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Talking Color Can Help You Sell A Better Painting Experience

What Color Experts Want Painting Experts To Know About Color Theory

By Megan Headley
Originally published by APC (American Painting Contractor). Click here to view the original article.

How many times a week do you have a customer ask for your opinion on a color? Lots?

How many times a week do you offer your opinion on a customer’s color? Zero?

For many painting contractors, their job is strictly about applying the color—not selecting it.

“There was a painting contractor who I’ve worked with for years and when the homeowner asked him about color he would always say ‘I don’t choose the colors, I just apply the paint’,” shares Mary McMurray, owner of color consultancy Art First Colors for Architecture in Portland, Ore., and a licensed painting contractor herself for more than 30 years.

Painting contractors who take this hard line on color have every reason in the world to be defensive.

“I find that painters hesitate to voice their opinion regarding color because they don’t want to be left on the hook,” says Remi Boudreau, owner and color consultant for Expressions Painting in New Brunswick. “It’s not the painter’s fault but in a lot of cases they have to deal with the challenges that come up with having a color not turn out quite like the homeowner expected.”

This hesitation, Boudreau says, is what ultimately drove him to study color theory. “I hate to admit this, but at first it was about being able to defend myself and not repaint a room for free when I knew it had nothing to do with color matching or anything on my part,” he admits.

Color selection can create anxiety in many people. Tackling this challenge means a painter must decide between taking on the risk of getting involved or adding the value of industry insight.


That all began to change for Boudreau as he discovered how color theory helped his company provide a better painting experience. “It came to a point where I started to realize that you need to view it as more of a way to help the homeowner to get to where they really want to go and not just trying to protect yourself. That’s when I started to offer color consultation,” he says.

Because painters are at the heart of the color experience for homeowners, it seems natural to homeowners, at least, that painters have some input. But these color consultants caution that this can be tricky water to navigate for painters, in part because color is a personal experience that can have an impact on people’s health and emotions. It’s a powerful tool.

That shouldn’t make it scary for painting contractors to dive into color theory. It just means you may need to commit, either to a consultant or learning more on your own.

“Color selection creates anxiety in many people. In general, addressing the psychological concerns of the homeowner is not in a painter’s job description. So I would say unless you really want to take on that extra work, it’s probably better not to,” Mc-Murray says. On the other hand, she adds, “I encourage anybody to learn more about color, it’s a wonderful thing. It’s just tricky when you get into people’s personal lives.”


Close More Sales

As Boudreau mentioned, he began studying color theory to protect his company from unnecessary repaints.

“When I started, I had an expectation that I would need to redo more rooms now that I was giving my opinion, because I couldn’t say ‘I didn’t pick the color.’ What ended up happening was the complete opposite because I had set myself up as a color expert,” Boudreau says.

That eye-opening experience encouraged Boudreau to further study color theory and, ultimately, offer online courses to other painting contractors through his Expressions University. While many painting contractors may outsource work to a color consultant or interior designer, Boudreau has found that in-house color consultation is a powerful sales tool.

“When you think about it from a homeowner’s perspective, they first meet the painter for free for the estimate. They get a chance to interview that person and the painter gets to interview the homeowner and starts to understand what they’re looking for. And this is all free.

“We offer a color consultation for free when they hire our painting services. That’s a second visit where we meet and talk about color. The homeowner doesn’t have to pay $120 an hour to a decorator without first meeting them, so it’s a very low-risk proposition for them. Whereas when people deal with an interior decorator that they pay per hour, it’s a risky proposition because they’re going to have to pay for the hour regardless of whether or not there’s good chemistry. And for you as a painter, because you’ve already met that person, you’re able to offer better advice,” Boudreau says.


Know the Illusions

For these experts, the starting place for color theory is understanding that color is an illusion.

As Boudreau puts it, “You and I may be looking at the exact same thing, but the image that’s portrayed in our minds may be completely different.”

Boudreau breaks it down like this: the perception of color derives from the stimulation of cone cells in the human eye by electromagnetic radiation in the visible spectrum. Different sources of light impact the color receptors in our eyes differently. For example, when looking at a “red” wall using the bright white natural sunlight of midday, we’re not really seeing red. It’s just that every color frequency is absorbed by the wall and what comes back is the frequency that our rod and cone cells read. Those cells transfer this information to the brain, which then creates a color image: red.

But, because the brain is a tricky thing, there’s more to consider. Depending on what our mind has in terms of experience or information about the area it’s viewing, it may create additional layers of meaning. Remember the famous dress circulated around Facebook and news channels years ago, which some people viewed as white and gold while others saw brown and blue? The difference of opinion, Boudreau explains, stemmed from what light source the viewer’s brain applied. Because the image was so cropped if someone assumed that the dress was near a window, lit with exterior lighting, it would create one effect. If they concluded that the dress was in the middle of a showroom lit by artificial lights, it would create a different image.

“I’ve experienced that in painting,” Boudreau adds. “We had picked gray for a wall and when we were looking at just the wall, it was gray. As soon as we stepped back, the orangey-colored floor made that gray look blue.”

This is also critically important to note for exterior paint jobs. If a customer wants their house repainted to match a color they like two streets away, the solution may not be as simple as using color matching technology to get a color and applying it. Because of the huge effect of light on color, colors always appear different in different places, McMurray explains.

“For example, last year I was hired by a company to advise on exterior colors for a large multifamily apartment complex here in Oregon. The person in charge of the project, based in Seattle, decided to copy the color from an apartment building she’d seen in Los Angeles. But the color that looks good in southern California light looked cold and alien in northwest Oregon, and just didn’t work for the project,” McMurray says.

She adds, “Even colors that look good on a house exterior will look completely different on a house on another street because of the impact of light on color. It’s not just as easy as getting a tool—you have to use your eyes.”


Mastering the Illusion

While there are infinitely more complex points in color theory, starting to appreciate the basics can help you ease some of the painting pains for your customers.

“I find that most painters have a good grasp of color in practice because of their experience,” McMurray says. “Yet one point that’s sometimes overlooked is the effect that available light in or on a building has on paint color. Darker paint colors need more ambient light in a room to look good.”

To apply this in your practice, it helps to caution the homeowner on what to expect as ambient light changes.

“It’s not so much telling people what to choose. Instead you educate them and then take a large paint sample and show them the difference between the natural light and artificial light. Make that gray turn to beige right in front of their eyes with the different lighting,” Boudreau advises.

That way when the homeowner comes home from work in the evening thinking that they picked a gray and sees it’s now beige under the evening’s artificial light, there’s no surprise—and no upset customer.

Just as setting up the expectation sets you up for a happier (potential repeat) customer, not talking color poses its own potential risks. “As soon as they have it in their mind that the color is wrong, the next morning when that natural light is back they’re still going to see beige and not gray because their mind is convinced at that point that it’s the wrong color,” Boudreau explains. “It’s hard to bring people from ‘it’s the wrong color’ to ‘it’s the right color. Whereas if you explain to them in the evenings it’s probably going to look a little more beige, and in the daylight it’s probably going to look more gray, then they know and don’t get that unpleasant surprise.”

Boudreau offers another trick that many painting contractors likely already have up their sleeves: don’t apply your paint samples directly to the wall to be painted.

“Let’s say your wall is green and you want to put a beige-gray on it,” he explains. “If you put that sample directly on the green wall, the green is so powerful. There’s so much of it. When you’re looking at that tiny swatch the brain says, ‘there’s so much green there, we can stop, we know we can conclude that it’s green.’ But then it adds red [the color opposite green on the color wheel] to that gray, which makes it look beige.”

After the paint job, that green is gone and the sample that earlier looked beige is suddenly—surprise!—gray. So it’s better to place your samples against a constant color. Put your paint swatches on the doorframe or the door itself, assuming those trim colors will remain consistent after the paint job.

However, McMurray has another completely effective way to handle those samples.

“The best thing to do is put up different paint color samples, about two feet in diameter on the wall, and look at them with the homeowner and just ask ‘which one do you like?’ Put it back on them,” she suggests.

If that doesn’t work—point them to your color consultant.


Resources on Color

Want to learn more about color theory? McMurray recommends picking up most any book by Faber Birren, who helped launch discussions about color theory in the environment movement nearly 100 years ago. Consider A History of Color in Painting, Color and Human Response, or The Principles of Light and Color, Birren’s classic study of the healing power of color. For insight into historic paint colors in America, she adds, look for any book by Roger Moss.


How to Make the Most of Color Matching Tools

Sometimes the easiest way for a home or business owner to make a color decision is simply to see what they like (including the existing paint color) and point. If you find yourself helping a new client match an old color or a repeat customer match a favorite color, then you’re lucky to be painting at a time when color matching technology is hot.

Painting contractors can use color matching tools to help customers decide on paint colors faster by identifying existing colors, finding the closest match to everyday objects and substituting paint color matches with preferred brands. Photo courtesy of DataColor.

Sometimes the easiest way for a home or business owner to make a color decision is simply to see what they like (including the existing paint color) and point. If you find yourself helping a new client match an old color or a repeat customer match a favorite color, then you’re lucky to be painting at a time when color matching technology is hot.

“Without color technology, matching color is time-consuming and expensive. Painting contractors spend a lot of time simply finding and obtaining the paint color their customer wants. From collecting paint chips to cutting out a piece of wall or other material to take in to match, current methods require a lot of extra work,” points out Olivia Tipton, marketing and communications specialist for Variable, Inc., the manufacturer of the Color Muse tool. “Not to mention the cost of paint samples, and the fact that a single gallon of paint is often too expensive to get wrong,” she adds.

As Tipton explains it, Color Muse is an app-compatible colorimeter that uses a controlled light source and sensors that mimic human vision to scan and match colors to products. The device was designed to make it possible for painting contractors and consumers to affordably perform onsite color matching.

Susan Bunting, director of marketing, Consumer Solutions, for DataColor, agrees that color matching tools are all about building in efficiency to the painting job. “The time [DataColor’s color matching tool] ColorReader saves pays for itself quickly in the efficiency it brings to the process, by knowing what the existing color is, how color will work in the space and what color to paint next,” Bunting adds. “It cuts down on trial and error and ensures accuracy every time.”

Bunting says ColorReader is the only brand-agnostic color matching tool of its kind, with accuracy at 94 percent. Through extensive research, the company has developed a way to calculate ColorReader’s ROI specifically for painting contractors and know that 90 percent of repaint jobs can be eliminated with our color matching technology.

Or, to put it another way, Bunting says, “Painting contractors are using color matching tools to help customers decide on paint colors faster by identifying existing colors, finding the closest match to everyday objects and substituting paint color matches with your go-to brands. You can also advise clients with color coordination by utilizing color palettes, saving them in the ColorReader app, and sharing the information seamlessly.”

Some color consultants hesitate to turn to color matching technology, knowing that a match may not always be exact if the paint is applied to a surface experiencing different light. However, these tech tools can help drive conversations about color.

“What I find is that sometimes homeowners like to have an idea of how the color will look so even though it might not be their own room, [paint manufacturer’s] color apps allow you to pick a color and can show you that color in a bedroom and a kitchen and the exterior of the house,” says Remi Boudreau, owner and color consultant for Expressions Painting in New Brunswick. “That is a tool that I’ve found a lot of clients enjoy. A lot of times people can't visualize the space in the color they select. So that app helps, even though it's not their exact room, just a generic picture that's in the software. For a free application it’s definitely worth it.”


The Paint Manufacturers’ Colors of 2019

The trendy color of the year may not be the basis for every homeowner’s paint job, but they can get people thinking about how color affects them. As manufacturers release the year’s top colors, they often speak to the cultural mood that inspired the selection. Discussing the colors of 2019 with your client might be a starting point for understanding what mood they want to set with their ultimate color choice.

Spiced Honey

Spice of Life
Dunn Edwards

Behr Paint

Night Watch
PPG Paint

Benjamin Moore

Cavern Clay


Watch the latest videos on color from Boudreau by www.expressionspaintinguniversity.com.  

Megan Headley is managing editor of APC magazine. She can be reached at [email protected]

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