White walls may reign supreme at art galleries, but at major art museums, colored walls are standard practice. And while you might be hard-pressed to remember what color the walls were at the last museum you visited, that forgettable hue was the result of months of consultation, deliberation, color mixing, and testing.
Who chooses these carefully crafted colors? The task typically falls to the show’s curator, who in turn consults with the expert colorists at a paint company to choose the perfect shade to serve as a backdrop to some of the most famous artworks of all time. Sometimes, they even create the color from scratch.
One such company is Farrow & Ball, a high-end paint company based in Dorset, England. A favorite of interior decorators, over the past decade Farrow & Ball has also become a go-to for institutions that need bespoke wall colors for exhibitions–including MoMA and the Met in New York, the Phillips Collection in D.C., and the Rodin Museum in Paris. In the company’s latest fine art project, it created a brand new color to serve as backdrop for MoMA’s current headlining exhibition, Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty.
The color is called Worsted, named for the town in northeast Norfolk famous for producing a flat woven material most often seen in men’s suits. It’s a deep battleship gray that recalls a darkened sky during tempestuous weather. Along with two existing paints–the darker hued Mole’s Breath and Off-Black–it creates a moody and atmospheric backdrop for Degas’ lesser-known monotypes and sketches (a departure from his ballerina pastels). Colorists in Farrow & Ball’s Flatiron showroom spent months working with MoMA’s curators to find the perfect shade to pull out the inky blacks and charcoal grays in the works.
Complementing the overall atmosphere of the show while simultaneously making the individual works stand out are the two main factors at work when selecting colors for any exhibition, says Charlie Cosby, Farrow & Ball’s head of creative. “The color that you select should make the artwork really pop,” she says. “By using the right colors behind the artworks you can make the viewer walk into a room and experience a painting in a more atmospheric way.”
In Degas’ case, the paint colors needed to mirror the softness of his work. On the other hand, Cosby says, a backdrop that provides a higher contrast with the work is best for more graphic pieces with bolder lines. The lighting of the exhibition and the architecture of the building also make a difference; in the case of the Degas exhibit, good lighting and open spaces helped to keep the room from seeming dark.
A former banker for J.P. Morgan, Cosby joined the obsessive ranks of professional colorists because the science of color had always been a hobby of hers. The two most important skills for color consultants to have are an eye for color mixing–layering different inks until you have the perfect shade–and a basic knowledge of color psychology. Knowing that certain colors provoke strong feelings in people–blues and purples are more pleasant than yellows, for instance, while greens tend to be the most arousing–help colorists chose hues for various situations.
The best color choices enhance the art rather than detract from it, she explains. Much like the idea of good design being “invisible design,” the painted backdrops at the world’s most esteemed institutions should go almost unnoticed. That is, at least, for most people.
Take MoMA’s 2014 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit, for example. The curators chose a bright red to make the entrance distinct and invigorating, leading in to Toulouse-Lautrec’s lively illustrations. “We wanted to make a big statement as you walk in because [Toulouse-Lautrec’s] work is so vibrant with the Folies-Bergère and all of the different characters who are featured in his illustrations,” says Cosby.
But when the company donated paint for last summer’s George Caleb Bingham show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, its colorists wanted to match the serene hues of the landscape painters’ scenes of Midwestern rivers in the years before the Civil War. They chose Farrow & Ball’s Stone Blue, Lichen, and Castle Gray to reflect the watery hues while also bringing out accents of bright red–at the opposite end of the color wheel–in many of Bingham’s paintings.
Cosby’s favorite Farrow & Ball’s project was for the Rodin Museum in Paris, the recently renovated location of Rodin’s works and personal collection. Asked to create a paint to serve as backdrop for the permanent collection, the color consultants at Farrow & Ball spent months researching the history of the museum buildings and spending time with Rodin’s marble sculptures. They layered brown and gray inks to create the custom shade Biron Gray, named after the Biron Hotel, where the museum is housed.
“It’s this beautiful, almost deep brown grey but also soft at the same time,” says Cosby. “It works amazingly with the texture and slight coloration you get with marble. The color in there just makes your heart stop, it’s so beautiful.”