Expert Advice: Choosing an Interior Paint Palette

Have you ever thought you’d solved a paint scheme dilemma with one of those chips from the paint store that has four or five gradations of the same hue? You put one on the walls, another on the trim, perhaps—daringly—a third for accent. Then, before the paint’s even dry, you find yourself dissatisfied?

The owners of this 18th-century Georgian home used a medium shade of a deep, pigment-rich color on walls, and a darker shade of the same color on trim, for a historically correct tone-on-tone effect. (Photo: Gross & Daley)

Working with shade and tint variations on a single color can be a tricky business, so we’ve asked a coterie of professional color experts to weigh in with tips and cautions. C.J. Hurley and Barbara Pierce offer a nationwide color consultation service in Portland, Oregon; Janet Teas is an architectural color consultant based in Zanesville, Ohio; Lou Toboz and Ron Walker operate Coryell Colors from their home in Lambertville, New Jersey.

Is it true that you can use different percentages—tints and shades of a color from the same paint card—and get radically different colors?

TOBOZ AND WALKER: Yes. Tints are just any pure color that’s been lightened by adding white. So depending on the percent of white you add, a deep purple can become lilac, or black turns to gray.

C.J. HURLEY: That’s what those paint chips from the big companies are. The purest pigmentation is on the bottom of the chip; all they’re doing is adding white as the swatch gets lighter. In today’s commercial paint they use titanium, but historically the white was lead.

Even on the same paint-color strip, shades and tints of a hue produce very different colors. (Photo: Courtesy of C2 Color Collection)

So why doesn’t it always work when you try to use different tints on the same paint chip?

C.J. HURLEY: What you have to realize is that these are marketing tools created to show you the spectrum of what you can get from a saturated color as it gets lighter, not necessarily to work together in the “wall/woodwork” way we’ve come to use them. Since most people aren’t trained in the nuances of color, the chips are designed to be useful at a glance, but they are in no way a measure for what is right for painting historically accurate colors in a period home.

BARBARA PIERCE: Think, for example of a deep, saturated red at the bottom of the chip that becomes really garish pink as it moves to the top. That “loud” pink is because they use magenta as a base. Historic bases were much different. Pinks were created historically by mixing a paint base of ground chalk, lime, or lead-white and adding ox blood. The average modern paint chip isn’t going to produce a pink like that.

C.J. HURLEY: Another point is that the whole spectrum of values that you get on these chips didn’t exist back in the day. Paint companies would release what they thought was the ideal color. You could go down and there would be a wide body of colors to choose from, but it wouldn’t be, “Okay, here is this yellow in nine variations.”

So what if you find a gorgeous historical color that you want for your walls? Is it possible to use variations on a single color and still give your home a period-appropriate feel?

JANET TEAS: If you have found the perfect historical paint for your walls and would like a similar color on the ceiling, just add the interior paint to white. The formula is 80/20—80 percent white with 20 percent color. To make an area feel more open and larger, I like to paint the ceiling a lighter color than the walls.

C.J. HURLEY: Keep in mind that no matter what color you are starting with—the warmest yellow or the coldest blue—as you add white it will only get cooler. You are never going to warm the paint by adding white. Staying near the purest form of the pigment will give the warmest effect.

BARBARA PIERCE: So if you want your house to feel warm and inviting, you probably won’t achieve that with the lighter end of the color card. And if you are putting it next to warm natural woodwork, your results may be a disharmonious effect. C.J. and I have worked with many homeowners who have been dissatisfied with their color choices because they are too stark next to the wood trim. This is usually because the colors they picked had too much white. Titanium is much harsher than the kind of warm yellow-white effect offered by paler historic colors.

A palette designed by Le Corbusier in the 1930s offers a distinct advantage: every color coordinates with every other color. (Photo: Courtesy of KT Color/Aronson’s)

What about on a home’s exterior?

TOBOZ AND WALKER: [Shade variants] can work really well on an exterior. People make the mistake of thinking that a monochromatic color scheme is boring, but imagine a Queen Anne Victorian picked out in a variety of shades and tints. It would be harmonious, but at the same time would draw the eye to all that wonderful texture and detail—make it pop. You just have to remember the general rules about color placement in order to achieve maximum visual impact: medium-weight colors are good choices for a “body” color that covers—or grounds—most of the house. Use brighter or darker colors that complement the ground color as accents on doors, windows, eaves, porch trim, etc.

Is it appropriate to use variations on a single color for any architectural era?

C.J. HURLEY: Sure, but depending on what your goal is, I don’t necessarily think that you are going to get better effects by sliding up and down the scale of a single color swatch. Just to generalize: In the mid- to late-Victorian period up through Arts & Crafts, people were using the same types of colors. And most of the colors they liked to use to decorate walls and even body colors on exteriors were deeply saturated—they didn’t have a lot of light in them. When you start looking at trim colors, they will for the most part have more white, but if you want a historic feel, even if picking off a contemporary palette, you’ll have greater success by staying in the middle range of that chip, moving back toward the darkest tone. It’s probably going to feel the most historical at the mid- to darkest range for wall colors.

BARBARA PIERCE: Of course none of this is exclusive; historical color is more complicated than that, and what period you are working in matters a lot. But when you start getting into those pale colors, they are often off the mark with the mid-Victorian to Arts & Crafts period tastes, except, for the most part, trim colors. And then there is a tangible change toward using lighter colors for both walls and trim after World War I into the 1920s with the Colonial Revival.

JANET TEAS: Adjusting tint percentages allows, for example, the color orange to be transformed into a beautiful peach color for a Federal-style home, or into a subdued terra cotta color for an Arts & Crafts home.

Any advice on how to go about playing with percentages to achieve the perfect color?

TOBOZ AND WALKER: If you’re the hands-on type, a good option is milk paint that you mix yourself. The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company ( has a color palette and tinting chart that shows you exactly what we’ve been talking about here.

C.J. HURLEY: If your goal is to get an accurate historical feeling for your older home, it’s good to seek some advice from a designer with real knowledge of historic colors. A color consultant can help you over any hurdles you are facing in choosing colors, and steer you in the right direction. They often will have a library of colors that aren’t offered to the general public, which also helps in making smart choices.

See Victorian Exterior Paint Colors for more painting advice.

Tags: Catherine Lundie historic colors OHI January/February 2011 Old-House Interiors paint

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