I studied painting in college. On the first day of class my professor George walked in and pointed to a wooden table. His voice boomed "WHAT COLOR IS THIS TABLE?" Everyone answered, "brown", and at the same time I said "yellow". I got sideways glances; the table was brown. I don't remember what George's point was, but I do remember why my gut reaction was yellow. It had a yellow undertone, so I said the color that first came to mind if I were to start doing a painting of the table. I would start with a yellow, and then layer more colors together to make the brown. I wouldn't go straight to the brown. At least that's what I think 19 year old me thought.
George turned out to be an amazing and intuitive professor. He quickly introduced me to the work of the Ashcan artists, a group of early 20th century expressive artists who painted everyday realness, which was exactly what I needed to see. I learned to trust my intuition, keep underpainting, and also to keep blurting out the not-so-obvious-maybe-wrong answer.
WHAT COLOR IS THIS SPACE GOING TO BE is how I begin every interior project. It's not exactly literal, but it's my way of starting the process of figuring stuff out. It's recognizing the first strong notion, and it leads to a sense of what the space is going to feel like overall. It often comes from the gut. It's felt, and then built upon.
When I was first learning to paint I was inspired by artists that didn't paint straight out of the tube, but mixed colors by hand, and thought while they worked. They made statements through their layers and didn't just rely on the last layer saying it all. And sometimes they left a glimpse of the undertone to be seen in the finished piece! That is the best.
The interior spaces I admire have the same kind of engaging layering and tones. Just like paintings. Intentional? Intuitive reactions? Probably both. But as a whole, the tones and layers of things found, and things made, work together. It's not a simple one-note show.
Here are some images of incredibly tonal, moody, layered, rich works of art that inspired me then and still do now.
Paintings (from top): The Big Dory by George Bellows. Carmine Theatre by John Sloan. 1913 Rain, Rooftops, West 4th St., by John Sloan. Cumulus Clouds East River, by Robert Henri. Allen Street by George Luks.
Real life interiors: (from top) Home of Sean Macpherson as photographed by Todd Selby for theselby.com, Home of Pauline Forster of The George Tavern as photographed by Todd Selby for theselby.com, Home of Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch as photographed by Don Freeman for The Monacelli Press. Film still: From Three Colours Trilogy, Bleu. Roman and Williams Interiors, Viceroy Hotel.