Sara Eliason on the Visual Conversation of Color

Friends — Today on the blog I am delighted to feature color guru and interior designer Sara Eliason. Sara’s a color expert who has delivered a Tedx Talk about creating a better relationship with our environments.cropped headshot 2

In the Q&A below, she speaks of color as a visual conversation we are constantly engaged in, whether we know it or not. Her idea of elevating the home to altar status and adorning it as a show of love, gratitude and connection to the spirit really resonated with me. And don’t miss her thoughts on determining your signature color palette. It is sure to have you thinking hard about the hues to which you are naturally drawn.

What follows is a super interesting, in-depth dialog. As a fashion designer who also works with color, I find Sara’s message fascinating. This is a read so worthy of your time and attention, as I know you will enjoy Sara’s insightful take on color and environment.
XOXO, Elaine

ET: What is your background and how did the interest in color and design emerge?

SE: My interest in color and design emerged in early childhood, possibly as far back as kindergarten. I have memories in early childhood of conversations around color – for instance I remember an argument that my mother and uncle had when I was about 5 or 6. My uncle was much younger that my mom and so was still a teenager at the time. He got ready to leave my grandmother’s house in a pair of red athletic shorts and a purple T shirt. My mom told him he couldn’t wear that because purple and red didn’t go together. This really struck a nerve for me, and I have honestly spent way too much of this lifetime considering if and how red and purple work together. I’m pretty sure I’ve worked that one out!

As a child I was obsessed with my surroundings and the little details that went into them. Years at school were spent considering the wall colors on the cinder blocks and thoughtfully considering what about them worked, and how they could be improved. I noticed spaces and the materials that made them and how lines and colors interacted, and by the latter half of grade school I was lending a hand at decorating for my mother’s friends when I was meant to be employed as a mother’s helper for the little ones. I had subscriptions to magazines like Victoria and spent my savings on decorating schemes for my bedroom.

By the time I got to high school, I knew my strength and interest was in the arts, but I wasn’t sure how to go about making that a living or a life. I was also torn between the love of art, design, fashion and hands-on work. I had dabbled in all of them and it was hard to know which one I loved most. Twenty years later, I’ve cultivated all of them really, and incorporate all of them into my work. I cannot live without nurturing all of those pursuits.

The initial foray into a career was not so much a matter of decision as a stroke of luck. In my early twenties, I had already spent several years working in banks and financial institutions and it was clear that spending days in a cubicle – no matter how well paid the position or how wonderful the colleagues, was not going to get me out of bed every morning. About two weeks after my first son was born, I needed a little escape from the house and I stumbled into a decorative painting store. They offered classes and sold materials and understood a great deal about finishes and materials from Europe and I was smitten. I took every class that  I could, and painted everything I could get my hands on, and then began teaching classes and taking the odd decorative painting job and before long I had a little business going.

All of this was meant to fill my time until I could actually go to school for design, but as fate would have it, soon I was being asked to select color for clients – it began with paint colors and before I knew what was really happening, I had a niche and a following for color work.  If I had known color work was a career one could choose, I’m pretty sure I would have been interested, but honestly, it found me.  I never made it to design school, but I learned design on the job. I add to my skills list everyday, and consider myself a student everyday. I don’t see how I will ever stop growing or learning as there is always more to discover and hone and greater depths to explore.


ET: How does color affect us, whether it is in our environments and homes or in the clothes and accessories we wear? Elaborate on the sensory connection, like the heightening of senses in response to color and how it makes us feel, and the spiritual affects of color.

SE: Color is the basis of a visual conversation that we are engaged in anytime that we are awake or have our eyes open. We are always being affected by color in our environment, even if we are not aware of it. In the natural world, the palette is ever changing and always harmonious. As light and seasons change and as we move from one climate or area of geography to the next, the color around us in the environment is ever shifting.

The dance between cool and warm hues, the range of intensities, the light and shadows, and the range of values creates endless messages of balanced visual communication that is a direct conversation between our physical environment (the earth) and our spiritual selves (the sky). The cycle of seasons allows us time for all the aspects of our human selves to be nurtured in different ways. There are times for birth, growth, for harvesting and for releasing.

As humans have removed themselves from their natural environment and built cities and infrastructures that allow us to control the elements of our environment, we have become the sun and the earth. By that I mean that we can control how much light we have in our days and what our physical environments are made of. Since we are always being affected by our surroundings, and we have removed the natural cycles and means of balance within our environment, we now have a great responsibility to understand and nurture the relationship that we have with our environments. These environments that I refer to are anything that surrounds us – our bodies, our homes, our offices, our neighborhoods, our cars, our clothing and adornments, our furnishings and even the visual communication that now comes from our tech devices.

This means that our understanding of the visual world around us is not a simple question of aesthetics, it is a powerful tool for affecting our moods, our actions, our creative and intellectual abilities and it is not limited to ourselves. The choices that each of us make as we create our environments has a direct effect on everyone we meet or interact with and in turn, who those people interact with. There is a whole web of collective effect for each of our individual choices in the world of visual communication. It can be a source of great joy or great pain, but it is never benign.


ET: Do you believe color can transform our lives and help us, for example, create a sense of peace, calm, or serenity? How?

SE: Color in our creative environments is the primary tool for organizing our visual communication. We can create whole worlds with it. The thing about color is that is rather slippery. Color doesn’t really exist by itself. Even the way our eyes see it is this great relationship between reflected light and the environment at hand. We can’t see color without seeing it in relationship to light and the other colors around it.

This means that color is the boss. When you first decide to play with it, you learn that it doesn’t ever behave the way you think it ought to. You have this notion that it’s a fixed thing, that red is red or blue is blue and you have only to determine what you want to say and make a choice and somehow that choice will stand on its own. But it doesn’t work that way. Color says, oh no, I am fluid and ever changing and I won’t be the same if you put me next to that other color over there or if you change the quality of the light on me. I’ll show up however I want and you will have to learn to understand and manipulate the unknown if you want to dance with me.

So you never get to take color out of context. Which means to manipulate it, you must choose to understand your choices in terms of a much bigger picture. There’s you, as you relate to the whole physical world, or at the very least, as you relate to your neighbors and the other people in the room with you. The great news is that we then have the ability to show up in a way that represents our awareness of a world that is larger than ourselves.

We can dress ourselves and adorn ourselves and design our environments in such a way that our choices can have a conscious and positive effect on all that we touch. We have great personal power just in the way we get dressed every morning. This may seem like a rather quiet way to communicate, but if you consider that humans are gathering most of their information visually and making an evaluation of that communication before they even realize that they have taken something in, we begin to understand that our visual communication precedes everything we say and do.

If I simply consider how I get dressed today as a primary means of communication with the world, and I understand that I can’t take my color choices out of context of the palette I have been given to work with (in this case, my body) then I can understand that collaborating with color in this sense means to understand my skin tone, my eye, hair and lip color first and foremost so that I am working with what is there. I can’t ignore those colors or I may immediately be out of harmony with myself – so I use a palette that I know plays to my strengths. These are usually the colors that are variations of my own natural coloring or the complements to my natural coloring.  If I dress and accessorize in those colors that complement or are a part of me, I can be assured that I am in harmony with myself.

Next I will consider context. Where will I be that day? What is the tone of that environment? How can I be both complementary to the environment at the same time that I make any messages that I need to communicate through the environment that is me, clear? Do I need to be authoritative? Do I need to connect with others? Is my goal to teach or to nurture or sell an idea? Maybe I will be in a support role that day and it will be best if I can be harmonious but dress to allow someone or something else to take primary focus. Dressing towards the tone of a day or an environment or a season are powerful tools.

ET: You have written about altars and temples, whether the body or the home. Tell us more about that.

SE: This speaks to the notion of reverence and presence that I try to dwell in. If I consider life, all life, to be sacred and filled with the spirit of creation, then honoring that gift is the way that I can be in the act of gratitude and presence. In this way, I can deepen my connection to environment by elevating the body to that of a temple for the spirit and the home to a temple for the body. The act of creating an altar from our gratitude and love for our dwelling spaces is really as simple as dressing the body or designing the home. It is a way of bringing spiritual connection and presence into our daily lives so that making something beautiful is actually a form of gratitude in action. The act of seeing the beauty in something and cultivating and nurturing that beauty then becomes the action of love. This is the result of a perspective that has far reaching effects.

ET: You mention in your Tedx Talk that everyone has a signature color palette. How does one begin to identify the palette? What is your signature palette?

SE: The signature color palette is comprised of two fundamentals. The colors that make you unspeakably happy, and the colors that flatter you. From my work I have noted that most people have colors that they gravitate to for their whole lives that they come back to every time they have a color choice to make. We don’t always have the awareness to see what it is that we are consistently drawn to, but if you take a step away from your closet, or your home, or look at your car or the dishes in your sink, you will begin to see the common denominators in the colors that you gravitate to. These are the colors that bring you joy. They can be called the colors of our personality.

The other half of the palette is made up of the colors that flatter our skin, our eyes and our hair color.  If you combine the colors that exist or compliment your nature, and add the colors of your personality, you have the road map for your personal palette. Now you get to fine tune it.

Determine not just the hues, but the variations of those hues, the subtleties of intensity and value that make that composition of hues really magical. And you can let them vary in intensity and value depending on the season or your mood or your communication and add or subtract to that palette based on what is of the moment. I see color trends as a snapshot of what the collective community is craving at any given time to balance or harmonize a shared feeling.

My personal palette always consists of a variation of black, whisky, warm whites, brassy golds, earthy greens, organic pinks, rich indigos, a variety of grays and terra cotta. I understand after so many years of study how this palette is reflective of both my nature and my personality and therefore how it communicates on my behalf.

ET: What else do you think our reader would want to know in regard to the work you do?  Any tips regarding color or living with color or design? For example, I loved your theory, mentioned in the Ted Talk, on acquiring new pieces for the home (accepting that they are on their way) and letting go of pieces and attachments that no longer serve you.

SE: There are a few things which come up often in my work that empower people to live closer to the heart. When it comes to color and design – whether personal style or interiors or any visual medium of communication – always work with what you have as the fundamental starting point.  If you take what is already there that you cannot change – whether it is your body or your coloring or your architecture and honor it by seeing what is lovely about it first and making peace with it (accepting it as it is now) not ignoring it or trying to see it as it was or as it could be, and then find the way to celebrate it, this is the start of anything beautiful, not to mention the pathway to joy over happiness.

At this point you can let go of anything that no longer serves you that may be holding you back. Release the clothes or furnishings or art that no longer fit who you are as you say thank you for their role in your learning.  Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a the best primer for the process of releasing. Then with the materials at hand as your compass, you begin to map out the journey that you’d like to take – the place you’d like to go next, even if all you know at first is one piece of the puzzle, trust that if your intentions are clear, you will find the next right step, and the next right step, and before you know it you will see a pattern or a map or a story develop.

There are a lot of wonderful teachers and muses out there that can inspire you or lead you to your own story. Collaboration allows space for something larger than ourselves to make itself known, something better than we could have imagined on our own. Give into it were you can, but hold fast to what your instincts guide you to do. Personal style is not a luxury, it is our birthright and a matter of spiritual health.

Each of us has a visual story to tell of our journey, and those stories weave together the most fascinating tapestry. Stay alert to the narrative that is trying to sing through you and know that its expression will bring you joy and wisdom. When looking at inspiration, search for the essence of what you are drawn to, and seek to translate it through your own materials and lens so that you can begin to see the beautiful work of others as a reminder of where your heart is trying to take you rather than a map to follow. The world needs your personal expression of beauty.  As a designer and colorist I have the great privilege to see the beauty in a journey and use it to translate a story that will honor the past, present and future.

Connect with Sara:
Instagram: @saraeliasonsees

P.S. If you enjoyed this post, I’d be thrilled if you’d share it. And don’t forget to follow and subscribe to Join the Collective!

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