About Us

Hello! I am an artist whose love of color directed me toward creating larger and larger paintings, leading to works the size of walls, rooms, and whole buildings.

My education and experience contribute an extensive knowledge of the history of Art and Architecture to what I do. I have a degree in Art and Art History from Cornell University and Mills College.

A curiosity for detecting the hidden colors of antiquity, and the conviction that I can improve any building, old or new, led me to found my business.

For over twenty years I have designed and decorated our visual environment, and have added new value to properties in over 39 states.

I set trends in color, constantly creating unique solutions for homes, businesses, and communities, inside and out. My colors can be seen on and in over 2,000 locations in Portland, alone.

My clients often become my friends, and I'm grateful for this. Together we bring beauty and meaning to our built environment.

Thank you for requesting my services for your projects.

© Mary McMurray, all rights reserved.

Mary McMurray

Phone: 503 287 4354


Music copyright © David Kidd

The Color Detective TM

We Solve Color Crimes

We help you find your missing colors

THE OREGONIAN, Homes & Gardens, DECEMBER 4, 2003

In Living Color

A designer paints her way through a black-and-white world

By Bridget A. Otto 503-221-8527

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 uplifting environments.

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 the techniques.

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 Northwest.

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.

Business Journal
Serving Greater Portland


The Color Detective

Mary McMurray's Art First uses paint to help people discover their 'color needs'


Mary McMurray has some colorful suggestions for people bored with off-white walls and bland decor at their home or business.
    She wants to spread shades of warmth and harmony throughout the metropolitan area. She's a professional painter with a black belt in color design; a hybrid of contractor and fine artist. Her Portland company Art First, specializes in decorating with color.
    The focus on paint exclusively sets Art First apart from other decorators, she says.
    "I think of myself as a color detective because I help people discover their color needs," says McMurray. She calls herself a colorist, an expert on the psychological impressions colors create in the psyche. A hint of color can refresh the senses, she says.
    McMurray's approach is very different from the typical painter's. House painting verges on fine art for McMurray. Colors not only have to look attractive, they have to send the right message to the viewer.
    Some colors can stimulate the intellect, while others calm the nerves or excite the appetite.
    Painting contractors concern themselves with neatly covering walls with paint, but they usually let someone else make the artistic decisions. Architects of commercial buildings are greenhorns when it comes to color theory, she says. Interior designers, on the other hand, know about colors, but they often lack a good understanding of how to use paint.

Art First breaks boring
color barriers
faux too

Faux finishes by Mary McMurray in Ann Sacks Tile & Stone, a Northwest Portland home improvement retailer

   Art First's work includes redoing the color scheme of offices and stores.
    McMurray also formulates custom-made colors of paint, using her trained eye to determine how much pigment to add to the mix.
Finding a career that took advantage of her interest in art wasn't easy for McMurray. After graduating from Mills College with a degree in Art and Art History, she worked as a designer for an architectural firm.
    She got a California contractor's license in 1978 and started Art First in 1989. Several Portland retailers have taken advantage of her skills as a colorist. Ann Sacks Tile & Stone, a Portland home improvement retailer, had Art First dress up its showroom with faux marble and copper finishes. The wall finishes, which simulate stone, metal or even leather, have become very popular, McMurray says."People love it. It's the kind of thing where you don't know where to quit," says Bill Centers, a manager at Ann Sacks Tile. Art First spruced up Ted Isaacs for Hair, a beauty shop in Johns Landing, with 13 different colors of paint. Each department in the salon, from shampooing to manicuring, had a different hue. McMurray says the idea was to give customers the impression that a process was going on, as beauticians took them from booth to booth.
    Unfortunately, McMurray says, many building owners and architects have monochrome vision. So pervasive are timid off-whites, grays and beiges that it often takes some coaxing to get clients to try something new. It's a mindset that keeps people living and working in dull surroundings, she says.
    An employee at a local bank told McMurray that the color scheme in her office was so depressing that "she felt blinded by the light," whenever she left the building. A few people are actually fearful of color, says McMurray, recalling a woman who felt she wasn't daring enough to have a blue house. People tend to play it safe and go with the old stand-by colors.
    "Consequently we end up with colors like this," says McMurray, pointing to a stark white wall at the Oregon Convention Center where her company had set up a display for the recent home improvement show.



ART FIRST Clients include:
The Highcliffe Restaurant, Oregon City
Grace Memorial Episcopal Church
The Hollwood Theatre
Church of St. Mary Magdelene
The Flavel House Museum, Astoria
Classic Sash and Door Showroom, inside Rejuvenation, Portland
BASCO Appliance Showroom, Portland
Convergent Communications, Portland
St. Mary's Cathedral, Portland
The Dalles Civic Auditorium, OR
The Meeker Mansion, Puyallup, WA
Holy Redeemer Catholic Church and School
Hood River School District, OR
The Rose City Park Presbyterian Church
The City of Hillsboro, OR
The Bellevue Club, CA
The San Francisco S.P.C.A.
And many other delighted homeowners and professionals.

ART FIRST is a Member of:
The Architectural Heritage Center
The Oregon Historical Society
The National Trust for Historic Preservation
Restore Oregon
The Bosco-Milligan Foundation

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PHONE: 503 287 4354