Paint sample colors
There's a persistent urban myth that Eskimos have at least 50 names for snow. That may have been debunked, but I'm pretty sure there's another group in the running for Most Names for One Thing: paint companies. They have developed at least a thousand names for the color white: moonlit snow, colonial white, diamond mine, combed cotton, capri cream, vanilla wafer, linen ruffle, mother of pearl, heirloom lace—the list goes on and on.

I went through 13 shades of white, four shades of pink, five shades of red, two shades of plum and eight shades of orangey-rust colors to achieve my final palate (some of which are listed in the title of this piece). I looked at my artwork, my floor rugs and the hues of my plants. I pulled colors from all those places, as well as from the book Mexican Color.

While picking the colors was difficult, picking the paint was easy. I went back to what I knew would work.

When I moved to Kansas three years ago, I was determined to use a zero-VOC paint that would not give off harmful volatile organic compounds. (Take a look at my last article on flooring, for the low-down on VOCs and why they should be avoided.)

VOCs are known to add to indoor air pollution and contribute to (or trigger) a host of problems, ranging from skin allergies to headaches to possibly cancer. Zero-VOC paints contain fewer than 5 grams of VOCs per liter. (That ratio really refers to the base paint. Most pigments contain a higher percentage of VOCs, don't link this one but are still significantly better for your health and the planet than traditional paints.)

As with most things, paints exist on a continuum. The most eco-friendly paints, like Real Milk Paint and BioShield Paint, are made from substances like milk casein or clay. They are incredible, but may require more money and greater preparation—and are not readily available in my area, so were not on my original list. (If I had chemical sensitivities, I would seek them out or source the natural paints on this list.

I did numerous Web searches trying to find a distributor for eco-friendly paint in Lawrence, and this incredible Waldorf School in my community kept popping up. I felt silly calling to ask about paint, but gathered up the courage to dial the number and pose the question. A woman named Mary answered the phone. She was the school's administrator, and is now one of my dearest friends.

She directed me to a local store called Gragg's and a line called Pure Performance that is part of PPG Pittsburgh Paints. This line made me so happy. It had great sample sizes (which I am sad to say are being phased out) and great colors. Of course, when I put it on the walls of my apartment, I had no idea what I was doing. So the true test came this past week when I introduced the line to David Bryan, owner of what I have decided is the best painting company in my neck of the woods: Ad Astra Painting Company. Why do I say this? Because Dave humored me by coming to my apartment to "see my vibe" (my words) before helping me pick out colors.

He and his crew started early, stayed late and left my house meticulously clean. (I can't tell you how bummed out I was when the floor guys left everything so messy.) And when they removed my electrical outlet covers to paint the walls, they very kindly, upon my request, placed socket sealers in each outlet. Socket sealers are pieces of foam that go between faceplates and sockets. When it comes to saving energy, they are little pieces of heaven.

Rex Miller writes in his book Carpentry & Construction: "Insulation can help conserve as much as 30 percent of the energy lost in a home. … Wall outlets are a source of 20 percent of this leakage." You can save a lot of money with this one little thing. Seriously, it is so easy I could have done it myself. (I will be tackling a lot more energy saving efforts next month.) But I was out of town and Dave offered, so I took him up on it.

Dave is a man who paid his way through school (majoring in history) by working in paint stores. He knows his stuff. So when he said he would use Pure Performance again, and that it "behaved like a high-quality paint," I was elated. I was sure to use it again. It is beautiful, was one of the first commercial zero-VOC paints to hit the market, and was the first paint to receive Green Seal Class A certification. But I needed a pro to weigh in. I am excited to see what we can do outdoors in the months ahead.

Dave named his paint company after the Kansas state motto: Ad Astra per Aspera. It means, "to the stars with difficulty." Quite honestly, that's what these days in the house feel like. I'm in a low place, feeling the weight of costs and the discomfort of not really knowing what I am doing (it turns out those floors I thought looked great are not nearly done). But there are people like Dave, and a few others I will introduce you to next week, who help me get through these times. I am ever-hopeful this house is becoming a home.

Ad astra,


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Simran Sethi is an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications. For more information on Sethi, visit


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