At 19, Mary McMurray traveled to Crete and saw her future.
She saw it in the spectacular mural work that lines the ancient
Greek palaces. To McMurray, the art became the environment. A
beautiful, serene environment. It was a revelation to the young
art student from Cornell, who decided that she, too, could create
Today McMurray smiles at her good fortune. Through her
color consultation business, Art First Colors for Architecture, McMurray does just that for a variety of clients.
After graduating with degrees in fine art and art history,
McMurray painted and became an interior designer. The New York
native says she quickly realized she was interested only in color.
She researched the psychological effect color has on people.
She repainted her apartment. The floors. The walls. Everything.
She became a painting contractor because other painters couldn't
get her colors right. They were either color-blind or didn't
care, she says. She began working in faux finishes and teaching
For 30 years, McMurray worked in a variety of aspects of design.
It was just a few years ago, she says, that she was able to specialize
in color consulting.
From the Flavel House Museum in Astoria to Zinc Bistrot in
Northwest Portland to private homes, showrooms and churches,
McMurray has been creating "beautiful, uplifting environments"
through her use of color, whether historically correct or just right for the room.
Her formal studies, practical experience and research have
made her a walking encyclopedia of color history. She has studied
how color selection follows different aesthetics from generation
to generation. Take, for example, landscape designer and architect
Andrew Jackson Downing.
Houses before 1830 were almost universally painted white with
green shutters, partly because Thomas Jefferson had an ideal
of the American republic being like the ancient Roman republic,
McMurray says. That's why Monticello has all those columns. Everything
wood was painted white to make it look like marble. Even farmhouses
were painted white, she says. It was a pure classical look.
Around 1830, there was a big backlash against white houses.
Architects wrote about how horrible it was to paint a house white.
Downing introduced color plates showing off the exterior colors
he recommended for houses. He looked to nature, saying a house
must never stand out against the landscape, but should blend
in. Such a bow to nature remains a prevalent aesthetic in the
And with a bow to Downing, McMurray works to reconnect with
our environment through color. She doesn't work in trends, she
says. Rather she looks for what's right for the architecture
and for the space now and in years to come.
When asked to repaint the Flavel House in Astoria, McMurray
used microscopic analysis to determine the original colors of
the 1885 Victorian mansion built by Captain George Flavel, Columbia
River bar pilot.
Before McMurray's work, the house was painted dark green and
brown. McMurray says the previous painter had examined the layers
of paint on the house to find the original color, but she theorizes
that he found primer."When I did the microscopic analysis, the colors turned
out like this," McMurray says, showing a photo of the Queen
Anne mansion bathed in light stone colors with a darker trim. "So you can see that the Downing colors persisted."
Getting the color right for the era and the architecture can
be a challenge for McMurray. Especially when a client falls in
love with a color.
"I've had people insist I tell them the name of a color
I've used elsewhere," McMurray says, her easy laughter filling
the air. But what they don't understand, she says, is that not
all colors work in all places.
McMurray smiles at the challenge.