I’m like most men—comfortable discussing colors using one-syllable words like red, blue, green, or brown. Orange and yellow make me a little nervous, and anything that sounds French, even monosyllabic French, brings on a queasiness of stomach, a rolling of eyes, and a desire to go outside and chase something. Try it and see: taupe, beige, mauve, or (shudder)—ecru.
I was recently in a paint store with my wife. While she was pouring over the 3,000 shades of yellow to find the right one for our bathroom (“the color of butter, but fresh butter, straight from the farm”), I noticed a young couple doing the same thing. The wife was studying 40 tabs of off-white, placing them next to one another as if that would reveal some profound truth, while her husband sat with arms crossed and a scowl on his face. “Just pick one,” he said, “and I’ll tell you if I hate it.”
Now, as a man enjoying my second marriage, I could tell that he was going about this in entirely the wrong way. For his benefit, and men like him, here are my seven secrets for discussing paint colors that you don’t see or care about:
Take it outside. This is what the experts do. Natural light is very different from indoor light, and even indoors, incandescent light bulbs are different from fluorescent. Trust me on this one. So when your wife asks your opinion on 2 or 3 colors, repeat what I just told you about light and take it outside. You probably won’t notice any difference except that everything will appear brighter if the sun is shining. But at least you get to go outside for a while.
Use the plural. When your wife asks you what color you think the television room should be, don’t say, “tan” or “green” or “I don’t care.” Say something like, “I was thinking of greens.” Maybe you were, maybe you weren’t—it doesn’t matter, since we all know that she is going to pick the color anyway. But answering in the plural marks you as a sensitive guy who is aware that there is more than one shade of green. This will be worth some points down the road, though I have yet to discover where.
“There’s X in it.” Here’s one that took me years to figure out: No paint color is what it is. There’s a base color, and then a bunch of other colors are added and the result is blue or red or whatever. The discriminating eye—my wife—can look at a brown and conclude, “There’s red in it,” and other women will nod in agreement. Well, you can learn to nod just as wisely. And you can also pronounce, when looking at a blue wall, “There’s green in it.” Here’s the funny part: You may start doing this randomly to appear sensitive and discriminating, but if you stay with it, you’ll start getting it right more and more often. In fact, I’m starting to believe that my wife is correct—there really is green in that yellow wall in our dining room.
Tapdance. This strategy is based on two assumptions: 1) Your wife will eventually choose the color anyway, and 2) You don’t want to suggest that you “don’t care.” Some fancy footwork might help you through this minefield. Sigh and explain how the light is different depending on the time of day, or that the color changes depending on what is next to it (as in that green couch, which has some blue in it), or that it depends on whether it’s drywall or plaster, the size of the paint sample, the nap on the roller, etc. Hold something up to it—a pillow, a piece of curtain, whatever—and turn your head about 30 degrees to the side as you stare and frown. Warning: Most women catch on to this one fairly quickly, as they don’t like being made fun of. If you sense that she is staring at you rather than the paint samples, take it outside.
The name game. If you ever actually look at those color tabs that your wife brings home from the paint store, you’ll be surprised to learn that all those colors actually have names. You might want to pick your color based on which one has the coolest name—much the way I pick horses at the racetrack, and probably with the same results. Anyway, one way to discuss colors with your wife is to toss around those color names as if they were real. When she asks what color you would like the bathroom to be, say something like “morning rose,” “peppermint,” or “summer evening.” (OK—I confess I’ve never dared to try this strategy, but I enjoy imagining the look on my wife’s face if I actually said “summer evening.”) You can have fun with this one. The color for your living room? How about “putting green” (a real color name I saw), or “light lager,” or “nice pear.”
“It Works.” This is an important phrase. I know this because they use it a lot on HGTV. As in, “That couch works in the living room,” or “This color works on this wall.” The nearest I can figure out, “works” falls somewhere between “is the same as” and “clashes with.” The meaning is close to “blends,” but “blend” is too much like “bland.” I suggest you think of a color “working” in a room the way you think of your relationship with your wife. You certainly aren’t the same, but you don’t go together as badly as the clothes you wore before your wife started dressing you. No, you “work” as a couple because you are just different enough to keep things interesting.
Following publication of the above, several folks have responded with their own stories:
We are redoing our kitchen. That means my opinion has been sought out on the color not only of the walls, but also the cabinets, the countertop, and the backsplash with and without accents. . We are now appraising all possible combinations of the different colors under consideration each. Several weeks into the process, we are considering 4 shades for the walls, 3 finishes for the cabinets, 2 tiles for the backsplash, and one countertop. And yes, we have been listening to The Twelve Days of Christmas. It is a good thing I am retired.
Sorry, guys, but you have no idea. My wife was (is) an interior designer. I painted our master bedroom walls four times, and for $1000 I could not tell you the difference between any of the four colors. Levine definitely has this dialed in. Seriously, it is a continuing source of amusement.
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No one has even mentioned the issue of "warm" and "cold" colors. My wife has explained this to me many many times, and I still couldn't tell you if a color is warm or cold. I have come to believe that these color guys moonlight as wine reviewers.
I have always felt that the biggest difference between men and women was not the y chromosome or anatomy, but rather the size of the box of crayons. My Crayola box held 8 crayons. There were 3 primary colors, three secondary colors, black and white. After a while I was able to learn which ones matched and which ones clashed. My wife's Crayola box had 128 crayons. Forget burnt umber. She had mauve, taupe, puce, and fuscia. I have no idea what these are but she brings them up in conversations regarding clothing and home decorations and furnishings I am baffled so I fall back on the thing that I learned during my first week in husband school , and which I use to this day "Yes dear".I am comforted to know that I am not alone.
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Ten minutes ago a blinds salesman left our home. We moved to a new condo last April and needed to put new blinds in one of our rooms so that our grandchildren could sleep over. This guy had a bunch of samples. These appeared to me to be light browns and tans. He and my wife went through a process of elimination and the final three contenders were taupe, flax, and ambrosia. After nodding my head in agreement and saying "yes dear" a number of times, They (my wife and the salesman) decided on ambrosia. I'm sure that when they are installed, I will forget the commercial color and think of them as the tan blinds in the den.
I certainly have enjoyed the tutorial and subsequent discussion, and I must say that it has made me realize just how blessed I have been all these years.
I live in a magic house with a great artist (see http://www.buffalosocietyofartists.com/?select=news&type=video&data=lynn_northrop )
In my entire married life I have never been asked about my opinion of a paint color. Furthermore, I am not asked if I like it when it is finished, and, best of all, I don't even have to paint it.
Life is good, peace to all.
Carl does have it dialed in. Just last week my beloved and I were having what I considered a frustrating " discussion " on the color of some Xmas ornaments and rather than allowing the discussion to become elevated I turned to my I-pad and discovered that women see many more colors/ shades than men. Who knew! !Here we are at 72 and this revelation occurs. But take heart Van Gogh et al knew what to do with what he had. Carl you would not look good in a taupe shirt. All these designers have come up with about 40 or 50 shades of white. We just need to stick with the basics. Evergreens are green and ribbons are red and Merry Xmas and Happy Holidays to All.
I also have to say, that I must be a man deep down inside, because I have looked at the paint chips with the very best of intentions and have gotten it wrong time and time again. I never see the red in it, or the blue undertones. I just don't. And I hate to linger...there are pictures waiting to be taken while I'm in Lowe's wasting my life looking at paint chips. So I just pick something, tell Marc that it'll be fine, spend $82 on 2 gallons, throw it on the wall and then step back and think, oh what a disaster this is - how is it possible that I did it again?!?...This has happened so many times to me (and poor Marc) that you would really just cut my estimated IQ in half.
Dave, I wanted to mention that I have run into a variation on the problem of talking to a wife about color. It is how to talk with your wife about wallpaper. Some of the color issues resurface and several others emerge that found me unprepared. I handled peelable and stripable well enough and I managed to address stripes, but when the conversation turned to florals, geometrics, grasscloth, and print size, I was on shaky ground. Taking a cue from your blog, I did come up with some lines that seemed to help. Does the color go with the furniture/tile floor/ hardwood floor/rug or will we want a new carpet? Considering who will be using the room, might we want it to be more masculine (with a geometric) or more feminine (with a floral)? Do you think we should be a bit bolder/less bold? Is the print too large/small for the room; after all we don't want to be shouting at our guests? Are you sure you could live with it after a month or two? Still a work in progress here.--Joe Moran