the color of light Posted on August 6, 2013 By Cindy Black

building in Marfa, TX

Our understanding of light affects how we select colors and materials for both the exterior and interior of our projects. The intense angle of our Texas sun tends to draw out and exaggerate hues, and bright whites have a violet color cast that characterizes our latitude (30.27 degrees north). I find that photography is the most telling of this phenomenon, and I frequently identify Austin projects in magazines by the color of light in the photo. This building in Marfa, TX, with its stark white stucco and sharp shadows, is a great example of classic Texas sun, mid-day. Color picking the hues in Photoshop, the stucco highlights and shadows reveal a violet-grey with a tinge of mustard haze.
Paint colors offer a nearly-infinite combination of hues, so we go through an intense color study with each project. The classic bungalow in Austin usually involves a color scheme of at least 5 to 7 colors to differentiate the siding, window trim, screens and window sashes, doors, fascia and eaves, brackets, underpinning, and porch columns and railings. Our 1940 Retreat project involved exterior renovations, so we worked with the owners to develop a paint scheme that would modernize and refresh the bungalow. While the tree canopy on the site provided a beautiful dappled light, the existing house (below) was painted in what I like to call ‘make-up colors’: dusty mauve, saddle brown and tawny rose. These colors get lost in our frame of reference when they are overlaid with the violet color cast of the sky.
Our idea for the new paint scheme was to create a very dark wall color accented with clean white and lightly tinted trim – a combination that acknowledges the classic approach to painting the bungalow. We selected crisp, modern colors that would assert themselves boldly in our environment, but we were careful not to veer into the ‘painted lady’ territory. We did this rendering to give us a clear vision of the end result:
First we start with 4″ x 4″ paint swatches to narrow down the scheme. I like to pick the whites first, and I feel that a very creamy bright white works best in our sun (it doesn’t look paper white and amateurish, and doesn’t head toward drab). We started with a Benjamin Moore color palette of Tarrytown Green HC-134, Dill Pickle 2147-40, Mascarpone AF-20, Tropical Orange 2170-20. The chips had a good balance of hues and contrast:
Looks cute, right? But in sampling the colors on the building, that Tarrytown Green was not giving us enough contrast. And the forest green that became pronounced on a larger scale was in competition with the lighter green trim. Here we were also experimenting with colors over the different elements of the building.
We needed to greatly darken the body color to achieve the effect we were looking for, so we went with Blackberry 2119-20, which looks almost black on the swatch:
Below, our final selections in action. This house backs up to a creek, with a canopy of red oaks high overhead. The darkness of the house body recedes into the shadows to play up the cooling effect of shade on the site, and stripes of creamy white and warm grey of the porch fascia reflect confidently against the violet undertone of our sky. Using the dark body color at the structural brackets and underpinning gives a modern, crisp detail.
As I look outside my window at the office on this August day, the sun reflects so intensely off metal roofs, white paneled and chrome semi-trucks driving by, hot concrete sidewalks, even street signs – it all makes you squint and want to run inside. Whenever possible we try to resolve this problem with architecture; colors balanced for our atmosphere allow our eyes to receive and activate, and create a reassuring environment.