Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this story referred to the dominant work in a gallery with pine green walls as a painting. It is a wood etching. This version has been corrected.

The Art of Color

Kehinde Wiley's works in the "RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture" exhibit hang against a blue wall because the color makes the paintings stand out, says Nello Marconi of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
Kehinde Wiley's works in the "RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture" exhibit hang against a blue wall because the color makes the paintings stand out, says Nello Marconi of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery)
By Anne Kenderdine
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 7, 2008

Kehinde Wiley's paintings at the National Portrait Gallery, of hip-hop stars posed like 17th- to 19th-century moguls in famous portraits, use colors so intense it would be hard to find a wall paint worthy of them.

That job falls to a team of museum staff that weighs design possibilities for every exhibit. For Wiley's canvases, they winnowed paint samples for the rooms to two options, either an olive green or a vivid blue.

"Both colors worked well, but we liked what the blue tended to do to the paintings, how it made them pop," says Nello Marconi, chief of design and production for the National Portrait Gallery for 31 years. In the end, he says, the green "wasn't as offbeat and striking and shocking as the paintings are." They chose Benjamin Moore's Brilliant Blue.

We all obsess over what color to paint the walls in our home and how to pick shades that look right with each other and with our belongings. Here's one way to get ideas: Go to a museum. There, on a large expanse of wall, you can see colors painstakingly selected by pros. Even though those spaces contain grand architectural details and priceless pieces, the designers whose decisions shape our museum experience have to make the same choices consumers do.

"It's very similar to the way someone would go about doing it in their own home," says Catherine Armour, chair of design and an exhibition designer for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, who has a background as an architect and an interior designer. "The first thing we do is look at the character of the space: Is it a living space? Is it a dining space?" Or, in the museum setting, she would ask, "What's the story behind this exhibition?"

The next step, she and other exhibition designers say, is to think about the style of the things that will go in that space. "Modern art always looks best on white walls," says Claire Larkin, special projects director and acting chief of the exhibitions department for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In working with pieces from older periods, designers look for historically accurate color families to match the exhibition's theme.

At the Portrait Gallery, Marconi uses almost imperceptible variants of the same color in three adjoining galleries. The window and door trim are different in each room, and, as Marconi specifies, the color always changes where the trim connects at the inside corner, not on a facade edge.

On the second floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, two galleries of the museum's permanent collection show how opposites attract. Think back to elementary school art class: If you put the basic rainbow colors one right after another in a circle (a color wheel), green would be across from red, so green and red are opposites. The museum designers paired those opposite colors in two ways. Artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing often used green tones in his paintings, so the designers chose a dusty rose color for a room of his works. In the room across the hall, the colors reverse: The wall color is pine green, which brings out the red tones in the wood of that room's dominant piece.

Strong colors work only in measured doses, says Larkin, pointing out a room painted a "voluptuous" red to set off Hiram Powers's white marble sculptures. Imagine if the museum had used that color in a larger gallery: "It's like too much chocolate cake at a birthday party; you can max out on it," she says

Eliza Rathbone, chief curator of the Phillips Collection, encourages home painters to "tone it down," to try out a paint color in a space first and to avoid picking a color solely because you liked it in a museum. Because of a gallery's custom lighting, she says, "a lot of colors will look a lot different in the museum than in your home."

Inspired by soft grays at the museum, including the color (Benjamin Moore's Silver Fox) anchoring the museum's current exhibit of black-and-white photographs by Brett Weston, Rathbone has been experimenting with similar shades in her own house. "Neutrals are very restful," she says.

Larkin, another fan of neutrals, especially praises those she calls "ambiguous," not a pure, specific color but made up of many different colors. Such colors change how they appear, depending on the light and what's next to them. For an example, see the museum's Luce Foundation Center, a three-level open hall painted a beige/taupe. Or be a guest in Larkin's kitchen: "Our whole house is painted colors from the museum."


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