Exterior Paint Color Schemes

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By Patricia Poore

Like was said in this story on choosing exterior color schemes, perhaps the single biggest decorating decision homeowners face is what colors to paint the outside of the house. Here are some examples of paint color schemes across different house styles and time periods.

Folk Victorian, 1882
Lambertville, N.J.
Scheme by owners with the help of their designers In this four-color paint scheme, body color is a light olive and the shutters an understated green-black. Following the credo that the brightest or darkest colors are reserved for trim, the window casings are red-brown, with sash and recesses picked out in red and a rich brown.

exterior 68 Delaware Lambertville NJ

Body: Renwick Olive 2815
Shutters: Rookwood Shutter Green 2809
Window Casings: Rookwood Medium Brown 2807
Sash, trim accent: Rookwood Red 2802
All colors from Preservation Palette, Sherwin-Williams

Queen Anne/Stick, 1889
Elgin, Illinois
Scheme by Historic House Colors
This won Rob Schweitzer his third award in Chicago’s “Finest Painted Ladies” contest. He credits the exclusive use of period colors—every one appears on late 1880s paint-color cards; careful placement; optimum contrast.

main view Berry 1_gn 2

Body top: Downing Straw 2813 | Body bottom: Renwick Olive 2815
Body bands: Rookwood Dark Green 2816 | Trim: Roycroft Vellum 2833
Sash: Tricorn Black 6258 | All colors from Sherwin-Williams


Bungalow–Foursquare, 1911
Portland, Oregon
Scheme by owners with architect Wade Freitag
With its gabled “bungalow” roof and porch, and lots of artistic details, this Foursquare is a looker—and now it has a great color scheme for
harmony in nine colors. Or nine paint cans: some colors are tints and shades of each other, or even a flat and semi-gloss of the same color.

Body: Louisburg Green HC-113
Trim: Tate Olive HC-112
Accents: Yorkshire Tan HC-23
Colors from Historical Color collection, Benjamin Moore

How to Paint a Foursquare
Whether styled with Arts & Crafts elements, Prairie School allusions, or Colonial Revival classicism, the American Foursquare is a common type of the period 1900–1930. These houses can be blocky, but a sympathetic color scheme gives them proportion and period sensibility. Rob Schweitzer has noted four different approaches to painting a Foursquare:

  1. Single body color with contrasting trim, the roofing often supplying a second main color.
  2. Stucco or concrete colored during application or painted afterward, in light colors such as tan, grey, or vellum, for Prairie School-influenced houses. Here the trim—defining elements like belt courses included—typically was painted in a darker color such as olive or hunter green.
  3. Two-tone schemes, with different body colors top and bottom, which emphasizes horizontality. One floor is finished in a darker, naturalistic brown or green (it may be stained shingles rather than a paint color); the other floor is painted a light sand color or yellow. The trim is often the lightest color.
  4. Motif color, which plays up a design element of the house, such as diamond insets in the stucco or pilasters and balustrades on the porch.

Two-toning became popular around 1915, emphasizing the horizontal lines of bungalows and “shirtwaist” Foursquares. For semi-bungalows, those with a second half-storey, the upper floor was set off by a trim board and perhaps clad in dissimilar siding, painted in a different color or left natural or stained. “There is no rule about which value went on top, lighter or darker,” says Rob Schweitzer. Putting the darker value on top brings down the apparent height of the house.


Foursquares and even bungalows built in the 1920s tended toward Free Classic or Colonial Revival styling. Colonial Revival colors were very popular, as were “natural” houses of stained wood and stone. Exterior colors for the middle class tended to be the inexpensive, durable colors: browns and greys.

 caption= "Green body with white trim: a basic scheme here subtly embellished by Rob Schweitzer for a house in Westfield, N.J.

caption= "Green body with white trim: a basic scheme here subtly embellished by Rob Schweitzer for a house in Westfield, N.J.

Classics That Return
Some paint-color combinations just click, and thus they reappear, subtly different each time: dusky blue with white, salmon with fern green, wine red with olive green. Other schemes take hold for 50 years and then fade away: Chocolate brown with French vanilla was a staple early in the 20th century, but it’s a reviled scheme now. Some schemes work both ways; the green house with white trim has been as enduring as the white house with green trim.

A complementary scheme of earthy reds and greens dates to colonial times and reappeared in the late Victorian era, then was popular for bungalows. The bungalow era also saw watery grey-blue, clay colors, dark green, limestone and greige used again and again. Colonial Revival Foursquares are classic with the body in straw or yellow and the upper storey in mushroomy taupe. Tudors were often treated to browns when they were built; today a moldy sage green is more likely. Stone colors—neutral brown, red-brown, grey and moss green, straw, buff, terra cotta—are perennially in favor as they mimic natural building materials.