Friday, January 13, 2012

The Art of Creating a Polished Room

The Jefferson Hotel, Richmond VA, Photographed by Patricia Lyons

Jennings and I were talking yesterday with Rob Cox, the winemaker at Paradise Springs winery in Clifton, Virginia (more on that later) and I commented that the wine we were sipping tasted uncomplicated, but not unfinished.  Rob said in winemaking, the term is "polished."

John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) 1884

In art, polish is what makes a painting feel, to the viewer, organized, fully realized and complete, and it is often the hallmark that distinguishes a professional painter from an amateur.

Brie Williams, Photographer

In decorating interiors or creating outdoor garden rooms, the concept is the same.  Some rooms, whether they are formal or casual, humble or very grand, just feel good.   A secret to attaining this polish, or sense of completeness, is to pay close attention to the composition of darks, mid-tones, and highlights, just as a master artist or winemaker does.

As a painter, I can relate that beginning artists almost always make one of these mistakes:  Either the entire painting is created in middle values--the dark areas are not dark enough and the highlights are not light enough--or, the entire painting has too few middle values, and your eye bounces back and forth crazily between darks and lights with no place to rest.

(I used to wonder why the zebra is not camouflaged a dull beige like many other animals on the African plains, but now I suspect that the genius of the zebra's crazy black and white pattern is that it becomes very difficult for a predator to focus on the moving animal, or on any one element in a running herd.  But I digress...)

Even this elegant "all-white" room from the Traditional Home showhouse has lights, mediums, and darks

Anyway, color actually matters less in creating polish than you might think.  An all medium-value room will likely be dull and monotonous to look at and live in, even if it is orange.  Even a monocromatic scheme needs highs and lows.  Imagine listening to a song composed of only middle C, played over and over again.

On the other hand, a room composed of only dark and light values might dance with energy, but can be exhausting or even distressing over time if there is no place to rest the eye.

Graceful rooms, just like good wine, pleasing paintings, and beautiful songs, have deep soulful darks; clean, light lights; and middle values to act as a transition between the two.

This room is a great example....  nice use of mid-tones on the beagles.

Thomas Jayne, Photographed by Brie Williams

So, how do you check your design in a painting or a room or a garden?  One quick way is to look at it through squinted eyes, as this will reduce the effect of colors and make values more pronounced.  This is a masterful composition by Thomas Jayne.

Or, take a photo of your room in black and white.  You can also take a color photo and convert it to grey scale in a photo-editing program.  This will help you understand how the eye moves around your room.

Samuel Melton Fisher, Flower Makers

An artist knows that the focal point of a painting is frequently where the lightest light meets the darkest dark.  In decorating, the eye is naturally led in the same way.  When you look at your black and white photo, you may be surprised to discover that the focal point of your room isn't what you thought it was.

Architect Robert Wade

Architects and designers use a range of dark, medium and light values to create rhythm and "flow" in a room just like an artist draws the viewer's eye through a painting.

Dark, medium and light values can help set the mood of an interior room, or a garden room, creating excitement or repose.  The psychological component of color notwithstanding, you could create a relaxing chartreuse room or an exciting beige room, if it is skillfully composed with the correct balance of values.

Harry Slatkin

Sometimes just changing the value of a lampshade or rug can make all the difference in the world to the rhythm and mood of a room.  For those of you who are musicians, this analogy will make sense--does your eye sweep through the room like a waltz, bounce between values energetically like the crisp rat-tat-tat of a snare drum, or drift softly like a lullaby?

But a good general rule is that if you want more drama, turn up the contrast.

Amelia Handegan, Photographer:  Pieter Estersohn

Want more serenity?  Reduce the contrast by adding more mid-tones.  It can be fun to play with these aspects of polish and finish to create a masterfully designed room or garden.

Happy Weekend!   xo, N.G.


  1. Excellent, informative post! Fabulous decor.

  2. Thanks for the great tips. So important. At times when I am painting, I take my contacts out to get the tones to become clearer.
    Beautiful images here!

  3. What great post and I loved the quip about the beagles, I've always liked walking beagles as they seem to go with my wardrobe!

  4. T- It's funny how people seem to either look like their dogs or they go really well with their wardrobe!

    SS- Thanks! I've never heard of taking out your contacts but I suppose that would work great. Sometimes I'll paint way into the waning light of the day without turning the light on in my studio, because in lower light I can see the values in the painting more easily.

    K- Thanks so much for coming by!

  5. Fantastic illustrated "tutorial" on color, tone, value and indirectly composition.
    I have to put this post in my favorites folder!

    I can't quite articulate how what you're talking about relates to a series of thoughts i've had of late. The jist of it is that a house is a place filled with furniture and objects. A home is a place filled with experiences and memories. Somehow, it relates to the word Polish. More tp ruminate on...


  6. ToD- I can't wait to hear where your ruminating takes you. You bring up a good point and I've been working off and on with a post somewhat related. While Home may be wherever the person you love (and loves you) is, I agree with you that A home is a place filled with experiences and memories. Or, maybe, it is a place that supports your experiences and memories. I've seen houses so packed to the rafters with "memories" that there isn't one square inch of space for living today- and certainly no space for the future. But to have a place that smiles at you as you walk in the door, that supports your habits and patterns and experiences and helps you create a life, that's pretty great. We spend so much time looking to others to "support" us. Our homes are perfect vehicles from which we can support ourselves. A hot shower and a warm, clean, fluffy towel to dry off with makes a world of difference in the morning. A comfortable mattress, dish towels that actually dry the dishes, a proper chair with a good light to sit and read the paper- makes a house that is supportive of creating beautiful experiences and memories day to day.

    January 14, 2012 12

  7. fascinating! i love the idea of de-saturating a picture to bring out the highs and lows.

  8. Thank you for commenting on my decorating dilema and reminding me NOT to buy anything until I get my paint color straightened out.
    Excellent well received advice.
    I wish you all were decorating for me. I find everything on your sight to be divine!
    When you referred to Sarah, I am assuming you were referring to Sarah Richardson?
    Also.. I wish I knew who was posting when you all post, Jennings or Gates.

  9. Pigtown Design- Love all the purple in Baltimore. So glad you popped over! Funny, de-saturating pictures gets kind of addictive. It really helps show the bones of a room.

    Kathy-You are a dear! I can't wait to see your new color. Yes, Sarah Richardson, love her composure! It's always Gates posting. Jennings calls and says "Hey, I'm having coffee now...why isn't there anything new to read?"

  10. I can hardly wait to take black and white photos...loved all of the great information!! Hope you're having a wonderful weekend ~

  11. What a helpful hint to use black and white photos to really see the room. I think it will help me with a few of our not quite polished rooms that have been difficult to get just so. I will be referring back to this post frequently. Thank you.

  12. Hi Linda, thank you for popping over to say hi. I agree, some rooms can be such a challenge. I am always amazed at what photographing does and what photographing in black and white does! I use this when I am having trouble with a painting too.


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