The play of light and color

After the color makeover

When I first posted some of the MLS photos of my place near Aspen, one of my designer friends asked, “Were the people who owned it colorblind?”

That made me chuckle. I don’t think that there was anything wrong with their eyes; I could see what they were trying to do with the colors in the house. They were trying to make it lively, but I don’t think that they quite understood how to pull a unified palette together. They didn’t understand that certain colors had cultural roots, or that particular materials evoked places and styles that were also associated with color palettes.

Nor did they know much about light.

Color reflects light of course, and it also changes light. One can learn this via observation, by studying design, and through experimentation.

The room before the color makeover

Before: the chocolate brown half-wall. It's also visible (barely in the dark) in the "before" photo above.

The brown wall repainted with five colors in a dry-brush technique.

Of course, judgement plays a role. As the witty Michael Adams, president of BJ Adams and Company real estate in Aspen asked me a couple months ago, “Do you know where good judgement comes from?”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll bite. Where does good judgement come from?”

“From experience,” he answered. “And do you know where experience comes from?”

“I bet you’re going to tell me.”

“Yes! It comes from bad judgement.”

Oh yeah, that rings true. We all learn by making mistakes. Some years ago, I painted a rather gloomy dining room a coral pink, hoping to warm it up. The color didn’t work as I had hoped. The room did look warmer, but still a bit gloomy. There simply wasn’t enough light in the room, and the place still looked dark.

The room has a lovely, rustic Mexican tile floor. It is a saltillo tile inset with blue Talavera diamonds. I think that those blue tiles were probably what inspired the home’s owners to paint the dining room wall a dark blue — a color that positively sucks the light out of the room.

In the case of this current dining room – which was also somewhat dark as the “before” photos show – the home’s owners hoped to pick up on a color that is prominent in one of the room’s nicer features and play it up.

Vibrant blue can be stunning on walls in the right situation. The Hotel Casa Azul in Antigua, Guatalemala, where I stayed during the wedding of my friends Diana Reid and Terry  Hanold, comes to mind. Amid bougainvillea, palms and tropical light, the hotel’s grotto-like reception area and deep blue walls are soothing.

Detail of the Talavera tile floor with the cobalt blue inset

But in Colorado, where the light may be reflecting off snow on the porch, that blue is chilling. Worse, when the natural light comes from a single source, it’s important to bounce the light as far into the interior as possible.

A mirror or a white wall will do the trick, but that deep blue wall shown in the “before” picture simply sucks the light out of the room. (Interestingly, the reflectance of a white wall is as good as a mirror, both of them having an albedo rating of one.)

In the case of this dining room, the gloom cast by the blue wall was further deepened by painting the half-wall between the dining room and living room a dark, chocolate brown. The interior doors were painted black.

To repair these design mistakes, the room was painted a warm white (the color is Sherwin Williams’ “downey”). New paneled doors replaced the ugly slab doors, which were also painted white. This made quite a difference, as the before and after photos below will show.

The brown half wall, which has a rough, uneven texture was art-painted in five earthtone colors – terracotta, amber, poppy gold, butter gold and ivory – in a dry brush stroke. The colors were chosen to pick up and extend the natural colors of the floor tile.

To pick up on that deep, cobalt blue, I went back to the cultural source of the tile: Mexico. Talavera tile comes in beautiful hues, typically a wine red, poppy yellow and cobalt blue, mixed with other coordinated shades.

Detail of Talavera tile on the mirror showing the typical Talavera palette - Tuscan pottery uses a similar color palette and is used to great effect in kitchens

Talavera is a type of majolica earthenware that dates back to the 16th century. It has a white base glaze, over which patterns are hand painted.  

Authentic Talavera pottery comes from the city of Puebla and the nearby communities of Atlixco, Cholula and Tecali.

A Talavera palette is brought into the room with a large, beaten tin mirror that is ornamented with tile. (The mirror is 33″ in diameter, and was purchased from La Fuente imports in San Diego.)

The Latin theme is further elaborated with Guatemalan textiles; that’s one draped over the golden-hued half wall in the “after” photo above.  Somehow,  the light is now soft and the colors are glowing. When it’s right, you feel it as much as you see it — and I feel very, very good in this room.

Before: Black doors

After: white doors



De colores,
De colores se visten los campos en la primavera.
De colores,
De colores son los pajaritos que vienen de afuera.
De colores,
De colores es el arco iris que vemos lucir.
Y por eso los grandes amores de muchos colores
Me gustan a mí. 


3 thoughts on “The play of light and color

  1. Hello! Because you are such an inspiring local voice in the home and design industry, I hoped you’d be willing to feature a piece on Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver’s Dream House Raffle. I think this would be a great way to support a local nonprofit, and an event in the community that your readers would love to know about. We have dozens of gorgeous photos of the house, and more information about our organization, the home, and the raffle! I’m happy to answer any questions you have, and for more information about the house feel free to visit or contact me at!
    Thanks and keep up the good work on your blog!

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