Refusing to paint tan


For some reason this weekend, (maybe because we were staying in a modern and inspiring Sofitel in Chicago), I recalled a quote from Antonio Ballatore when he was a contestant on HGTV’s Design Star. He’s designing a living room for a Navy family whose husband is in Afghanistan. The mom has requested a room done in neutral colors like tan and caramel. Antonio comes back from the store with blue paint.

“Tan isn’t the answer. … I didn’t come here to paint walls tan! … I don’t want to paint a wall tan, and that’s where I’m putting my foot down! … I will gladly go home right now for refusing to paint tan. I will go home a happy American for not paintin’ somethin’ tan on a Navy base. … As designers, I feel we’re here to bring something great to the space, especially in a Navy base where the front gate is tan, the house is tan, the grass is tan, the kids’ dog is tan. Everything’s tan!”

Thanks to Oregon Live for archiving the quote.

Ballatore won that season of Design Star and now has his own HGTV show, The Antonio Treatment. Ballatore’s designs always amaze me. It’s incredible to me how freely he is able to allow his mind to roam to come up with ideas. It’s also exceptional the degree to which he’s willing to risk failure and stand behind the big decisions he makes. He also pushes his clients to become more interesting people than they have the impulse to be, to enjoy with him the freshness and freedom of breaking norms (the client and judges loved the blue when they saw it complete, though they were hesitant at first). This boldness with just the right amount of pushiness is the essence of who Ballatore is, and somehow he still seems easy to work with and warm and compassionate to the people around him.

I try to be this way both as a consultant and a novelist. I’d like to make my career charmingly refusing to paint tan. I suppose the way you earn that right is to make your blue-walled rooms consistently amazing.

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This article has 9 comments

  1. Elizabeth 05/16/2011, 2:46 pm:

    Interesting comparison. Ballatore uses paint and architecture to avoid “tan”. What dimensions in your writing do you use to keep from falling into tan? Are there techniques or people you use to say “is this too brown?” (if you’re willing to share :) )
    As an emerging writer it’s hard for me to know how to create that pop in my writing without getting gimmicky; it’s also hard to know when to push the blue instead of conceding to tan (especially when your audience might think they _want_ tan).

    • Bryan 05/16/2011, 3:12 pm:

      Good question. As a writer of fiction, I think it’s by rejecting the first through ninth ideas you have, the ones that are, if you’re honest with yourself, derivative. I think it’s by starting with what inspires you instead of what you think the market will accept (the market seems to want unlimited vampire novels, but I am not the guy to give the world another one). That said, Antonio’s clients do have to live happily in the spaces he designs, and I do want to write novels that will be published and enjoyed, so market reaction is always a consideration. It just can’t be the main driver. You want to start a new parade, not be the ninth car in a parade.

      As a consultant, it’s not taking the easy, insincere route of telling your clients what they often want to hear, that the way they are doing it or believe they want to do is fantastic, and you’ll help them do more of it. It’s pushing back and persuading them that a new way will be more effective. More generally, I think it’s avoiding work you find dull or completely uninspiring or feel doesn’t make a difference. I turned down a contract promoting community banks a couple of years ago, for instance, because as a longtime online bank enthusiast, I just didn’t have enough enthusiasm for the topic to do it really well.

      How do others of you do it, or how could you?

      • Cathy 05/16/2011, 11:59 pm:

        Thats why my entry is painted black as well as a wall in my laundry room…..white is not a color, it is the absences of color…life has many colors and your mood sets the color…I am always inspired by nature and the colors it gives us. Nature will always tell you what colors go together as well. I can see how writing is also inspired by color. Some books give you a blue mood…Others, red, that warm feeling..stay true to yourself, don’t be tan :)

  2. Mel 05/16/2011, 5:11 pm:

    Great question, Elizabeth and equally great answer, Bryan!

    My husband and I write for children and record it in podcast form with a compendium blog. Our main goal in starting this endeavor two and a half years ago was creating stories for “all ages” that could be enjoyed and shared by families, classrooms, and friends. Of course making the stories entertaining is the fun part for us, but also making the stories about subjects and concepts that children, parents, teachers, and students could relate to was just as essential in our creative process.

    People often will not willingly stray from their favorite books or tan walls. They find comfort in knowing them, in their consistencies, in their routine. However, if you help them by creating a story or color scheme that they would have never thought they would enjoy, you help them to take a step out of their comfort zone and gave it a try.

    My husband and I will often be asked, “What is a podcast?” As soon as we mention the word “download” or “blog”, people will often ask, “Oh, is it hard to do?” Our answer is always, “No, here, let us show you.” Once you show others a new way, a different way, they have more options to share and learn from in their daily life.

    • Celina 07/25/2011, 8:51 am:

      Full of salient points. Don’t stop believing or writing!

  3. Charmie 05/17/2011, 1:22 am:

    Bryan, I totally get it. I had seen an AT episode before I knew who he was. I knew I was a bit bored w/HGTV and had not seen Design Star that past season, but was home sick one Sat night or I might never have caught his show, ever. I remember flipping back and forth looking for something better to watch while screaming at the TV “What the heck is this idiot doing?!” I was livid that it looked as if he were totally “over-doing” this bar he was renovating. Yet, I couldn’t stop watching, but didn’t know why. When it was finally complete and the “reveal” was happening, I sat in stunned embarrassment as I “apologized” to the TV for judging this designer so harshly.
    I am one of those people who may have wanted to move away from a “beige/tan” world, but was not sure what it would look like, so, I resisted it without even knowing it. I believe a lot of people want change but fear the unknown so they stick with a “beige” world be it color, design, job, literature or life in general. It’s a matter of being stuck in the familiar, like someone who keeps repeating the same thing, no matter how bad it might be for them. This is the kind of thinking in which one would rather stay in something boring, bad or unhealthy out of fear for the unknown.
    Elizabeth hits it dead on talking about those who ask about “podcasts” and showing them that it’s a lot easier than they think. Once again, fear of the unknown and that they are “too old,” not “techie savvy” like you or what have you. I don’t think Antonio knows just how unique he is. He’s showing people, in a very matter-of-fact way how to really “think outside of the box” without being pushy. Now, that’s not to say that there are those who “hate” this or anything in life that is new or unfamiliar to them. Some people may either not be ready to grow or just plain ole’ want to stay right where they are in life. That being said, some may just not like it. It doesn’t mean they are “closed minded”. I believe that would be a little unfair to say.
    I’m a teacher and one of those who refused to have a “September” box, so to speak. I believe that each class I get is unique and needs lessons and materials based on what they know and need to learn. I also am not artistic but will NOT limit children to my own limitations but allow then to freely explore color, art and design in their projects be they Kinder or Middle School kids. This holds true in all of the subject areas because it happens to be true in more than just art.
    I also don’t mind a child expressing their frustration with anger, but listen to them rant and try to figure out a way to understand and help them channel a healthy way to internalize and share their feelings without “correcting” them on the spot.
    My favorite groups to teach are the generally “disenfranchised” children who are usually the “gifted” and the “low achievers” They are often one and the same but are “labeled” or “pigeon holed” because of their learning abilities or disabilities as it may happen.
    If Secretary of State, Arne Duncan, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pearson (testing producers) and all of those who believe high test scores are truly equal to true achievement, our children will lose their sense of being expressive in lieu. They have taken the arts out of education, added longer hours for children, and have taken to “regulating” everything taught. It seems those who have determined “testing” is “all-important” have not read the research and are telling the public our children are “failing” by using incorrect measures of testing. The public believes what the the press writes and the press no longer seems to “investigate” and “research” that which they write about. They seem to express what their owners points of view or better yet, their owners financial invested interests.
    My art is not in writing, painting, design, etc., but in teaching children who are, for all intent and purpose, “misunderstood”. It’s definitely OK to color outside the lines, or paint a sky shocking pink as long as I know they are aware with all of the colors of the sky which can be shocking pink at times. I’m sure I had been told this but didn’t really understand until I had finished my computer ed classes and wrote a grant to get computer into my classroom. I showed my 4th and 5th grade students how to use “logo” to create a scene with moving steps, lights, etc. I turned around and saw their little desperate faces wanting to “jump in”. I realized I was “controlling” what I wanted to see them “create,” stopped talking and told them to do whatever it is that came to mind. Well, a week later, I looked over at their work. Needless to say, they went far beyond my rudimentary offerings. They didn’t have a simple house with a simple garden and moving steps. No, they had neighborhoods with varieties of styles of homes with cars moving up and down the streets. Things I was not able to do myself. They were sooooo creative and free and that was when I truly understood the concept of “limiting them to my own limitations”.
    Funny thing about gifted and special needs students. Some areas, like computers, and the arts happen to be the great “equalizer” allowing them to feel “normal”. Often, people expect the “gifted” student to “perform” better than the other students not realizing that they are ready to move on from whatever it is that is being taught; they have master it and don’t want to keep “repeating” what they already know. A couple of my favorite comments have been, “Well, if he’s so gifted, why can’t he read?” Even “gifted” students can have learning disabilities. And, “If he/she’s so gifted, why isn’t this simple math homework done?” My response to this ignorance is, “Well, does he/she know how to multiply?” And when they say yes, I respond, “Well why would a gifted student “need” 50 multiplication problems to practice if they already know how and tested well on it?
    The other misnomer is believing a child with special needs “can’t” be in the music class because of his/her learning disabilities. Well, I had a retarded cousin who was a music savant. She was amazing. She was able to totally play arranged pieces of music that she had NEVER heard before by listening to someone just give her one or two lines of a song. She was even able to pretty accurately figure out the transitions to music without ever hearing it as well. And the same goes for every other form of art.
    Thanks to all of the amazing artists out there, no matter the art form, for reminding all of us of our own abilities and that we, too can inspire others to go outside of their “boxes” to explore the possibilities instead of our limitations. Now there’s something you cant test!

  4. Bryan 05/17/2011, 9:07 am:

    Mel, Charmie and Cathie, what great examples of how you can refuse to do it the safe way in every line of work. Great discussion. Let’s keep it going. Charmie, I admire few professions more than public school teacher, and I’m grateful to you for overcoming both students’ individual challenges and, unfortunately, an inflexible bureaucracy to make sure that each student in your classroom gets what he or she needs. I teach a little at the college level and find it so rewarding. I think what you do is 10-12 times harder, at least.

  5. Elizabeth 05/17/2011, 4:42 pm:

    Found this quote and it seemed another perspective on avoiding tan writing:

    “Beware of clichés. Not just the ­clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are ­clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.” Geoff Dyer

  6. fcbarcelona news 07/10/2011, 10:37 am:

    I like your site, can you tell me what platform it is on?

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