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The geography of paint


The problem with paint is color.


All of its other qualities—cost, coverage, ease of application, durability—are pretty easily resolved by shopping around and seeking advice from friends and neighbors. We’re great fans, for instance, of Farrow & Ball, a British brand that is clay-based, goes on like butter melting into warm toast, smells like freshly mown grass, emits zero EOCs, and washes up with water. You could drink the damned stuff; it’s that safe. Of course, it sells for $85 a gallon. Granted, it covers with one coat, but that’s still a pretty stiff price. On the wall, though, it looks so much like velvet that you’ll want to touch. We’ve used Farrow & Ball just once, and only because two gallons were a gift.

Now that I think about it, manhattans go for a lot more than $85/gallon.

Regarding color, the F&B palette is astounding, but I suspect not to everyone’s taste. Its principal ingredient is clay, after all, from the same pits that Josiah Wedgwood got clay for his Jasperware. So the F&B colors tend toward the earthy: light pastels, but also deep saturated colors that I’ve seen from no other company. My friend Cecil assayed my Victorian color sense this way: “You’re not happy with a color until they’ve added a bucket of shit.” I suppose that’s pretty much what Farrow & Ball have done.

Once again Elliott proves to have been a prophet.


Is there a room somewhere, dimly lit and padded, where a passel of poets imagine the names of colors? Where chips are slipped through a slot in the wall, and in the room’s minimal whiteness, deprived of any view or vista that might cloud judgment or prejudice the imagination, names emerge—as if from a ouija board? I’ve always wanted the job. But my thinking would be colored (so to speak) by Monty Python or J. K. Rowling. What is the color of lark’s vomit, anyway? Or how might colors parallel the taste of Bertie Botts “Every Flavor Beans”? What’s the color, for example, of ear wax?

There’s a geography of color, too. Yes, “heather” is a plant, but one so connected with the Highlands of Scotland as to be geographic, as much as botanical. So, what about “Cactus”? Whole collections of color can imply a particular place: Bermuda or the Caribbean, the Greek islands, the Grand Canyon. Some pigments are geologic and, therefore, geographic. Siena. Umber. My recent encounter with color has been geographic in a cartographic way.

If you happen to own rental property, never, I repeat, never allow tenants to paint their own apartment. Yes, the place probably needs it—housekeeping being what it has become these days—but don’t be seduced by the economy of a discount on rent for the tenant’s own sweat equity. Painterly competence has a broader range than the light spectrum from infra-red to ultra-violet, and like those two “colors” some efforts ought not be seen by the human visual apparatus. Only once has this worked out.

But if you should trust their skill, never, I repeat again, never allow them to choose their own paint colors. There is much to be said for beige, especially after they’ve visited the Re-Store and succumbed to whatever remaindered, rejected, or unclaimed buckets happen to be available that week. A “Martha Stewart Living” label is often more valuable than the contents of the can.

I’ve spent several weekends eliminating the color choices of a previous tenant: one that we call “Don’t-run-me-over Highway-Department Orange” and an olive green last seen in a diorama interpreting the Pleistocene. The orange was especially persistent and could only be suppressed with a less strident variant; something akin to sorbet. Thank goodness it was in a kitchen.

The entry hall requires paint for another reason: Yes, the blue is both dated and “institutional”, but in recent years it has begun to crack and separate from the wall at an escalating rate. Inexplicably, this is occurring on both inside and outside walls, so temperature and moisture differential can’t be the easy answer. But now that I’ve begun to scrape, an unusual explanation presents itself. As the chipping paint exposes underlying plaster, I’m beginning to suspect that the original wall was never painted, nor intended to be.

A hundred years ago we were in the throes of the Arts & Crafts movement, American inheritors of the slightly earlier British phenomenon. Interpreted here by the likes of Elbert Hubbard and Gustav Stickley, the expectation of structural honesty and material integrity led to what might seem affectations or eccentricities today. A simple plaster wall ought, for example, to be kept simple. Not a surface to be painted or papered, the Arts & Crafts plaster wall allowed the character of the plaster itself to be prominent. Fine sand was often added for both integral color and texture; stain, rather than opaque paint, was added in the trough, again for integral rather than applied color.

Through the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early houses, we now know that he often did this with both interior plastered walls and exterior stuccoed surfaces. So, this afternoon, as I exposed more of the entry walls, I believe a one-hundred-year-old aesthetic is revealing itself for the first time in more than fifty years. I can’t find any appropriate on-line images to explain this, so you’ll just have to stop over and look for yourselves.

So my afternoon and early evening were spent as cartographer, removing the smooth sky-blue paint and revealing the coarse, dense plaster base, looking more like burlap than anything else. The oceanic world of blue gradually yields to archipelagos of brown. Island clusters coalesce—the Cyclades, the Orkneys, the Philippines—then land bridges turn them into larger forms. Madagascar becomes Greenland becomes Australia. The growing heat in the hall encouraged thoughts of northerly realms, rather than the tropics, as I plotted transhumance and annual migratory waterfowl.

So much remains to be removed that Asia, Africa and the Americas await the imagination until, alas, Waterworld will have become the desert planet Arakeen. Perhaps it will be cooler then.

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