Painted Ladies: The Colorist Movement

Colour Studio principal Jill Pilaroscia played a pivotal role in San Francisco’s colorist movement, which spawned the popular “Painted Ladies” – fancifully painted Victorian houses for which the city is now famous.   These houses are beloved by visitors around the world, but many don’t know the history behind them.

painted-ladies
Painted Ladies on Steiner Street in Alamo Square, also known as Postcard Row


To begin, it’s important to note San Francisco’s role as a “unique architectural museum,” write The Painted Ladies book series authors Michael Larson and Elizabeth Pomada.  48,000 Victorian houses were built here between 1850 and 1915.   After the 1906 earthquake and fire, some 16,000 original houses remained; more modest and mass-produced homes were built on the western and southern sides of the city. 

The colorist movement began in the “Psychedelic ‘60s” in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood, the heart of the counterculture of the time, Pilaroscia explains. “People wanted to show their joie de vivre and express their individuality through restoring and painting these beautifully ornamented buildings.” Homeowners and professional housepainters adorned their Victorians in numerous whimsical colors, from vermillion and cobalt to gold and turquoise. Strong color was used to differentiate architectural detail and ornament typical of the period, including fanciful gingerbread trim and light-capturing bay windows. Color was used to accentuate the asymmetrical facades and detailed patterns that architects of the period used to distinguish buildings from one another.

San Franciscans were “passionate about using color to make Victorian architecture sing,” Pomada and Larson point out in How to Create Your Own Painted Lady.  “By painting Victorian homes with extraordinary details in every color that hand, mind, and eye can conceive, San Francisco’s colorist movement became a unique form of self-expression.”

As the Christian Science Monitor wrote in 1987, “What started as a lark became a local then national trend.” The Painted Ladies effort eventually spread to nearly every American city with similar architecture, with notable concentrations in St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Cincinnati.


s_r10af9kleug0064
Jill Pilaroscia mixing colors in the early days of the Painted Ladies


Pilaroscia began mixing her own colors in 1975 after graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute, joining  a “boys club” of local colorists/painters.“I had to be able to do everything they did,” she remembers, including mixing paint in the back of her truck and climbing scaffolding to apply it.



Pilaroscia’s color scheme for 700 Broderick uses warm terra cotta tones and features a subtle faux finish on the massive chimney.

 

painted-lady-02
Pilaroscia’s design for 700 Broderick Street sparkles with 23 karat patent gold leaf.


Customizing color for these detail-rich structures was no simple task. “Victorian architecture provides many planes for color,” Pilaroscia says, “and each client wanted their house to look different.”    In devising a color palette, she took cues from the house’s architecture to create a balanced, unique scheme.   

The house at 700 Broderick Street in San Francisco is a case in point. For this Stick/Eastlake structure, Pilaroscia hand-mixed each color based on the house’s colorful stained glass window.  The overall palette grew from those hues, she says. It was a study in cool and warm.  “I like working with complimentary colors as it gives a scheme complexity and dimension,” she notes. “You can see more gradations that way.”

Integrating the house’s many surfaces which advance and recede as well as its ornaments is a main objective.  “I like to do ribbons of color to weave the house together,” Pilaroscia explains.  “It orchestrates the surfaces of a building and integrates the bay and the body.” 

Pilaroscia’s knowledge of color, along with her art and science practice set her up as an expert in her field. In 1987 she was recruited by Hewlett Packard’s corporate real estate division to become their global color consultant for both exterior and interior environments for 14 years. Yet the legacy of Pilaroscia’s role in the colorist movement lives on. As Pomada and Larsen note, “The Painted Ladies make people look up. They make people more aware and eager for color, and not just on Victorians but on all styles of architecture.”

1919-pierce
Pilaroscia’s 1919 Pierce Street color scheme painted by Local Color Painting


Pilaroscia  states, “It was a privilege to be in involved with the Painted Ladies and the colorist movement. It allowed me the opportunity to contribute to San Francisco’s beloved and dynamic visual landscape.”  



Color Shock: Sandy Skoglund

Sandy Skoglund is a conceptual artist and photographer based in New Jersey. The artist began creating life-size installations in the early 1970s.  By the late 1970s, she became interested in photographically documenting her conceptual ideas.
Color plays a large role in Skoglund’s work.  The artist employs contrasting hues within monochromatic scenes to engage the brain’s visual process using color psychology and associations to manipulate the viewer’s experience. 

She works meticulously on large-scale installations, crafting every detail by hand with a team of assistants.  A single piece can often take several months to complete.   The resulting surrealistic scenes, dominated by strong color, are sometimes playful, sometimes haunting.  Art critic Marge Goldwater states Skoglund can “transform the mundane into the mysterious.”
 
Germs are Everywhere, copyright 1984
“Skoglund juxtaposes unlikely images to create tension and the impression of a world gone seriously wrong,” notes an article in Artask.com. Most of her pieces feature an altered landscape or artificial environment where nature and human culture are twisted or exaggerated.  They seem designed specifically to make the viewer uncomfortable.
 
raining-popcorn2001
Raining Popcorn, copyright 2001
 
“Color vibration is always exciting to me, “ Skoglund shared via email.   “The adjacent edges of contrasting cool and warm being my favorite strategy. I use this method in order to enhance the visual excitement within the images.”  She says, “I call my work with color ‘color shock.”

radioactive-cats1980
Radioactive Cats, copyright 1980

Two of her most renowned and evocative works, Radioactive Cats and Revenge of the Goldfish, appeared at the Whitney Biennial Exhibition in 1981. Radioactive Cats features green painted clay cats running amok in a grey kitchen. It is a scene she sculpted over a period of months and subsequently photographed. When asked about her color choice, Skoglund says, “I arrived at the green because the cats have turned radioactive and green would be one of the colors that you might think would reference nuclear properties.” 
 
sandy_portrait2016
Portrait of Sandy Skoglund, copyright A. Baccili 2016
 
In Revenge of the Goldfish, the artist imagined the bedroom as a “watery” place and chose a blue-green aqua that she says “feels like water and sky at the same time.”  “The vibration of orange against blue makes the orange more vivid and the blue more vivid than if they were by themselves,” she notes. “I wanted the vibrancy that comes from opposing colors banging up against each other.”
 
revenge-of-the-goldfish1981
Revenge of the Goldfish, copyright 1981


For Skoglund’s work entitled Fox Games she says, “I wanted a true red, and the selection of grey had to do with a grey that would vibrate with the red.  I always spend a lot of time on the color, getting the exact value, hue and intensity. “ 

foxgames1989
Fox Games, copyright 1989

In Cocktail Party, the artist used a method she calls “color flooding.”  The scene is made up of bright orange cheese doodles, producing an almost neon effect merely through repetition. “Some color is naturally unnatural,” she points out.  “I did not enhance the bright yellow orange of the entire piece – I simply copied the garish color that was already part of the identity of the subject matter.”  


the-cocktail-party1992
Cocktail Party, copyright 1992. 

Whether she is evoking danger, disaster or uncertainty, Sandy Skoglund relies on color to surprise, unsettle, and trigger emotion.