Use proper lighting

A great paint color is nothing without the right lights; don’t spend the time and effort on the perfect shade of purple only to have your lighting turn it into an inky black. “Lighting is extremely important in how color renders itself,” says Frisk. “Light and color go hand in hand.”

For more information

Molly McKinney

Christine Frisk