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September 7, 2013
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The Color Story

Conversation in the Curatorial Offices of Crystal Bridges:

Curator of American Art, Kevin Murphy: “What color was your childhood bedroom?” Me: “White” Kevin: “Really?”


To Stephanie, Executive Assistant, Special Projects: Kevin: “What color was your childhood bedroom?” Stephanie: “Ecru” Kevin: “Hmmm”


To Ali, Curatorial Assistant: Kevin: “What color was your childhood bedroom?” Ali: Well, wallpaper when my mom got to pick. Then my first choice for paint was a cool cucumber, which was a big mistake and then deep blue with yellow accents à la Starry Night.” Kevin: “Now, that’s interesting”


To Hilary, Communications Administrative Assistant: Kevin: “What about your childhood bedroom?” Hilary: “Pink until I was 5, and then blue until I was 18. Why?” Kevin: “I’m getting ideas for paint colors for the Angels and Tomboys exhibition”

Choosing paint colors is probably my favorite part about the installation of an exhibition, and many times the discussion about which colors to use begins with a strange conversation like the one above. It all starts with a “color story.” I had never heard the term “color story” until I started my position as Exhibitions Coordinator. The idea is that the colors of the walls need to complement the “story” of the exhibition and its artworks.

SONY DSCThe curator managing the installation of the exhibition is generally responsible for picking the paint colors of the walls, but many times my coworkers and I get drawn into the brainstorming session.  Near my desk is a meeting area shared by Exhibitions and Curatorial. In the middle of this meeting area, there is a small conference table. At paint selection time, this table is swallowed up by fans of paint samples and containers filled with larger paint color swatches. This is where the creation of “color story” for Angels & Tomboys: Girlhood in 19th Century American Art began.

The Title Wall for Angels & Tomboys. Color: "Mediterranean Sky."

The Title Wall for Angels & Tomboys. Color: “Mediterranean Sky.”

Angels & Tomboys was organized by the Newark Museum and it came to us, as most traveling shows do, with the artworks and texts for exhibition labels. The layout and feel of the gallery was then left up to our (then) Curator of American Art, Kevin Murphy. He wanted the wall colors to capture the spirit of the girls represented in the artworks, hence the bedroom-wall color interrogation. He also wanted the colors he chose to distinguish the various themed sections of the exhibition. We started with a section that featured early androgynous depictions of girls and boys as well as paintings that feature the classic attributes of girlhood: flowers, pets, dolls, etc.  Kevin decided that this section of the exhibition should be a true pink, a color that is often associated with girlhood.

To give you a sense of how difficult selecting the perfect “true” pink is:  there are about 140 different “pinks” in one paint color fan deck. We choose our colors from two different Benjamin Moore fan decks: Color Preview and Classic Colors. In total, we had about 280 “pinks” to choose from. Not to mention that pink is a very hard color to work with—you don’t want it too fleshy or too “Pepto.”  As with any color, you must also consider the works that will be featured against it, and the lighting that the color will be exposed to. One pink may look perfect under our office’s fluorescent lighting, but completely wrong under incandescent lighting. Certain colors may also overwhelm an artwork or clash with it.

Color:  "Authentic Pink."

Color: “Authentic Pink.”

These dilemmas usually necessitate a gallery visit with the larger paint swatches to test them in what will be their actual environment.  We view them in direct lighting, indirect lighting, near neutral surfaces and alongside artworks in our permanent collection that are similar to the works we will be exhibiting. After all of this experimentation, we are usually able to agree on the most appropriate shade for the space and the artworks.  In the case of the pink, Benjamin Moore Color Preview “Authentic Pink” (2006-60), was the winner.

Adolescence section. Color:  "Central Park."

Adolescence section. Color: “Central Park.”

This same process was used for the other thematic sections of the exhibition. For the tomboys and the innocent angelic girls, we went in search of the perfect blue. The result was Benjamin Moore Classic Colors Mediterranean Sky (1662). For the girls dressing up section, we chose Benjamin Moore Color Preview Ballerina Pink (2082-70). This color was inspired by a ballet slipper owned by Kevin and by one of the paintings in the room, Dressing for the Rehearsal, by Seymour Joseph Guy. Finally, a color needed to be selected for the artworks depicting scholarly girls, girls at work, and adolescent girls. The consensus of the group was to choose a green. The first greens that we chose were lovely and bright in the gallery spaces, but they clashed and turned very yellow next to the artwork. After an extensive search through the fan decks, I found Benjamin Moore Classic Colors Central Park (431). This fresh and soothing color highlighted the objects perfectly. We were done…or so we thought.

Mothers, Daughters and Sisters section.  Color:  Fuschine.

Mothers, Daughters and Sisters section. Color: Fuchsine.

When my coworker Stephanie and I sat down to view all of the paint selections together, we thought that our color story was missing a little “punch.” Not all girls are soft and mild! We needed a color that represented the bold and sassy girl, and we had just one color in mind: Benjamin Moore Classic Colors Fuchsine (1343). We presented our new color lineup to Kevin, and he agreed that this color gave the exhibition the eye-catching dash of color that it needed. As a result Fuchsine became the backdrop of the mothers, daughters, and sisters section of works.  The color story was complete. We had finally captured the spirit of Angels & Tomboys. We were all excited to see how these colors would look on the walls with the amazing artworks. That process, of course, is an entirely different post.

Until then, don’t miss your chance to check out our color choices by visiting Angels & Tomboys: Girlhood in 19th Century American Art. It is beautiful a captivating exhibition, and will be on view through September 30, 2013.

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