The New Hue

Ojai’s Cathleen Smith and the psychology of color.

By DeWitt Smith

Color specialist Cathleen Smith, dressed to match the cool tones of a soaking tub in the Ventura hills. Photos by Gary and Pierre Silva.


athleen Smith definitely does not see things in black and white. This is, after all, a woman who lives out loud and has created a career in living color. Meet the color specialist.

And she’s a far cry from the little girl who grew up in a spare-looking house in San Jose. “Every wall was white, we had a brown sofa and a brown crucifix as the sole wall ornament,” Smith recalls about her home where she was the first of 10 children.

Smith selected paints, tiles, and stone to balance Ellen Israel's fondness of primary colors. "She knew my style," says Israel, shown at right in a Mondrian-themed bathroom in the contemporary home she shares with Norman Flam.

But she had two big pluses going for her: her love of color and a father who encouraged her to be artistic. Even though the family lived modestly, “We always had paper and crayons,” she says. It wasn’t until her sophomore year in a Catholic girls high school that she got to take art classes. “I would finish my projects late at night, and my father would get up and have a cup of tea and critique [them]. He was the Irish dreamer who also encouraged me to live my life and to think outside the box.”

And that she did. Her college career was at a series of schools—ending at UC Santa Barbara after she was married and living in Ojai. This is where she started her work career, art jobs ranging from teaching to designing tiles. Between the babies and a start-up business, she also studied space planning: a study of the human body and how it operates in space, such as the optimum and minimum space you need to move through your environment. “I’m working on a kitchen design now,” she explains. “From the counter top to the island you want four feet, the optimum space, to pull down the dishwasher door.”

When Smith and I had tea at an outdoor café in Ojai, I met a petite woman brimming with life. She paints pictures with words—vivid words that flow easily from one connected subject to another. She was talking about some of the synchronistic moments in her life, like the time she was pulling a book off the shelf at Waldenbooks in Ventura and the man standing next to her said, “I wrote that book.”

Thinking it was a pickup line from some older guy, she asked to see his driver’s license. It was, in fact, the author. After a quick apology, she struck up a conversation with Dr. Max Luscher, a noted Swiss psychologist who was an expert on color. His book, “The 4-Color Person,” is still one of the bibles for marketing and packaging. Smith ended up going to Switzerland to study with him for about a month in 1980, and it put her squarely on the path of color.

Later that decade, while she was teaching art, she met a developer in Ojai who had just finished some houses and needed someone to choose interior colors. She did the first job for free, and he loved the results. When he had a party to show off the houses, he invited Smith. “The next day I had four jobs in Ojai,” says Smith.

That free job 20 years ago paid off big—it marked the start of her own business. Ever since, Smith has been in such demand that she’s never once advertised. “It’s all been word of mouth,” she says. “I’ve worked as far south as Cabo San Lucas, as far north as the Bay Area, and as far east as Atlanta, Georgia.”

These days, Smith prefers to work closer home in Ventura County. It’s a luxury she worked hard for, and part of that work came from studying with the color master, Max Luscher.

“I didn’t learn about the aesthetics of color from him. I learned about the psychology of color, and how color influences to create a certain feeling,” she explains.

The psychology of color is fascinating, but the practicality of getting what you see in your head onto a wall takes a bit of magic—and a lot of know-how. Once again, Smith found that person who would become her ally: John Nelson, the owner of Décor Paint & Wallcovering in Thousand Oaks. Nelson, who’s been in the paint business for 30 years, has been working with Smith for half that time. They met when she was doing a job in Westlake Village and needed some more paint. “He has a wonderful selection of finishing products, and I can always find the specialty paints I’m looking for,” she says. “I also have a great relationship with Frontier Paint in Ojai. They keep color formulas on file for me, and Louie is probably the best color matcher I’ve ever seen. How paint is mixed either makes or breaks me; I’m in trouble if it’s not a good match.”

In the matter of matching, most people decide on a color and then decorate. John Nelson says it should be the other way around: “Bring me a floor sample, a window treatment, the fabrics, and then pick the colors that go with them.” But selecting a color can be dizzying when there are over 5,000 to choose from. That’s why there are color specialists. “Cathy has a color in her head, and her color vision is very good. It’s finding the intangibles that pull it all together,” Nelson says.

Over the years, Smith has pulled it together for a lot of clients, among them Norman Flam and Ellen Israel, who live in a contemporary home in the hills of Ventura. “She knew my style,” says Israel, explaining how Smith created the red and black Mondrian theme she wanted for her bathroom—at a fraction of the cost. Throughout the house, Smith’s unique color combinations enliven spaces. As Israel puts it, “I never could have thought of the colors she used.”

Another local homeowner, Cathy Schneir of Santa Paula, got the full Smith treatment last year. “I’ll never live with white walls again,” says Schneir, 57. “Cathy doesn’t design to her taste; she designs to her client’s taste. She made this place so warm, and that’s what I wanted: a warm family home that was going to be comfortable for children and grandchildren.”

So how, exactly, does Smith come up with a color? “I start out with an idea, and sometimes I pull colors out and start playing with them. And I might have 50 colors, and then something clicks in my brain. It’s the aha moment, and then everything tumbles into place,” she says. “When I say tumbles, there’s an actual sensation like a deck of cards falling in place.”

It’s the secret of her trade—color tumbling, something only she and her brain understand. One final question: Does she dream in color? Of course she does! Cathleen Smith lives a colorful life, awake or asleep.


Back to top