Feeling overwhelmed by the choices you face in picking an exterior color scheme? I suggest you let color selection be, instead, a process of elimination. When facing a blank slate (or a blank sheet of paper, or primed clapboards), it’s wise to remember that creativity benefits from limitation.
First consider the house’s context in its surroundings. Note the colors and even the styles of neighbors’ houses; you don’t want to stand out starkly or clash with existing schemes. Consider the quality of light. (The same body color will look different on houses in Arizona and Maine.) Context is also provided by your “given” colors: a red brick or cool granite foundation, weathered shingles gone rusty brown or seagull gray, the color of the asphalt roof. The style and date of the house also offers clues.
Using some of the same colors inside and out (or a tint or shade of the same color) automatically creates an overall harmony that allows you to be creative with details. I’ve always found it a good idea to use the same paint manufacturer or color collection both inside and out. Generally, you can be more daring and use a greater number of colors inside. But some thread should connect the two schemes.
A hint that bears repeating: You must paint large-scale samples of chosen colors in place. Buy quarts. Outside, paint a section at least 4′ square where your body, trim, and accent colors come together (say, clapboards/corner board/shutter). Or paint on a moveable scrap of Sheet-rock or Masonite. If you’re dissatisﬁed with the sample, don’t worry, you’re not back to square one. As you squint at the not-quite-right color in place, it will be more obvious where you need to go in the second round: Maybe this red leans too orange, or the ivory should be more gray, less yellow.
Not every house needs five colors (though a highly ornamented Queen Anne Victorian may end up with 11). You may choose a monochromatic scheme, or a classic three-color scheme (body, trim, accent).
Remember, too, that five color breaks doesn’t have to mean five different hues; the scheme can include two shades or tints of the same hue.
On the matter of color placement, the house is speaking to you. Do you have a clear horizontal break, like a wide belt course, or a change in cladding material—stucco above bevel siding, say? That just about begs for separate treatments, even the use of two body colors. Secondary trim and accent colors are suggested by important architectural elements, such as window shutters or a large, ornamental front door. Does the house make a strong architectural statement? A low-slung Craftsman bungalow expects a naturalistic palette with warm accents. An upright Colonial Revival with tall, round columns is asking for cool restraint.
Don’t be intimidated by the need for a “historic” polychrome scheme. We get some of our ideas about 19th- and early 20th-century colors from sales materials. Paint companies illustrated houses with multi-color schemes, and kit-house companies, including Sears, pictured overtly cheerful colors. Then as now, though, most houses were painted conservatively. Neutrals and natural pigment colors in light to medium tints have been preferred for their durability, as they reflect UV light and don’t fade or change as readily as saturated hues. A scheme using some variations of gray and white was common throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th.Published in: Old-House Interiors May/June 2012