Painting the town red, tangerine, cobalt

Special to The Times

AT 76, Ann McGuirk seems an unlikely candidate to make waves, but the great-grandmother is taking a step as radical as it gets in suburbia. She’s having the outside of her Santa Monica home painted a color bolder than beige. A lot bolder. A crew of painters is putting the finishing touches on a cobalt blue deep enough to dive into.

“It’s very blue,” says a jogger, shuffling by on the tree-lined street of rehabbed Craftsmans and Tudors.

July is peak home-painting season, and you can drive through neighborhoods from Malibu to Palm Springs and find the few, the brave, the festive -- people such as the McGuirks who are unafraid to let the block know that life is better in living color. There’s the day-glo orange home lighting up a corner of Venice, the sapphire-soaked adobe with a luminous tangerine wall in Mar Vista, the home in Santa Monica that’s lime green with blue trim.

Mark Shaw calls these beacons of vivaciousness “Easter eggs,” and he’s never too excited to see one. When he spots an egg house shining on brightly, “it’s like, there goes the neighborhood,” says Shaw, a real estate agent for ReMax who used to live near a home painted pink and purple. “It’s equivalent to a house that’s been run down. If it’s in an urban area, it’s a little better, but if it’s in a suburb, it really sticks out.”


In the organism that is a neighborhood, expressing your creative freedom through house paint can stir up unrest -- clashing aesthetics, worries about property values and lawsuits from homeowners’ associations. Novelist Sandra Cisneros wound up in a high-profile dispute with her neighborhood association and the city of San Antonio when the shade she picked for her house was deemed too purple.

Safe paint colors may be easier, but they have led to a monotonous residential landscape and turned the city of real light, sunny Los Angeles, into a pale version of what it could be, say some design experts. “The light in Southern California works great for color,” says Frank Mahnke, an environmental designer with offices in San Diego and Geneva, and author of “Color, Environment & Human Response.” He says homeowners as well as builders just don’t take advantage of their options.

Not McGuirk. Living between two white houses, with more white and beige across the street, she doesn’t mind being an island of blue in her home of 37 years. “We’re very big fans of Catalina,” she says. “That’s the color of houses on Catalina and the ocean.”

THAT new hue might be just a harmless homage to the sea, but in a town obsessed with resale value, bland shades still rule. For something so apparently basic, color is a surprisingly complex and often subliminal affair, capable of swinging emotions and purchasing decisions without us being any the wiser.

“Color is not really just color,” Mahnke says. “It’s a visual perception and, like every perception, it evokes emotion. We see color first before we see form.”

Tints and hues can push emotional buttons. Red gets the blood racing, while blue has a calming effect, color psychologists say. Personality types are drawn to certain colors. Those with an affinity for yellow tend to be happy and carefree, while those who like violet are creative and artistic, says Barbara Richardson, director of color marketing for ICI Paints, manufacturer of Glidden.

This cocktail of emotional preferences is affected by culture, neighborhood and the ebb and flow of fashion. Splashing on raucous colors is the norm in many sun-bathed realms around the world, from the Bahamas to Brazil to the South Pacific. In Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras, exterior walls of homes are often alive with eye-popping combinations: orange with lavender and deep green, or neon lime with burgundy and pale blue -- combinations that would touch off panic in Irvine.

In Central America, “they believe that things that are alive have color and that things that die lose their color,” says Jeffrey Becom, a photographer and painter whose passion for searching out traditional painted architecture is chronicled vividly in “Maya Color: The Painted Villages of Mesoamerica.” “It’s part of being tremendously alive.”


Becom practices what he preaches. His home in Pacific Grove, Calif., sports nine different exterior colors.

Graphic designer Sally Geier’s buoyant Craftsman in Venice has three colors, a combination found nowhere else on her block -- a base of deep mustard ocher, with dark trim and burgundy detailing. It’s a feast that leaves the rest of the block a whiter shade of pale.

“People say it’s very ‘Venice,’ a code word for loud,” Geier says.

She admits she was a bit hesitant when her partner, a photographer, wanted to liven up their formerly tan home last February. He likes vibrant colors, but she “was worried about whether I could live with it, like an orange car.” After a scary moment with a garish aqua trim, ditched for a darker blue, she loves the result and likes having a home that’s not like any other.


There’s been no static from neighbors yet, perhaps because she lives in Venice, where individuality is next to godliness. Palette paranoia is more likely to erupt in affluent areas where there’s more consensus on an aesthetic -- think neutrals and subtlety -- and more pressure to conform.

“There is less cohesion, less of a dominant voice in lower-income areas,” says Meredith Greif, a sociology professor at Cleveland State University who studies neighborhoods and race. “You don’t feel there’s someone looking over your shoulder. Where neighborhoods are more homogenous, there’s more agreement about how you present yourself.”

People can perceive an unconventional color as an attack on a neighborhood and their neighborhood “attachment,” Greif says. Care deeply about your street and suddenly you’re attached to the neighbors’ houses as well as your own.

Part of those reactions come from the belief that bold colors will wreck home values. But is that the case?


“That’s tough to say,” says real estate agent Shaw. “It may just have impact on someone who’s looking in an area that’s marginal to begin with, like a yard with a car on blocks.”

Homeowners’ associations can be relentless, aggressively enforcing rules on colors. At the Tustin Ranch Shadowbrook Homeowners’ Assn., the guidelines state: “Garage doors shall be painted a single color. This color may be white, almond or the field color of the house.”

Disputes over paint shades are a common cause of lawsuits by and against homeowners’ associations. That includes a $15-million suit over a bright pink house on Marco Island, Fla.; a purple home in Seattle whose owners were forced to repaint; and a dispute in which a Georgia couple were sued for having the wrong shade of brown on their home.

FOR those who have the freedom to let colors ring, going vibrant means bucking the human need to take behavioral cues from the majority. That requires guts -- and a feel for color, which many of us don’t have.


“People have a lot of negative misconceptions about what color will do, like make an area dark,” says Sarah Barnard, an interior designer in Venice. “They’re afraid to commit to color because they’ve lived in white houses their whole lives.”

Mahnke, who lectures at universities and is president of the International Assn. of Color Consultants Executive Committee, says even some architects fear color. He advises homeowners to go for “color, not colorfulness.” “Make your house different,” he says. “Follow your own feelings. Don’t worry about Mr. Jones next door. Live your own life.”

One Venice homeowner did just that. He looked at Dwell, Architectural Digest and other magazines, then went with his gut choice: an orange-banana sherbet.

“When I was putting down one patch, a woman stopped her car and said, ‘You’re not going to paint it that color, are you?’ So the reaction is mixed,” says the homeowner, who declined to reveal his name. “But I really think it affects my psychology. It’s more cheery now.”


There are signs that a few more intrepid homeowners are starting to spread the cheer.

“We’re seeing bolder colors on the Westside, Hollywood, Torrance, Pasadena and Long Beach,” says Johnny Rhee of College Works Painting, the company livening up the McGuirks’ home with Mediterranean blue. “They’re going to more architecturally interesting colors.”

A few buckets of paint are a pretty cheap prescription for a friendlier city, as gregarious edifices seem to make people feel good, and bright colors may be contagious. After the Venice homeowner went supernova orange, an apartment building across the intersection got a royal blue makeover.