Living With Color // by Rebecca Atwood

//published 2019//

Everyone once in a while I read a book that I just love and can’t exactly explain why.   Living With Color is one of those books for me.  It’s nonfiction and focuses on (surprise, surprise) the color aspect of decorating.  There is a lot in here about feelings and it seems like it should have been a book that was a little too woo-woo for me, but instead it genuinely made me look at color in a different way.  My husband also read this book, and we have probably discussed it more than any other home improvement/decorating book that we’ve read – and we’ve read LOTS.

Atwood starts by talking about growing up along the ocean in New England, and how watching the way light and time of day interacted with and changed colors fascinated her.  She was also intrigued by how neutral colors could still be so colorful – the shore is mostly comprised of muted colors, with lots of beiges and browns, yet still is colorful.

Next, she talks about the science of color.  And even though I “knew” all of this already, she presents it all very accessibly, and I found myself enamored with the color wheel all over again.  Throughout her book, Atwood emphasizes neutrals and their importance a lot, and even when discussing the color wheel she looks at a neutrals color wheel as well as the traditional one.  She has a lot to say about undertones (a warm grey versus a cool grey, etc.) and how they impact the color in a subtle but critical way.  The entire rest of her book is built on this chapter, and I loved it.

Atwood also talks a lot about other things that impact color – light, texture, space, time of day, location, and other colors.  For instance, she points out that frequently if a room feels too bright, it is because so many of the surfaces are shiny.  Rather than changing the actual colors, change the texture of something in the room to something soft or flat (rather than gloss) can change the entire tone of the room.

The third section goes through each color on the traditional color wheel and talks about its history (when did it appear in literature?  In art?) and where it can be found in nature as well. Part of this looks at texture and at how to introduce small bits of color into a space to test them out.  As an example – before buying a piece of furniture, you may want to buy a throw or blanket the color of your potential new couch to see how the color feels in the space.  Throughout this section she also has several personal questions regarding each color, encouraging her readers to think about their feelings about it.  At first, it seemed really dumb to me to think about how I “feel” about the color blue, but her questions were actually rather thoughtful.  Color is a visceral and emotional thing, for reasons we can’t quite explain, and while I didn’t sit down and journal about every question, I did take a minute to think about them, and it was rather interesting to see how memories can become tangled with color.  Atwood encourages her readers to think about this because the color of your space is going to be something that you see constantly, and it’s important to not just have colors that match, but colors that convey the message/emotion that you want to have in the space and colors that convey those messages and emotions to you.  If you had a green coat when you were a kid and you hated it and had to wear it for years, the fact that green is generally considered a calming color may not mean that it is calming for you.

Like I said, it seemed like this should be the part where I started rolling my eyes and skipping pages, but Atwood doesn’t go too far with it.  Instead, she has a very matter-of-fact tone, because even though it is touchy-feely, it’s also true.

The majority of the rest of the book is devoted to visiting the homes of people who work with color for a living – home decorators, clothing designers, artists, etc.  When I initially flipped through this book, I hesitated to read it because I didn’t really care for most of the rooms pictured, and if you don’t like the style of a home decorating book, what’s really the point of reading it?  But I’m glad I did, because Atwood draws out useful and practical information from each home, pointing out ways to incorporate technique even when I didn’t like the style.

In the end, Atwood pulls it together by encouraging her readers to look through their notes (which I didn’t take), answers to her questions (which I didn’t write down), and other things collected for a color mood board (which I didn’t make) and use that information to make decisions about color and décor.  Despite the fact that I hadn’t done anything besides actually read the book, I still walked away with a lot of food for thought.  I’m not an instinctive decorator.  I “like” things and “dislike” things, but without any apparent pattern or specific style behind it.  But reading Atwood’s book helped me to make some sense of my instincts, and to put some actual words to feelings – for instance, while I like colors that are generally considered cool (blues and greens), I tend to like warm versions of those colors.

While this book didn’t make me dash out and start repainting walls and replacing furniture, it really did help bring some things into focus for me, giving me something more concrete to work from instead of just “I like blue – that blue, not that one.”  Since finishing it, I find myself looking at small spaces around the house that have never felt quite “right” and realizing that sometimes it’s because of the colors and textures that are in it.  I appreciated that this was a book with information that can be applied in a grand, sweeping way (paint the whole house!) or in small, subtle ways (change the knickknacks on this shelf).

A final note is that reading this book was a tactile pleasure as well.  The cover has a matte finish, the page edges are sprayed blue, the pages are very glossy, the book lays flat perfectly, the overall weight and texture is perfect.  Sometimes reading, for me, involves more than just how the words look on the page, and this was one of those rare books that is physically perfect.

I highly recommend this one if, like me, your feelings about color and decorating are strong but muddled.  Atwood’s friendly writing helps break the topic down into understandable and applicable chunks.