With color, throw caution to the wind

Master painter-decorator Debbie Travis makes one point repeatedly about selecting room colors: Be brave.

This message is underlined in her television show, "Debbie Travis' Painted House," which airs in more than 50 countries, including the United States (check local PBS listings).

When she speaks at decorating seminars, which she does frequently, she discourages conservatism.

"If we were going to choose a color for a room, and this was a group of five-year-olds," she tells her audiences, "I can guarantee that no one would choose taupe or beige. When we become grown-ups ... we get intimidated."

She sees no reason to be timid when the frontiers of style and taste are expanding rapidly. "Fashion now is 'choose what you like,' " she observes.

What Ms. Travis hopes her show, seminars, and books will do is open up the brave, new world of home decorating possibilities just as Julia Child and others have paved the way to culinary adventure.

"Twenty years ago America was a meat, potato, and two veg. country," she says. "Now, if you are invited to dinner at someone's house and they make sushi, you're not going to have them imprisoned. And if you go to an Italian restaurant, you might get Chinese or fusion food. We've accepted that. It's part of our daily lives."

The same should be true, she says, with paint. "Paint is cheap," she reminds, and mistakes are more easily remedied than ever before, given today's array of products and information.

Mistakes aren't forever

In particular she sings the praises of primers, some of which are now capable of covering the strongest colors, essentially providing a fresh start. Primers are also made to adhere to shiny surfaces - laminates, linoleum, or varnish, for example - greatly increasing the ease and options in remodeling. They can even be used to paint bathroom tiles.

People are now employing more painting strategies, says Travis, who learned about color washes, glazing, sponging, and myriad other tricks of the trade through trial and error.

There's really no reason to panic when mistakes occur, she says, because most are correctable. And besides, "it's just a wall. You're not tinkering with a car."

An Englishwoman with a background in TV, she turned to interior decorating after marrying and moving to Montreal. There, she began painting her new home, a project so impressively done that it soon garnered her many outside jobs.

While Travis encourages a go-for-it approach in selecting vibrant colors, she calls choosing them from a one-inch chip "madness. This is where people really go wrong because colors always end up much darker than you expect. You think you have a primrose yellow for the living room, but it comes out looking like a huge banana."

Even if this happens, the finish can be toned down. She suggests using either a color wash, in which thinned paint is brushed or wiped on, or mixing in some white to create a softer color.

Although Travis says it's not so important to be "matchy-matchy" in choosing colors, she says the paint industry is doing a better job in helping simplify the selection process. Paint manufacturers are grouping colors - pastels, whites, heritage colors, etc. - in collections. Fashion pacesetters like Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart are also getting into the act with their own paint lines, which define what colors are "in".

One simple suggestion Travis shares is to pre-test colors on white foam-core boards, which are inexpensive and widely available. Another strategy is to designate a little-used room, such as a guest bedroom, for experimenting.

Certainly, she says, if one has a passion for indigo blue, it's probably best not to use it in a room where people spend a lot of time and where softer colors may be more suitable.

When asked the best place to "go wild," she recommends a bathroom because it's usually the smallest room in the house. "If you make a hideous mistake it's not the end of the world to paint it out," she explains. Little-used dining rooms are another great place to be dramatic, as are children's playrooms.

Tricking the eye

And do people like the results of their painting adventures?

Definitely, according to the e-mail and letters that flood into her TV show. "The letters we get are all about 'I did it and I love it,' " she says. "Few people who use bright color don't like it."

If one isn't comfortable redoing the walls, Travis says doors and stairs offer opportunities for playing with paint.

"Most homes today are built with flat hollow-core doors, but there's no reason they have to look like white fridges around the room," she says. "There are a hundred ways to make them a feature."

Trompe l'oeil - French for trick the eye - is one favorite technique. Her latest book, "Debbie Travis' Decorating Solutions" (Clarkson Potter), includes instructions for transforming a flat door into one that appears to be paneled. Another project is a crazy kids' door, which becomes a whimsical work of art.

Not only is paint affordable, Travis considers it an excellent tool for accentuating favorite room features, or camouflaging least-favorite ones.

"Let's say you've got a grungy kitchen with dark, wood-veneer cupboards and an ugly faux marble laminate countertop," she says.

"The cupboards are easy to paint with these new primers. You can make them so interesting and beautiful that your eye is drawn to them, and away from the countertop. In this way, you can reinvent with paint what you've already got."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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