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Creating Your Own Color Theory, with Michelle Norris

Creating Your Own Color Theory, with Michelle Norris

From the moment Michelle Norris began picking her own outfits as a child, she knew she had an affinity for bold self-expression. Today, Michelle is celebrated in the photography world for her striking shapes, playful perspective, and rich palettes. And when it comes to color play, no hue is off-limits. Once told by an art teacher that she did not understand color, Michelle’s own personal color theory color has become the language her art speaks fluently. Listen to this episode to hear why Michelle advocates for ditching the little black dress and instead rocking a celebration of you.

Read the episode transcript below.

Michelle Norris is celebrated in the photography world for her striking shapes, playful perspective, and rich palettes. Michelle’s own personal color theory color has become the language her art speaks fluently.


Michelle Khouri  0:00  
Are you ready to venture into the mind of a woman who plays with color and shape like you haven’t seen before? I can almost guarantee it. Well on this episode of The Cultured Podcast, that’s what we’re about to do with Michele Norris from Tropico Photo. It’s so good.

Welcome to The Cultured Podcast. I’m your host, Michelle Khouri. And together, we’ll journey into the unknown reaches of the art world. Hello, my babies. Oh boy. I am revved. I am joyed up after the amazing conversation with Michelle Norris from Tropico Photo and I can’t wait to share with you. She is a photographer. She plays with color. She does advertising shoots with her husband, Forrest. She’s really, really something special and radiates this positivity like I’ve never seen. I mean, really, it’s just the dose of joy we need in a very heavy time. And the human experience is already heavy and then 2020 was like, um, joke’s on you, shit gets heavier. Okay. Alright. Also a reminder that we are taking a break in November and December, which is crazy to think about us coming back together in January. I can’t even imagine where we’ll be in January. You know what I mean? Like, I can’t even fathom what the world will look like, what the political landscape of the United States will look like, like, where we will be physically, emotionally, mentally, and you know what? We’re going to be here. No matter what, we’re going to be here. We’re going to be strong. We’re going to have each other’s backs. We’re going to make it through. And it may include some really positive developments. And it may include not so positive developments. Either way, here we will be experiencing the joy of art and culture together as the Cultured Crew. Right?Right. So the fun thing that we are going to do in November and December is me and Enna, the producer on this show, we’re going to pick our four favorite episodes, and we’re going to repost those on the feed with a little bit of added context from me about why it’s our favorite episode. I think that’ll be a great way to bring those back up to the forefront because some of our episodes are even more poignant today than they were when they first came out. It’s amazing how that happens. So that is going to be happening and we’ll be back in January with new episodes of The Cultured Podcast. So today’s conversation is all about color and that is why it is no surprise why my inspiration for the week is, of course, color. And I’m going to keep it quick because I’m a person who surrounds myself with color and I think it’s pretty obvious what’s so inspiring about color in general, whatever your favorite palette is. For me, I align very much with Michelle’s aesthetic. I love bright bold colors. I like bold pattern combinations. She certainly does it like nobody else I know. But I have an apartment filled with art and that is so that no matter where I go, no matter where I live, or move to, the second I put art on the walls and all of my furniture in the space which is very colorful, I’m home. And I know that I’m home. And it is color that brings me back to life on a dreary day. It is color that uplifts my spirit when I’m feeling low. It is color that I wake up to every day that gives me that jolt of energy to, like, take the day on full force. It is color that does all of that for me and so I’m so excited to be able to have a full episode dedicated to the magic and joy that is created by color. So without further ado, let’s get into it with Michelle. Leggo!

Michele Norris, you sassy minx, welcome to The Cultured Podcast.

Michelle Norris  4:29  
Thank you so much for having me.

Michelle Khouri  4:33  
This is very exciting. And as listeners know, I don’t hide my excitement well. No one really has gone where I really want to go with you, which is like a full exploration of your relationship with color, which seems like a very obvious thing. But why don’t we before diving into that I gave a little teaser by talking about color and for those on the Cultured Crew who don’t know, tell us who you are and what your art form is.

Michelle Norris  5:00  
My name is Michelle Norris. I am a photographer, art director, sort of, like, fashion person, I guess — so many things. But I’m the Co-owner of Tropico Photo, which is an advertising photography company that I own with my husband, Forrest Aguar.

Michelle Khouri  5:17  
What I love is I didn’t quite know that each of you and maybe this doesn’t apply so much, and y’all are both like very fluid in terms of, like, your experimentation, which I love with color and shape. But I guess from what I’ve read, Forrest is actually the one who really likes experimenting with shape. And you’re the one who likes experimenting with color and you combine those. 

Michelle Norris  5:40  
Yeah, I think that’s kind of true. It changes all the time because I think as we were building our business, it was finding the footing of what each of us does and what we bring to it. And that’s really morphed over time. And while we can kind of break it down to, you know, Forrest does the more technical side, I definitely lean more towards the art side, we cross over all the time now because you know, we work so closely, that we each build more and more of the skill set that the other person has. So, you know, Forrest has always had such a great eye for compositions. And I think that really brings him further into the art side every time where he’ll see certain things that completely surprise me that I’m like, that’s genius. I love it. And then, you know, I move over into the technical side at different points where I feel like we’ll be bringing in new lighting ideas and techniques, depending on what I’ve seen recently, and what we’ve learned working together so far. So it changes. It’s very fluid. And I think that’s part of what keeps it interesting and makes it fun. 

Michelle Khouri  6:42  
No kidding. 

Michelle Norris  6:43  
And it is so fun. And it is so interesting. And it’s very clear that your work resonates with, I would imagine, especially millennials and younger because what I love about our generation and younger is that we’ve stopped feeling so afraid to experiment with our own expression of like the things that we wear on our bodies and we’re starting to see even like, male or celebrities who identify as men wearing very, like what might be considered traditionally feminine clothing. There have been trailblazers, right like Prince and David Bowie. But still, it’s become this more mainstream movement in fashion. And I think it just allows for so much more play, so much more room to just enjoy the joy that comes from color. So tell me a little bit about your earliest memories of actually specifically loving color.

Yeah, it’s funny because I have a very specific memory of when my parents started letting me dress myself, like the very first day they were like, you know, I don’t even know what age that happens at. So it’s like, I don’t know. Are you, like, seven?

Michelle Khouri  7:55  
Girl, I have no idea. I have a kitten. Okay, that’s it. That’s all I got. 

Michelle Norris  7:59  
When they stop, like putting stuff together for you. And so I come out and I specifically remember I was wearing these like, red plaid pants that I had and like this kind of purple-y tie-dye top with like a heart on it and I came out my parents were like, but those don’t match. And I mean, they didn’t match in a heinous way to be clear, like not even in like a fun way, it didn’t match. But that was very much my sensibility from the very beginning. It was like, if it was colorful, if it was sparkly, if you could have more of it and put more on like, that’s what I wanted. And so I think that was innate for me. And it’s interesting now because, you know, I went to school for photography, but I was in the art school so we took a lot of, you know, adjacent classes. And I had a color theory class that I just totally bombed. I mean, I was terrible at it. It was like, the traditional color theory of like, what colors go with what colors I think it’s super important to know because that is really rooted in, you know, what is correct and what like resonates and like the literal color wheel and all of that. But I also don’t think that’s where my enjoyment of color stems from. So when I was trying to do it that way, my teacher at one point was like, you just do not understand color, like, it is not you. Like it’s just not right. And so it’s funny now how much people think of me as someone who understands color and it’s kind of funny also because I think to myself, like that’s not a thing you can really be like good at, can you? You just like it and you throw stuff together. But I do think that shows more of where it comes from, for me, which is an innate place like, “Oh, I love this and this.” Of course, when I’m building color palettes, there’s a lot of revising and, like, looking at what really works together but I’m not coming at it from a place of saying like, “Oh, these are the correct colors that match together.” Like a set of primaries or something like that, you know? Sometimes we’ll use those. And then other times, we’ll just take a totally different route and say, “Let’s do something really weird here.” And it can still be really pleasing and maybe something that is an unexpected combination.

Totally. You know, it’s interesting. First of all, is, I really believe with all of us that learning the rules is so important so that we can break them. There’s something about knowing the rules and knowing what people before us said was proper so that we know how to forge ahead in a way that is more expansive, right? Because rules will always be far too limiting. And they’re just begging to be broken.

And I felt like there were colors that just like weren’t in use, the way they are now like the way that colors come in and it feels like there is actually this thing called like the Color Board, I think is what it’s called, but it’s people who like meet every year and they basically decide what the color of the year is. And it was a really big part especially of you know, designers and what colors they were putting out in their collections that year. 

Michelle Khouri  11:04  

Michelle Norris  11:05  
But it also feels like it kind of permeates and you, you know, social media exaggerates it now, but you start to see these colors everywhere and it’s wild because sometimes it feels like, “Where’s it coming from? Who’s deciding? How did we know?” Because the you know, the Millennial Pink, you know, the lime green that we see everywhere like, it suddenly felt like it was, like, everyone kind of at once knew. And then, you know, when you’re seeing it in clothes and you’re seeing people wear those clothes and then you know, you’re thinking about it just kind of, they, I think, make their way in and you’re hard pressed to look at images from like 20, 30 years ago and see tons of like lime green, you know, or tons of like light pink. It does feel like it is very entrenched in the time. And so I also think that when all those rules are made and stuff, you know, we’re going off of the traditional colors, you know of the literal color wheel. But not really all the offshoots of that of, you know, now it’s pastel. Now it’s neon. You know, those are going to apply differently.

Michelle Khouri  12:08  
Um, first of all: lime green and pink. You’re talking to a girl who grew up in Miami. So…

Michelle Norris  12:16  
Miami is like the perfect color combinations. I’m like, forever, like Art Deco had something going on. 

Michelle Khouri  12:24  
It’s amazing. Oh my god, I just like so many things about Miami but not that. Not that. No, but the other thing is like when your teacher told you that, did it dissuade you at all from loving color?

Michelle Norris  12:38  
No, not at all. I mean, I think I was like, I’m really bad at this class. I mean, that’s true.But I also you know, at that point, I hadn’t, you know, we were pre- sort of people branding themselves at this point. So, you know, I’m like, I guess like 21 or something like that. And I’m not really identifying as anything. I hadn’t even become a photography major by then. I think there’s this kind of rapid highway to people becoming authorities on things right now. And I’m not saying this to discredit myself, but it’s like, it is really, like, a different world with social media as people are suddenly, there’s so much more visibility. And people can look and say, “Oh, well, we’ve decided that we like the way this person does these things, thus now they know about it,” which is partially true, but also pre- social media. You know, I didn’t even have a smartphone or anything like that. I wasn’t really like, “Oh, no, I thought I was so good at color.” It was like, No, I didn’t think I was anything. You know, I, just, I like it. And I’ve had so many style phases in my life where I like, look back, and I’m like, well, that’s heinous. Like that’s really tacky and bad. But I think that’s what I really like, is like, how are you going to have fun with it if you’re always making sure that it’s the right thing. And so it’s like, it’s fun that somebody thinks it’s bad because that’s why it’s fun, because it’s your thing.

Michelle Khouri  13:57  
100%. You know, what’s interesting about your account, both of your accounts but obviously Tropico Photos Instagram account is a business’s Instagram account. Yours, Michelle Norris Photo, I never get the sense that you’re positioning yourself as like a color expert. Like, the whole thing is just Michelle is out playing. And Michelle is experimenting. And she is playing with her body and the shapes of her body against the shapes of the environment and the natural environment and the colors and painting and now that’s new so like Tarantino-ing this. She’s painting now. Like there’s just a lot of joy and play and at no point am I like, “She positions herself as a color authority,” because I think you’re absolutely right, like, I think personal branding has become an effort to be the most knowledgeable, like, to be a constant subject matter expert, when the truth is when you take ego out of the equation of life, you never feel like an expert. You always feel like you’re learning. And there’s an immense joy and exhilaration in that.

Michelle Norris  15:10  
Yeah, I think that if you don’t play, you’re not really creating. And so I think that that can be the danger of sort of, like over-curating. And I think that, like, of course Tropico Photo, you know, that account, it’s very curated. It’s our like, beautiful finished work. And then I view all the stuff we make personally and daily as experiments and testing and trying things out and translating what we feel as we’re seeing it. And I think that leads to so many finished, beautiful, refined projects. But if you’re not doing that, I think things become stale, and you got a little caught up in perfecting everything, which I think you know, doesn’t allow for the excitement of discovery. And I can’t even tell you how many times I’ll like put together an outfit with colors that I just picked because I had been wanting to wear these two items. And then I’m like, it’s in the back of my mind and it’s the next color palette that we use. I’m like start building from there, but it’s everywhere. 

Michelle Khouri  16:12  
What do you think it is about color? Like what is your emotional experience when you see colors you love?

Michelle Norris  16:17  
I mean, I just think it makes people happier. I’ve always been drawn to them and found like a disinterest in things like neutrals, in general. I mean, I think they can be used really beautifully. 

Michelle Khouri  16:30  

Michelle Norris  16:31  
But overall, I’ve never been on the train with like black. Or people are like, “Everyone looks great and black,” I’m like, “That is a straight-up lie.” People do not all look great and black. Like,you mean that people look neutral and black and it’s hard to be offensive but like that’s it. 

Michelle Khouri  16:45  
That’s amazing.

Michelle Norris  16:45  
So I hate that people always say that. Like, I mean, there are some people who legitimately look amazing in black but I think that has to do with, like, having a really light eye color or like really contrasting with black well. But it’s like, you won’t believe how much I’m out dressed really colorful. And like, people who are wearing all black will be like, “Ah, I’m so happy to see your colors today. It really just like changes my day.” Like people telling me all the time, “I really needed that right now.” I think it’s hard on days if you don’t really want that attention, that there is going to be attention on you just because you’re in color. And it is something that like draws people’s eye. If you’re wanting to feel under the radar, that’s not it. But I also think you get used to it and it’s a positive thing that people are picking you out and saying that this is, you know, encouraging them and changing their day. 

Michelle Khouri  17:39  
That is big. Not wanting to stand out. Being afraid to be seen fully. Like my mantra has been and is now for FRQNCY, my company, “Be as big as you are.” And particularly for women, particularly for women of color, we’re constantly told to be smaller. You’re too loud. You’re too aggressive. You’re too opinionated. You take up too much space. And so I think a lot of us live our lives trying to take up as little space as possible. And what is so inspiring and probably actually on a deeper psychological level, why so many people connect to your work, in particular, you as an individual, and the way you express yourself, is because we admire that bigness.

Michelle Norris  18:22  
I do think the bigness is a huge part of it, because it is very, like, “Look at me, I’m doing a thing!” And I love that energy. And I think it’s really fun. And I think people can bring that in, maybe in more approachable ways. There was a time a couple of years ago when a friend had a new job and we were trying to like pick out some items that they could wear to their new job and I think I kept picking out suits that were like bright green and stuff. They were like, “That’s not…I can’t wear that.” And I was like it’s a suit though? And they were like but it’s not like a proper, it’s not gonna work color. And I was like, “What are work colors? It’s like khaki? Is it tan? What is it?”

Michelle Khouri  18:58  
It’s tan. So okay, let’s talk about your explorations during COVID. Because you and Forrest were known, and I know you love traveling, fashion and photography. And that was like, that was what your life was all about. And now we find ourselves in a place where we have this challenge and opportunity potentially, to explore the lives within our four walls. And certainly, the colors and shapes within your four walls, there’s a lot to be explored. So tell us a little bit about what that adjustment period has been like.

Michelle Norris  19:36  
I mean, I think it has really been a great time to reflect, to be creative, to come up with new ideas. And one of my friends said, “You know those people where their whole brand is that they travel?” And they were like, “Those people are going to have to figure out a different brand right now.” And it was funny because I realized our brand wasn’t travel. Like it’s like, of course we love to travel, but I think I realized how much we’re still the exact same people without it, and maybe even more ourselves when we have a beat to be quiet and kind of revamp. We had bought a condo a year ago. And we really just went wild with the colors on that and decorating it, getting it all together. To be honest, the timing could not have been better because it was fully ready by January. We went on a trip to India in February, came back and then like the whole world was shutting down. So I’m super glad that our space was ready, that we have a really nice and comforting space for us to be in that also reflects our aesthetic. We went in being like, “No, I’m not an interior designer.” Like, I felt like this was a chance where we could play. We own the space. Nobody can tell us what to do. And I didn’t even realize until someone reached out to me, I forgot all about home tours existing you know? Like it wasn’t, it wasn’t about creating something that is going to look great on the internet, it like really has to be for you. And then when those things come out of it great, that’s amazing, of course. Love to share what we make. Love to hear positive feedback. But I think the intentions behind it really have to be about you being true to yourself and to your vision and to what you love. And then I think people can feel that versus things that feel inauthentic because they’re rooted in external gratification.

Michelle Khouri  21:27  
Hmm.Yeah, because at the end of the day, you actually have to live there

Michelle Norris  21:30  
Right. Like, this is your house.

Michelle Khouri  21:31  
None of your followers do. Hopefully.

Michelle Norris  21:33  
Right? Nobody but us lives in the house and our dog, Taco, who likes anything with a microfiber blanket inside so…

Michelle Khouri  21:41  
So let’s explore painting for a second because you’re very good. You’re very good. And I, like, I saw one post with your like, an array of paintings you done and I was like, are you effing kidding me? Like, you’re just, like, I don’t know, stress relief. And I’m like, I’d like to buy, if you end up selling. If you don’t, amazing, 

Michelle Norris  22:04  
I’m not against it. I just more was like, I don’t want to go in with that goal because then, you know, it’s this thing I used to do all the time. And I think I heard somebody kind of vocalize it in a way I hadn’t thought of which was this obsession with capitalism. And part of it is like this need to monetize all of our hobbies.

Michelle Khouri  22:21  
Oh my god. Yes.

Michelle Norris  22:22  
Yes, that’s me. I do that. I monetize all hobbies.

Michelle Khouri  22:28  
So tell me about the process of getting to picking up the paintbrush. What motivated that moment for you?

Michelle Norris  22:34  
You know, I think that it was like trying to be super positive at the very beginning of quarantine. Like when it was all happening. I was like, “Okay, this isn’t bad, it can be good.” And I was like, trying to be like, I’m going to start reading a bunch more. And I’m going to take baths. And I’m going to paint. And I’m going to, you know, exercise more and all of this stuff. And it’s very much I’m this kind of person who like loves to always be doing something. So I think for me it was more the horror of being like what will I do all the time? So I think that just became kind of one of the list but actually ended up being my favorite thing that I really not had time for before that point, to feel like I could actually just focus on something that was unrelated to Tropico, that was unrelated to my personal brand on Instagram, that was sort of a meditative thing when I was doing it, but also about creating something that was new for me. And that was a medium that I wasn’t trained in at any point, you know, like, didn’t learn from anybody. I took a drawing class but never took a painting class. 

Michelle Khouri  23:41  
That’s a beautiful thing. And I’ve also found like there is something very special during this time of making space for frivolity and for creating something or doing something that has no implications on your life whatsoever other than the joy of doing it.

Michelle Norris  23:58  
I love that idea. I think that there’s a lot of, sort of, criticism around people that are frivolous or do frivolous things, or things that don’t have some kind of serious backbone to them. And I personally do not support that. I think that there is a lot of seriousness in the world to go around. I think there’s a lot of stressors and issues and things that, you know, shouldn’t be ignored and that do need to be engaged with. But to what extent I think is the question. I posted so many different things about, you know, when something terrible has just happened in the news, yet another, you know, shooting by police, or yet another ridiculous Trump thing or whatever, and then I’ll post something about, like my new favorite hair clips right afterwards. And I think it becomes something where I’m like, “Yeah, that stuff is terrible, and I’ve gone and taken the necessary actions. But beyond that, I can’t engage with this sort of information all day every day.” And I don’t think that we should be beyond what is actionable. I think in the end, it’s like, enjoy your life, like, be happy, do the things that make you happy. And for a lot of people, those are frivolous things, you know? Like, pick out your fun clothes and hair clips and paint and, you know, lay around and eat popcorn or whatever it is that you enjoy. I think a lot of pleasure comes from frivolous things. And I think allowing ourselves that space also is where a lot of art can come from. Of course, it’s from struggle, but I think in contrast, it’s about doing things that are for you, doing things that are beautiful, and that are really just for personal enjoyment. And so it’s like if personal enjoyment is frivolous, like, okay, that’s fine.

Michelle Khouri  25:47  
That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful. And we all need it. And I completely agree with you that it’s a very toxic cycle that a lot of people put themselves in being like, they call it well-informed. And a lot of people, like you and I, who are clearly not supporters of authoritarian governments or dictatorships, I just happen to not like dictatorship. 

Michelle Norris  26:07  
Don’t love that. 

Michelle Khouri  26:08  
Don’t love it, don’t support it, don’t want it. But a lot of people will call themselves well informed when really what it is, is an addiction to the chaos. And it’s pulling you down. Because here’s the bottom line. I already know who I’m voting for come November. I already vote in all of my local elections. And I become informed and I go and I vote early, and I’m going to try to work the polls on November 3. And you know, there’s all these different things that I am doing that I don’t need to watch the day to day massacre of democracy. I don’t need to do that. And it sends me in tailspins and instead I’m going to build my company. I’m going to strengthen my relationships. I’m going to get a kitten. I’m going to play with that kitten. I’m going to discover that that kitten plays fetch with me, etc.

Michelle Norris  26:52  
Yeah, I think I totally support that and I’m on exactly the same page. I think that you can be informed without feeling like you’re just involved in a train wreck 24/7. And I think there can be what feels like a fine line between that. Because at some point, I’m like, are you informed or are you letting your anxiety take the form of constant intake of negative news and then that it reaffirms you that your anxiety is correct when it’s like, we have to lift ourselves out of things like this. We have to make better spaces for our immediate communities. We need to be doing things that make us radiate more positivity into the world. And I think that, you know, it sounds very like hippie but I think the vibrations you put out matter a lot and that that becomes part of everything. And the more that we can do to make sure we’re living at a high vibration, the better.

Michelle Khouri  27:49  
I think we’re just like shifting into a totally new vibration as a society and it is uncomfortable and we need to shed some of our bullshit. And this is an opportunity. And I know there’s a lot of pain out there, but there’s also a lot of joy to be had and to be felt.

Michelle Norris  28:07  
I also completely agree. And I think that in some of the places where there’s so much pain, you’ll find that those people can have the potential to be more positive and radiate more creativity than anybody else. And I think that it’s a good reminder that we need to seize upon every opportunity to instead respond with positivity and with engaging our community with making art and with being the best light that we can be in the world.

Michelle Khouri  28:36 
And what a light you are. So before we sign off, Michelle, let us know you know where can we find some of that light online? Where can we find your work?

Michelle Norris  28:46  
Our website is Our Instagram is @tropicophoto. My personal Instagram is @michellenorrisphoto, and, if you want to follow Forrest for the, you know, trifecta — it’s @forrestaguar.

Michelle Khouri  29:06  
Thank you so much for sharing this space. You are an inspiration and such a joy.

Michelle Norris  29:10  
Thank you so much for having me on. It’s great chatting with you.

Michelle Khouri  29:18  
I really hope you are feeling that warm, fuzzy, heart-lifting feeling that I feel after talking to Michelle. I mean she is such a ray of light. What a joy. And I’m so glad that we finally after so long, being in the same city and having the same name and having the same friends or knowing some of the same people, that we finally got a chance to connect and experience that kind of joy together. Okay, this until next time, you know what to do. Keep it classy. Keep it curious. Keep it Cultured.