Art Matters: What’s In A Color?

For thirty years, Exhibition Designer Terry Beckham has been establishing the look and feel of the Museum’s galleries through one important, though often overlooked, quality: the paint color on our walls. While at first glance the paint off the canvas may not seem obvious to Museum visitors, it plays an important role in complementing the artwork and enhancing the visitor experience.

The seemingly simple task of selecting a paint color is “the hardest thing that I do,” says Beckham. Through research and collaboration with the curator, Beckham methodically selects paint color based on a myriad of factors, whether through a moment in history, the interior decor trends of a time period, or even in the work of the artist. For instance, the “cornflower blue” paint that was used for the exhibition Norman Rockwell’s America was a hue that appeared repeatedly in Rockwell’s palette, on his canvases and in his Saturday Evening Post covers.

In addition to the curator’s vision for a gallery, the artwork itself serves as the most significant inspiration for selecting a paint color. The paint on the walls, in fact, makes the art look even better. “Typically,” Beckham explains, “I tend to choose darker, jewel tones, which make the colors in a piece of art appear brighter. The dark wall colors, combined with the dimmer conservation lighting in the gallery, trick your eye and make the art really stand out.”  You may recall this technique at work, particularly in our deep red Kress Galleries. Now thirteen years old, the Kress red was selected with much consideration and precision, as fourteen options were tested in the gallery under the proper lighting and against different pieces of art.

However, some of the color selections in our galleries are quite a departure from the darker paints. Our new African Ceramics Gallery is one example, where the fresh green walls are reminiscent of a grassy savannah, similar to the setting where the ceramics were made. Another favorite, Beckham adds, is the paint in the Asian galleries. This light grey, or celadon, is a color found in the art of every culture represented in our Asian collection. Not only is the color soothing and rather neutral, it is also symbolic of the shared artistic quality of these nations.

Just a few months ago, Beckham reflected on twenty years of paint color in a more tangible way. The rejuvenation of our Jemison Galleries gave us a dazzling archive of exhibition design history, when 187 layers of paint came off of the walls. “These layers of paint are a piece of Museum history, and truly tell a story about all the work we have done throughout the years,” Beckham says. “Paint is the most dramatic way to alter a gallery, but it also says so much about the planning and thoughtfulness that goes into everything we do at the Museum.”