Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Thinking in color




Tara O’Neill

Recently I was asked by a fearlessly inquisitive art collector why so many artists wear black, or shades of grey, or neutral brown. “I mean,” said my inquirer, “their stock in trade is, generally, color.” It’s true, we often mute ourselves.

The best answer I ever heard to that oft-asked question came recently from Brian Curtis, head of the drawing department at University of Miami, and a much lauded oil painter. Mr. Curtis explained to a roomful of workshop participants (part of the Naples Philharmonic Lifelong Learning program) that colors are so emotionally evocative, that it was only natural that artists would be exceptionally sensitive to the effects of color. He said, speaking for himself, that he couldn‘t possibly commit to clothing color that would be able to suit his mood all day, not even hour to hour. Bells pealed laughingly in my head.

I know blues soothe, reds are exciting, yellows happy; orange has been known to incite anger, it is the color of caution, of danger, of warning. But play orange next to its color wheel neighbors, red or yellow, and it becomes a fiesta. True colors tinted with white are felt as sweet, cheerful: think pink, sky blue, lavender. Not for nothing do green traffic lights mean go; in a study on the effects of wall paint for commercial enterprises it was found that certain shades of green made people move along quicker.

But back to Curtis’s statement on commitment. Several years ago, when the time came to paint the exterior of my tiny forever – a – work – in – progress Goodland bungalow, my first choice was pink, inspired by other sweet and cheerful coastal cottages. Until I realized that I couldn’t commit to being that cheerful or sweet every single day (and face it, having a cranky day in a sweetly cheerful house is not just a chance to add insult to injury…it’s embarrassing). After nearly two years of sweating pigments I finally chose a muted yellow: a yellow that wasn‘t too happy, yet bespoke true contentment. Why live a lie?

Then it came time to paint the interior of this bite-sized home wherein you could see every room from every room.



My three artful sisters arrived from afar, and at great expense, to form a painting party. To a one they found it surprising (okay, hilarious) that I was so indecisive as to color choices – believing that their sister (the artist) should have an expert handle on her “stock in trade.” Okay, this was embarrassing. Doe in the headlights.

I can confidently invoke a mood on canvas through the use of color, but choosing colors that I had to actually live in/ with?

Just tell us your theme? Did I already say “doe in the headlights?”

I went, not so surprisingly, for fruit salad: a pineapple bathroom, a banana living room with a honeydew accent wall, and lastly a cantaloupe bedroom. (Thank heavens the kitchen walls were tiled.) All went well until the bedroom. The. Bedroom. My eyes got so overloaded I couldn’t pick a color from a verb. Bless the dear heart at the paint counter for even listening to me without a trace of panic. Cantaloupe?

The bedroom paint came home and, serves me right, was a sweet and cheerful shade of pink. I never said a word at the time, I probably said too much later. I love my sisters, and they love me. They supported all my choices, they worked their bottoms off, and we had a delicious time together.

Will I ever again pick a paint color that is not perfect? Absolutely – ask my husband about the great (horrific) acid-green hallway experiment (now a lovely shade of moss). After all, it’s only paint, but they’re my walls.

Art that makes a strong statement can do well against neutral walls. But neutral doesn’t mean dull. True neutral tones are made by mixing equal amounts of colors that are opposites on the color wheel [yellow/purple, blue/orange, red/green, etc.] In those pairings, if you give just the slightest nudge of one color over another, you can enhance the balance, but still have room for mood swings.

Tara O’Neill, a lifelong artist, has been an area resident since 1967. She holds Bachelors Degrees in Fine Arts and English from the University of South Florida, and currently has a studio-gallery at the Artist Colony at the Esplanade on Marco Island. Contact her through 

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