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Class Is In Session: Learning Color Theory

Editor Jason Stahl visits Pro-Spray Automotive Finishes to get schooled on refinishing, color adjustment and blending.


Jason Stahl has 28 years of experience as an editor, and has been editor of BodyShop Business for the past 16 years. He currently is a gold pin member of the Collision Industry Conference. Jason, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, earned a bachelor of arts degree in English from John Carroll University and started his career in journalism at a weekly newspaper, doing everything from delivering newspapers to selling advertising space to writing articles.

As I sat in the classroom at Pro-Spray Automotive Finishes in Massillon, Ohio, bathed in bright light that purged all of the morning grogginess out of me, that old familiar feeling crept over me. Sweaty palms. Heart palpitations. Uncontrollable twitching. The feeling that my whole future life held in the balance.

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I was reminded of dreams, nightmares, really, that I still have about being back in school and not being able to find the classroom I’m looking for. Or coming to the end of a semester and realizing there was a class I totally forgot to attend and thus would be getting an “F.”

But there was a difference. I was now 40 years old, not 16 or 20, more serious about learning. The outcome of this class would not necessarily decide my future. And I was actually looking forward to the knowledge the teacher was about to enlighten me with: color theory.


Pro-Spray Automotive Finishes was kind enough to invite me and my publisher, Scott Shriber, to come out to their facility to get schooled on refinishing, color adjustment and blending. I viewed Scott as having an advantage given that he was a “car guy” and had much more experience actually spraying paint. Not that I was a total newbie, but I certainly was far from an expert on this. Thus, my mind was open and ready to be colored, so to speak, in a myriad of different shades.

Instructor Bill Warner, who serves as technical manager for Pro-Spray Automotive Finishes, certainly was warmer and more congenial than some former teachers I recall. One of my former college professors was reportedly an ex-Marine drill sergeant and had the requisite toughness and lack of humor. And I remember a former high school math teacher of mine giving one unruly classmate a double ear whap for talking during class. I saw no such discipline coming from Bill. Besides, he and Scott were old school chums, and I was dead set on being on my best behavior.


Before long, we were going over some pretty deep stuff: the Munsell color wheel, the three primary dimensions of which are value or depth, hue or cast, and saturation or chroma; how human beings view color, complete with some visual tests (fortunately, none of us discovered that we were color blind); adjusting the flip-flop (no wait, that’s a cozy summer shoe), er, flop/flip, which occurs primarily with metallic and pearl paints. According to Bill, a darker side tone is more likely to occur when the metallic and pearl particles lay flat or more evenly. A lighter side tone is usually caused by the metallic or pearl particles lying in a more random orientation.


Before long, I was looking at spray-out cards, actually noticing color differences, and then determining how to make it darker or lighter. Although in one case I totally bombed: I saw a different color altogether than what Bill and Scott saw. But cut me some slack: at that point, I was going cross-eyed and reaching the point of total saturation. Get it? Saturation.


All in all, it was a tremendous experience and one that further confirmed to me that automotive refinish is a science right up there with, well, rocket science, and painters are Albert Einsteins. Seriously. To be a great car painter, you have to have a thorough grasp of color theory. This is not kids’ stuff.


Bill’s class just truly made me appreciate what goes into a wicked paint job. I can’t wait for my next visit to a body shop or one of the trade shows to put my “expertise” to the test. And I think that my learned fear of classrooms was finally vanquished.

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