What color should I paint my old house? Man, I hear that question all the time. Is all one color a good idea or should I use multiple colors and if so how do I determine what parts to paint what color? If you’re one of those people confused about the subject of what colors to paint your house know that you are not alone.
In this post, I’ll try to give you some guidance and resources to help you pick the right color or combination of colors based on your home’s architecture and age. You’ll leave with all you need to make a good decision. Feel free to share this post with your neighbors as well to make your neighborhood a little more beautiful.
Before we get into choosing the right colors you’ll need to figure out what personality you fit into. There are three types that your paint job will fall under and it’s important to determine which of these you want to focus on before you begin picking colors.
These folks are serious about historic integrity. The purist is someone who limits themself to only colors that were previously used on your house. This is usually reserved for historic restorations of truly significant historical buildings like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home, or some of Green and Green’s Craftsman Bungalows where accuracy is most important.
However, if you want to do a little detective work and keep your house true to its original form and colors, this option might work for you. You’ll need to either find some old color pictures (good luck if it’s old) of your house or ask some long time residents if they remember, or it might require a little elbow grease and a paint scraper to find out what’s underneath all those years of paint which is the most likely way to find the answers you long for.
If you do go digging for paint on old clapboards, remember that the colors you find are most likely well faded from their original appearance. Once you have the color, you can bring a sample to your local paint store and have them color match your home’s old paint. Remember though, that your house likely had several different paint colors between the body, trim, and accent colors so you’ll have to do some excavating in different areas of the house.
This is the category I fall into personally though I have my purist tendencies at times. In this category, the detective work is minimal. You simply research color palettes that were available and popular when your house was built. Every time period had its popular colors, and the further back in time you go, the fewer colors there were to choose from.
Many paint makers today have “Historical Color Collections” which re a close approximation to the historic colors of the past. Visit my Historic Paint Colors resource page for links to multiple historic paint palettes you can pick from.
For very old houses the exterior paint colors traditionally emulated natural building materials like stone, brick, tile, copper, bronze, and exposed timbers. Another good place to search are old postcards. Though they were usually hand colored the colors were filled in correctly (most of the time).
Last tip for the The Classicist is to research your house style. Each style had a cluster of options when it comes to historically appropriate color schemes. If you’re not sure what your house is check out my What Style Is My Old House post to help diagnosis your abode.
No matter how much you love the history of your house, you may not be interested in doing the work of divining its former paint colors or even care to dig through old color charts. You know what colors you like and that is that. Well, in that case I say, “Go for it!” There is nothing that says a house has to be any color other than what the owner wants.
The Purists will cry and you can just gather their tears and drink deeply, but they have to remember that color is easily changeable and does no permanent damage to the structure of a house, so painting is something every owner should feel free to do in a way that fits their style. It’s how you make the house your own.
So, whatever color scheme you choose we’re behind you even if it’s an all “Pepto-Pink” house. Just remember that whatever color scheme you choose, you’ll have to live with for a long time. It’s just as expensive to paint a house in a well thought out color scheme as it is in a poorly planned one.
Picking a Color Scheme
You know your personality now, so let’s start picking paint colors. For the Purists you’re pretty much stuck with whatever you find under those layers of paint, but for the the Classicists and Rebels you’re gonna have to combine some colors and we want to make sure those colors work together.
Below are a few options for combining colors to get powerful results.
The use of just one color can be powerful. It can also be frightening. Don’t just think of those as a single color for everything because this style can often utilize lighter and darker values of that one color. Monochromatic color schemes are typically understated, conservative, and sophisticated.
It may be cliche, but The White House is a perfect example of a stately historic building that uses a monochromatic color scheme to enhance its appearance. Some buildings scream out for a this monochromatic style and other have more flexibility so don’t feel like it’s a cop out if you go this route.
Two Color Simplicity
Almost as simple as the monochromatic looks is what I call the “two color simplicity” because it is used on historic homes all the time. There are two version of this style. Most common is painting a white or off white color on the windows, trim, and doors (sometimes even soffits as well) and using a bold color for the body of the house. Since any color pairs well with white you have complete freedom to pick a color that speaks to you and your home’s style.
The other version which is more rare today, but was fairly common historically, is to paint the body white and add a single color (historically blue or forrest green) to the trim, windows and doors of the house. Personally I’m not a fan, but it’s not uncommon for historic homes. Below is a picture of a farmhouse we restored recently at Austin Historical that went with this color scheme based on the historic paint evidence.
Three Color Accent
This is usually my favorite color scheme for use on a historic home because it provides the most depth and visual interest. Similar to the two color simplicity but in this case you add a third color to the accent features of the window sash, door slabs, screens/storms, and shutters.
In this color scheme you’ll choose one color for the body, one color for the trim and soffits, and the third colors is saved for those special accents that need special attention. You have to be more careful about how you choose colors here because you’re mixing three colors now and if you’re not careful you can clash. Typically, the trim is done in a white or off white color (my favorite is White Dove by Ben Moore or Dover White by Sherwin Williams) and then all you have to do is choose a body color and accent color that work well and hopefully pop against the white trim.
The three color scheme really shows off the different elements of the house and helps provide clear delineation of those elements as opposed to the two color simplicity that can cause windows and trim to merge into one.
The Painted Lady
This is a color scheme that really only applies to one age of house and that is the Queen Anne or Folk Victorian where you have the option to throw the kitchen sink at it in terms of house many paint colors you can use.
Three colors is the bare minimum and some homes will have upwards of a dozen colors on the unique gingerbread, jigsaw cut balustrades, and decorative shingles. Have some fun and get creative if this is your house, but remember at some point you’ll have to repaint this.
Whether you do this yourself or pay someone else, the labor is intensive to have all these different colors. In fact, the reason these ornate beauties fell out of favor in the early 20th century was because people began to get into the maintenance cycle of repainting and they opted for a simpler design that was less costly to care for. This overly ornate style actually helped precipitate the move toward the simple scaled down Bungalow that became so popular.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.