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A Creative Life

Painting Stripes Part 1: Color

Oct 5, 2007

The process of painting stripes was a lot easier than I expected. It involved a few decisions, a healthy dose of planning, a little algebra, and a bit of color tweaking, but the actual masking and painting of stripes in our baby’s room went a lot faster than all other steps in my very ambitious nesting plan.

Yes: I do have relatively flat walls. By this, I mean: No wall is completely free of texture. However, if your walls are heavily textured, don’t let that discourage you from at least attempting the two tricks others claim can help you to get perfect stripe edges.

Having been successful at painting my stripes doesn’t make me an expert. This is not rocket science either. However, for those interested, I’ll share my experience and some of the decisions that went into making the finished product beautiful, subtle, and exactly what I was looking for.

stripes in morning light

Nursery in morning light

Since I managed to write quite a bit about this topic, I’ll split it in two or three parts. On this first post I’ll talk about color decisions. On next installments, I’ll discuss the design decisions and I’ll share my frugal, yet effective, method for taping perfectly straight stripes according to plan. Let’s begin…

The Goal

The danger with stripes is that they can make you feel like you’re trapped in a cage, particularly if the room is very small like the one I worked on. The trick to avoid this is to tone down the contrast between stripes. The more contrast, the more the darker stripes may look like bars, or the room like a circus tent. I wanted a very subtle textural effect that would look interesting without calling too much attention to itself.

Getting the right colors

Since color contrast was such a fine line I wanted to get right, I sampled paint colors. In my original design, the nursery would be green. However, after some paint testing we decided to go for yellow. This change of plans brought some very interesting surprises… Things I didn’t know about paint that, if you care about color (and most times, you probably won’t care this much), you may want to hear…

In the past, we have selected paint colors from a simple swatch at the store, usually cutting the color strength to 75%, 50%, or 25% in order to get lighter tones than the original color. It has always worked for us, and I’ve never thought twice about it. So, for this project, I picked a green and got a sample of it at 100% for the darker stripes, and at 50% and 25% to test for the lighter stripes.

Lesson 1

The paint swatch doesn’t always look like the real painted color. I knew this, that’s why I got paint samples.

Lesson 2

Light affects your appreciation of color. I knew this, that’s why I tested paint samples at home. The lighting at the store is totally different than the light your room gets in the morning (image above) and in the afternoon (below):

stripes in afternoon light

Nursery in afternoon light

Lesson 3

Separate paint chips don’t let you evaluate subtle effects well. I suspected this… At the store, the 100% green paint chip looked extremely close to the 50% paint chip, so I ordered a 25% sample. When I painted the test stripes at home I realized that 100% and 50% gave the perfect amount of contrast, while 100% and 25% was way to much and the stripes started to look like the bars of a cage. You couldn’t see that from just putting the two chips together. So my advice is: If you don’t sample the colors and test your effect at home, at least get the people at the store to paint the chip for you in a similar way to your planned finished product (e.g. for stripes, paint one color sample over the other one, don’t just put one paint chip over the other one).

testing green paint

Lesson 4 (This is the one I got this time)

Cutting the color’s strength is not such a good idea. For one, less colorants mean less paint coverage: You’ll probably need an extra coat to achieve the same coverage as if you had used the paint at full strength. More importantly, depending on the color you choose, it is possible that the formula may drop key colorants affecting the resulting color.

For instance, when I cut the strength of the green sample I got three perfectly related colors. However, when I did it with yellow (“Afternoon”), the lighter colors looked strangely different and away from the warmth of the original color. The reason why this happened is that the formula contained a very small amount of a gold colorant, and on anything below 100%, it was being dropped entirely. So my 100%, 50%, and 35% samples of Afternoon looked inconsistent, like they didn’t belong to the same family.

Although Afternoon at 100% and 50% were a little off, to the naked eye they looked close enough in warmth. However, in this case, the contrast of the stripes was way to subtle. You couldn’t see it with night light. On the other hand, 100% and 35% were too much contrast. Puzzled by the color inconsistency of the 35% sample I was afraid to just order a 43% sample. We took all my painted foam boards, paint chips, and swatches to the store, and that’s how we learned our lesson 4. So instead of cutting the strength of the color again, we decided to sample the next lighter swatch on the color palette (“Jonquil”) at 100%. The swatch for Jonquil looked exactly like my 50% painted sample of Afternoon… but you know… paint swatches are never right.

Just as I expected, I didn’t like it. Jonquil may be lighter than Afternoon, but also it’s less red. And I wanted both colors to have the same warmth. So, Adam, our Sherwin Williams guy that day, started mixing a custom color for us beginning with Jonquil. He began by adding red, which is exactly what we needed to get closer to the warmth of Afternoon.

Jonquil plus red looked extremely close to 50% Afternoon, so now we only needed to lighten it up to increase the contrast just a little bit. We started adding white in small increments: First 3 parts, then 9, then 15. I couldn’t tell the difference. It was Saturday morning and during all this process we met five other customers — they all wished us luck with our project, and Sherwin Williams? They have my business forever: Adam was absolutely kind and did all these color mixing iterations with a smile, willing to go the extra-mile to make me happy, and never making us feel guilty about the time he was spending on our case. I did feel a little guilty though, so I finally went for 30 parts of white, and looking at it on natural light, I could finally see the color slightly lighter than Afternoon 50%. So we stopped there. We let Adam choose a name for the custom color. He named it “The Rockin Yellow Match”.

Now we had a base color in the same family as the stripe color, and we just hoped that its lightness was just enough for the stripes to be visible at night, while keeping the subtle effect with day light.

With colors decided, I could now focus on design. That is: How many stripes, how wide, how uniform?… How to keep them from boxing us in the small room…

Painting Stripes

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