AT 76, Ann McGuirk seems an unlikely candidate to make waves, but the great-grandmother is taking a step as radical as it gets in suburbia. She's having the outside of her Santa Monica home painted a color bolder than beige. A lot bolder. A crew of painters is putting the finishing touches on a cobalt blue deep enough to dive into.
"It's very blue," says a jogger, shuffling by on the tree-lined street of rehabbed Craftsmans and Tudors.
July is peak home-painting season, and you can drive through neighborhoods from Malibu to Palm Springs and find the few, the brave, the festive -- people such as the McGuirks who are unafraid to let the block know that life is better in living color. There's the day-glo orange home lighting up a corner of Venice, the sapphire-soaked adobe with a luminous tangerine wall in Mar Vista, the home in Santa Monica that's lime green with blue trim.
Mark Shaw calls these beacons of vivaciousness "Easter eggs," and he's never too excited to see one. When he spots an egg house shining on brightly, "it's like, there goes the neighborhood," says Shaw, a real estate agent for ReMax who used to live near a home painted pink and purple. "It's equivalent to a house that's been run down. If it's in an urban area, it's a little better, but if it's in a suburb, it really sticks out."
In the organism that is a neighborhood, expressing your creative freedom through house paint can stir up unrest -- clashing aesthetics, worries about property values and lawsuits from homeowners' associations. Novelist Sandra Cisneros wound up in a high-profile dispute with her neighborhood association and the city of San Antonio when the shade she picked for her house was deemed too purple.
Safe paint colors may be easier, but they have led to a monotonous residential landscape and turned the city of real light, sunny Los Angeles, into a pale version of what it could be, say some design experts. "The light in Southern California works great for color," says Frank Mahnke, an environmental designer with offices in San Diego and Geneva, and author of "Color, Environment & Human Response." He says homeowners as well as builders just don't take advantage of their options.
Not McGuirk. Living between two white houses, with more white and beige across the street, she doesn't mind being an island of blue in her home of 37 years. "We're very big fans of Catalina," she says. "That's the color of houses on Catalina and the ocean."
THAT new hue might be just a harmless homage to the sea, but in a town obsessed with resale value, bland shades still rule. For something so apparently basic, color is a surprisingly complex and often subliminal affair, capable of swinging emotions and purchasing decisions without us being any the wiser.
"Color is not really just color," Mahnke says. "It's a visual perception and, like every perception, it evokes emotion. We see color first before we see form."
Tints and hues can push emotional buttons. Red gets the blood racing, while blue has a calming effect, color psychologists say. Personality types are drawn to certain colors. Those with an affinity for yellow tend to be happy and carefree, while those who like violet are creative and artistic, says Barbara Richardson, director of color marketing for ICI Paints, manufacturer of Glidden.
This cocktail of emotional preferences is affected by culture, neighborhood and the ebb and flow of fashion. Splashing on raucous colors is the norm in many sun-bathed realms around the world, from the Bahamas to Brazil to the South Pacific. In Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras, exterior walls of homes are often alive with eye-popping combinations: orange with lavender and deep green, or neon lime with burgundy and pale blue -- combinations that would touch off panic in Irvine.
In Central America, "they believe that things that are alive have color and that things that die lose their color," says Jeffrey Becom, a photographer and painter whose passion for searching out traditional painted architecture is chronicled vividly in "Maya Color: The Painted Villages of Mesoamerica." "It's part of being tremendously alive."
Becom practices what he preaches. His home in Pacific Grove, Calif., sports nine different exterior colors.
Graphic designer Sally Geier's buoyant Craftsman in Venice has three colors, a combination found nowhere else on her block -- a base of deep mustard ocher, with dark trim and burgundy detailing. It's a feast that leaves the rest of the block a whiter shade of pale.
"People say it's very ‘Venice,' a code word for loud," Geier says.
She admits she was a bit hesitant when her partner, a photographer, wanted to liven up their formerly tan home last February. He likes vibrant colors, but she "was worried about whether I could live with it, like an orange car." After a scary moment with a garish aqua trim, ditched for a darker blue, she loves the result and likes having a home that's not like any other.