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Choosing colours is rarely easy, but these principles and pointers may help.

The human eye can distinguish millions of colours, most of which seem to be on display in the form of tiny paint chips at building supply stores in Atlantic Canada. This plethora of choice may be why so many of us find choosing paint colours such a frustrating, anxiety-provoking experience. While we're trying to figure out what we want, colour marketers are telling us that 2008 is the year of intense colours. Paint displays all over Atlantic Canada are featuring the same Asian-inspired reds and gold-infused oranges-colours calculated to achieve what interior designers call the "wow" factor.

The reality is that 2008 may not be the year of intense colour in every house. "You can't just pick a popular colour," says Jan Sparkman, the owner of Mariposa Interiors in Wolfville, NS. Laying aside any personal and deep-seated animosity toward reds and golds, those colours may not work in every room. Aspects of the environment-natural and artificial light and the colour of the flooring, for instance-will influence how a colour looks. "Lighting affects colour dramatically," says Sparkman. "One colour will look different in different settings."

Paint colours change with the intensity, source, and even direction of light. With changes in the brightness and purity of sunlight and the degree of shadowing, colours look different at different times of the day, on different days, and in different seasons. Because a home's natural light depends on the number and size of its windows, the perception of paint colours is further affected by the style of the home. Cottages with a limited number of small windows will get less light and so will benefit from light interior hues that give the illusion of pushing back walls and raising ceilings. Modern, open-concept homes with expansive windows will get plenty of light-sometimes too much. If rooms feel cavernous and cold, try warming them up by pulling in the walls and lowering the vaulted ceilings with deep, dark colours that reduce the sense of space.

The north-south orientation of the house also has a role to play in the quality of light and our perception of colour. For example, rooms that get more diffused northern light may seem darker, while rooms with a southern exposure may seem lighter. A west-facing room that is painted taupe may have a warm glow in the evening yet look dull throughout the day. In the strong morning light, an east-facing room will look different than it does in the evening under artificial light.

Artificial light has its own impact on our perception of paint colour. The yellowish wavelengths of incandescent lighting may play nicely with a yellow wall, but conspire with a red wall to produce an orange colour. Similarly, cool fluorescent lights can enhance a blue/green palette, or turn a yellow wall a sickly green.

Because colours reflect both colour and light, they cannot be viewed in isolation. Paint colours are influenced by everything-from other painted walls and the furniture in the room to the flowering shrubs outside the window, and even the exterior walls of the house next door. As a result, a feature colour wall could make an adjacent wall-and especially the corner where the two meet-appear to be several different colours. Similarly, a crimson carpet may give white walls a pinkish look, with the pink tone becoming more prominent with the size of the carpet.

Interestingly, the same rule applies to the colour on a wall: the larger the surface you paint, the more intense the colour will appear, especially with flat paints that absorb light. So, while the tiny paint chip may be a good starting point, for a truer idea of the impact of various lighting conditions and neighbouring objects, purchase a test sample of paint and apply it to a section of the wall or to a large scrap of material that you can hang on the wall. Apply a similar sample to the ceiling, which always looks darker. Consider these samples over the course of a few days, in both natural and artificial light.

Decorating magazines and televised home makeovers have given many of Jan Sparkman's clients the confidence to express themselves with home d├ęcor, yet they remain conservative in their choice of paint colours. "Being conservative is not a bad thing," she says. Designer and visual artist Sara Nadeau has a keen appreciation of intense colour, yet she chose a neutral palette for the interior of her new Wolfville condo. "I couldn't do anything too special because I had to take my old furniture with me," Nadeau laughs. It was important that the colours she chose work well with paintings. "People collect art; they want a colour to showcase it."

A monochromatic colour scheme unifies a space. Tints and shades of one colour create a subtle, sophisticated look. Deep, warm colours like red make a large area more intimate. "Use them in the dining room to stimulate appetite," says Sparkman. Intense colours stimulate more than the appetite, however, so restrict the use of active, energizing colours like red and orange to social rooms like foyers, family rooms and dining rooms. The Sico Paint people caution against painting children's rooms red, suggesting that it might prevent children from sleeping. The advice for bedrooms is to stick with calming, restorative shades of blue and green, soft, sunny yellows, and spa-like taupes and whites. Creative colours like citrus and squashy yellows can work well in kitchens and home offices. (See "The Psychology of Colour" in the May/June 2007 edition of Saltscapes for more insight on how colours influence emotion.)

Mixing and matching

A full house is one thing. A house full of many paint colours is another. The general rule for interior colours is to have two or three colours per room, and a limited palette for the entire house. According to Sharon Grech, colour and design spokesperson for Benjamin Moore, accent colour walls are an effective way to define space, draw attention to focal points, diminish attention from undesirable points, and add personality and style to your home.

Shades like beige, black, white and grey are the paint colour equivalent to a poker face. These neutrals may be absent from the colour wheel, but they're a decorating mainstay because they go with everything. According to Grech, a recent grey-beige range called "greige" is the new story in neutrals for 2008. "I think of it as a transition colour that is taking us from our comfort zone of warm beiges to the even more neutral greys." Other new neutrals include muted versions of blues and greens that are found on the colour wheel. Use them alone for an elegant, subtle look, or pair them with strong colours for a hint of relief.

Neutral colours are a safe bet for interiors, and an even safer bet for exteriors because they have long-lasting appeal, and tend to blend with the environment. However, the appropriateness of exterior colours varies with the location of the home. Darker, more intense colours like those found in St. John's are well-suited to an urban location because they accentuate architectural details and also hide the effects of pollution. "The bright, vivid colours are warm and welcoming, perhaps to counteract the cool, foggy weather we sometimes must endure," says Newfoundland interior designer Susan Troup.

Surprisingly, the "jelly bean row" image of painted houses in Newfoundland and Labrador is a fairly recent phenomenon. "It really began with the gentrification of St. John's," says Geoff Meeker, an entrepreneur who has produced a series of wall plaques depicting the colourful Second Empire, or Victorian, rowhouses in St. John's. Until the availability of commercial paint in the early 20th century, and tintable paint in the 1950s, most houses-including the downtown row houses-were painted white. It wasn't until the urban renewal of the 1970s and '80s that downtown St. John's embraced the candy-hued paint schemes that we see today. Prior to that, the most compelling colour was the red ochre found on fishing structures. Made by mixing pre-ground, dry ochre with fish, seal or linseed oil, the distinctive paint ranged in colour depending on regional recipes.

Tineke Gow is a big fan of red ochre and thinks it a fitting colour for The Twine Loft, the restaurant she owns in a refurbished fishing shed in Trinity, NL. Gow and her husband are considering the colours in a chart called Historic Colours of Newfoundland as they "work up the courage" to paint their 5,000-sq.-ft. Queen Anne Revival house near the Battery district in St. John's. "There's a fine line between accentuating architectural details and looking tacky," says Gow. "A big house like this could result in a big mistake."

"There are some quite bright colours around," says George Chalker tactfully. Chalker is the executive director of the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, an organization that worked with R.A. Templeton Ltd., a long-time Newfoundland paint distributor, on last summer's release of the historic Newfoundland colour chart. "This will encourage people doing heritage work to choose more historically accurate colour choices," says Chalker.

Prior to this, the only historic paint colours available were for homes in New England and mainland Canada. "They failed to represent the unique colours of Newfoundland and Labrador," says John Templeton, a partner in R.A. Templeton's. The new Newfoundland palette features three-tone colour chips. The largest colour on the chips is an established Newfoundland paint colour and retains its original name. The two smaller panels are newer shades that have been creatively named to reflect aspects of traditional culture, including place names like Ferryland Downs, and food names like Bakeapple Jam.

It's a safe bet that if the paints are as colourful as their names, this really could be the year for intense colours-at least in Atlantic Canada's coastal regions, where even the boldest colours are so often muted by the morning fog.

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