Pairing Wall Colors and Art: Lessons from the Carnegie Museum
Picking out a color that works well with a favorite painting or artwork can be a challenge. The best choice should flatter what’s hung on the wall and at the same time take a back seat so attention remains on the art. Someone who deals with this challenge but on a huge scale is Louise Lippincott, Chief Curator of Fine Arts at the Carnegie Museum of Art, a 115-year-old institution with an incredible collection of over 35,000 works. About 1,800 pieces are on view at any one time and the galleries, which range from a deep reddish brown to, yes, white, with blues and grays in between, are inspiring examples of how, in the hands of an expert, wall colors can enhance the way we see art. Who better to talk with about the relationship between colors and art?
The galleries were redone in 2002, so all the colors were chosen at the same time. Ms. Lippincott was looking for hues that would look beautiful together and bring out the best in the artworks. "I'’s a very modern space, so the wall colors couldn't look too historical overall," she said. The Scaife Galleries, shown here, house the museum's permanent collection. The starting point for this palette was the terrazzo floors, which were predominantly blue and gray in their mix. Those became the primary colors, with others playing off of them. Lippincott put up 20-30 color samples up on the wall. Eventually, those were narrowed down to 10-15 finalists before they began hanging paintings to see how they would look. Look at the graceful progression of blues, blue-greens, and grays from gallery to galler--a simple lesson in how to link rooms that open on to each other.
For the first galleries showing mainly 19th century pictures, a deeper color was chosen, one closer tonally to the palettes of the art. "We were trying to match the dark red color that was popular in picture galleries of that period. It contrasts beautifully with the large gold frames. It also works with the blues and grays of the other galleries." You don't need to own Whistler to use a color like thi--it's flattering to richer, earthier colors as well as golds.
Moving into the 19th century, rooms are close to the classic Wedgwood Blue. Look how differently the artworks appear on this pale neutral as opposed to the dark brown.
The Impressionist room matches the sky in one of the paintings.
The palette moves from the darker colors of the earlier galleries until you hit the most modern areas of the museum. "As you move towards the 20th century, the colors get progressively lighter, with less blue in them, and more gray. Basically you progress from dark to light, from blue to gray to white."
20th Century galleries (not shown)
For more information, the museum’s website is: www.carnegiemuseums.org.