Choosing historical paint colors

Choosing historic paint colors for your house

by John Neiuber, president of Claremont Heritage


Exterior paint colors are like public art and, like public art, choose the “wrong” color and your choice will create controversy in your neighborhood, if not the entire community! Just try painting your arts and crafts bungalow a bright avocado green, when a subtler olive green would be more appropriate to the age and history of the house. 

Your home is a giant, and very expensive, canvas. Most homeowners want to express their individuality and personality. However, when considering Claremont’s natural beauty and range of architectural styles—from Craftsman and Victorian to Ranch and Modern—we should strive to do so in a way that is sensitive and enhances the streetscape. Choosing historically appropriate colors and understanding where they should be placed on your home requires a bit of research, but will empower you in making a unique and beautiful statement with your home.

 So where do you start? How does an individual go about choosing new or updated exterior colors?

The most exhaustive method is the scientific, or chemical, approach and is not recommended to any but the most die-hard preservationists. Conservationists uncover the first layers of paint or stain from the home with chemicals and paint strippers and combine this with other evidence, such as historic photos, to accurately replicate the colors on a building at a particular time in its history.

For the rest of us, probably the best way to start is to do what past owners of your home would have done: Choose according to your own taste from a selection of colors that would have been available in your home’s era. When using this method it’s important to know your home’s architectural style, and this takes some research. One excellent resource is Robert Schweitzer’s Bungalow Colors. Don’t think just Craftsman Bungalow here. Mr. Schweitzer’s book discusses the bungalow in general as a type of house that can then be in many styles, including Colonial Revival, Spanish Revival, English Tudor, Arts and Crafts, Prairie and Rustic, all popular around the same time but that embodied vastly different color schemes.

A great resource for researching historically appropriate colors is the library and gift store at Claremont Heritage at the Garner House in Memorial Park. The research library can help you determine the style of your home, and books on exterior color will give you a guideline for colors and their placement. Heritage is also a good source for a list of recommended paint contractors and other individuals with experience to aid in color choice. An experienced paint contractor understands the history of color and can work with the homeowner to help guide color selection and placement.

Paint affinity charts from various manufacturers also are a good starting point to begin working out exterior colors. Particularly useful are those focusing on a particular era, such as Martin Senour’s “Historic Williamsburg Collection” or Valspar’s palette of 250 historically accurate colors from different National Trust for Historic Preservation properties.

Sherwin-Williams offers a paint palette for nearly every American architectural style. Benjamin Moore’s “Historical Colors Collection” covers a wide range of architectural styles from 1600 to the present, where background information can be obtained from their website and one can experiment with different color combinations on a virtual house. Pratt and Lambert’s Williamsburg Palette collection replicates 184 different historic colors. California Paints’ Historic Colors of America reflects the evolution of color in American architecture. 

Other companies utilize historic paint formulas.  The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company makes organic paints from lime, natural pigments and casein, a protein found in milk. The Real Milk Paint Company offers a powdered milk paint formula to which one just adds water. Olde Century Colors use a process that, as the paint dries, leaves subtle brush strokes that replicate 19th century paints. The Old Village Paint Company has been in business since 1816, and crafts formulas in latex, buttermilk and oil-based paints that are used by Colonial Williamsburg and the Library of Congress. Take note that most paint companies can cross-reference a competitor’s colors, so don’t limit your search to your favorite brand. Do bear in mind that some “historic” paint charts don’t always separate interior and exterior colors.

Once you have decided the general direction you are going, choose the rest of your palette so there is a relationship of both hue (color) and value (shade or tint). For example, on a polychrome exterior, appropriate to the Victorian style, if the body color and trim colors are too disparate in color or shade, the individual parts tend to “jump off” the building.

On the other hand, some building styles benefit from the simplicity and starkness of a straightforward contrast between body and trim. Colonial Revivals can look great with a white body and black or dark-green accents, and for Spanish Colonials off-white with brown trim is always a safe bet.

Some other hints: Consider your colors in relation to “given” colors, such as masonry, roofing and surrounding trees. Never choose exterior colors inside  but preferably outside on an overcast day, because glare can mask subtleties. Buy quarts of your selected colors and brush out a large sample before committing. One last but very useful rule of thumb is to go two shades grayer and two shades darker than your first instinct suggests.

The least historical method of color choice is to select colors that do not have at least some relationship to colors of the past. For example, most historical colors are based on naturally-occurring earth pigments. Ochres and iron oxides, lampblack and white lead have been used for centuries. Colors such as maroon would not have even been possible until petroleum-based dyes became available. Even blue would have been too unstable and expensive on a home’s exterior.

Remember, beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but the exterior of your home is part of the community landscape and can either augment or distract from a neighborhood’s character, so choose wisely.


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