Incredible Lightness: An Exploration of White
“White is not romantic to talk about. It doesn’t reproduce well. Compared to red and blue, the pigment history of white is boring,” says master colorist Donald Kaufman. “But white, with its vast range encompassing tens of thousands of perceptible shades, has many hundreds of paint possibilities.” New York-based Kaufman has been exploring these myriad options, and a full spectrum more, since 1976, when he and Taffy Dahl, his wife and business partner, transitioned from being fine artists—he a painter, she a ceramicist—to pioneering a new approach to color, or the lack thereof.
Kaufman and Dahl collaborate with leading architects and designers to create unique palettes and special pigments, all informed by their ongoing research on and understanding of the complex interactions of color, space, and light. Their custom colors, developed for structures ranging from beaux-art museums to contemporary apartments across the globe, are also available by the gallon as the Donald Kaufman Color Collection. The line of paints currently spans 104 hues, each identified by number to avoid the skewing of perceptions that can come from naming colors. “Beige is undervalued because the name has a bad association,” notes Kaufman.
Although the collection includes a handful of bolder hues, nuanced neutrals rule Kaufman’s palette. “Probably ninety percent of all paint purchased are whites and neutrals. All of those other colors on the racks are there to attract people’s attention, but they don’t buy them or paint with them. And if they do, they’re often disappointed,” he explains. “So white is a default fail-safe that really works. And the reason it does is, simply put, it reflects more light.”
“I love dark whites, because colors that retain their reflecting power but still are not garish or very bright can have a feeling of age and a feeling of substance.”Donald Kaufman
Kaufman’s colors are infused not only with special pigment blends designed to enhance luminosity but also practical experience: whipping up a just-right white—not too warm, not too cool—for architect Richard Meier, concocting a cream for a traditional interior in the English countryside, advising the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the wall color that best complements the alabaster skin of John Singer Sargent’s Madame X.
“In making a range of whites or using them, I think it’s not about what the white is, it’s about what the space is,” says Kaufman. “I love dark whites, because colors that retain their reflecting power but still are not garish or very bright can have a feeling of age and a feeling of substance.”