Coming up with a period paint scheme for an old house can be a scary experience. Most people will agree that a perfectly polychromed Queen Anne looks right when the job is all done, but it’s not easy to be so sure while you’re still selecting colors and investing lots of money and time. A big help, though, is realizing that the success of a paint scheme does not rest solely on the specific hues you select—red, say, over green—but rather on how you use them. It’s the best placement of color that can make the most of an old house’s architecture. In fact, many houses, especially from the 19th century, were designed with a particular use of paint in mind. So, if you’re painting your old house this season, before you break out the color charts and fan decks, take a moment to consider the following advice on placement, regardless of which colors you ultimately use.
1. Pick colors that connect to materials.
The owner of a historic building (or one not so historic, for that matter) can rarely go wrong selecting exterior paint colors that emulate traditional building materials. Anyone who studies exterior paint color charts from before the 1940s will notice that many traditional colors are identified by the materials they imitate: shale, slate, brick, tile, terracotta, and so on. This relationship is helpful to remember when selecting one or more colors for decorative shingles, especially in belt courses and gables. Rich reds, yellows, and golds are justified because they are clay tile colors.
The practice of taking culturally significant forms that were originally created in perishable materials and perpetuating them in more permanent materials goes way back in architecture. Ancient Egyptian and Greek temples are examples of this process, which is sometimes referred to as mimesis. Oddly enough, there is some evidence that decorative shingles such as those seen on Victorian houses are an example of reverse mimesis. In other words, the shingles are a perishable, wood imitation of earlier vernacular decorative clay tiles that appeared in England. Yet, no matter whether the shingles are in forward or reverse gear, it is appropriate to paint them to look like clay tiles, which were sometime glazed in bright colors.
2. Maintain architectural integrity.
Use color as a tool to unite the parts of the house, not segregate them into a collection of independently colored components. While it is visually exciting to highlight details with color, resist the temptation to go off the deep end by painting window trim, bargeboards, dormers, and porches in a color or value (the light-to-dark scale of color) that is not related to the main body of the house. Too great a color contrast between the whole house and its parts can cause these features to visually jump off the building. The solution is to choose your paint scheme so that there is relationship in both the hue (the specific color, such as red or blue) and value running through all the colors.
3. Keep color in balance.
Apportion color evenly over the house to give it visual unity. A building that, for example, is dominated by a dark color in the upper story but painted only a light color at the foundation may appear top-heavy. Lay out the paint scheme of your building in terms of value. This tactic will give you a better feeling for the balance and for how to handle details.
4. Consider colors and shadows.
Take into account the kind of surface you’re covering when deciding on a color and use it to present the surface to best effect. Because light colors allow sunlight to dance and will accentuate the shadows cast by an irregular surface, choose a dark color for areas with surface imperfections, such as old paint craters, that you would prefer to downplay. Conversely, choose light colors for broad areas of relief, such as decorative shingles, that you seek to highlight.
5. Don’t go overboard with accent colors.
Reserve strong colors for small areas so that bright tones, which the sun inevitably fades, age gracefully. Use them to enhance surface texture, such as on porches or trim where there is incised or chamfered woodwork or for a little surprise on undersurfaces such as soffits. Stick to durable, neutral colors for major wall areas; they will stand up better over time. Too many accents create color cacophony. Plus, if you grow tired of bright colors later on, a surplus of accents will be that much more work to repaint.
Special thanks to John Crosby Freeman (Philadelphia), James Martin (Denver), and Jill Pilaroscia (San Francisco).