Friday, November 10, 2017

Exterior Paint Colors - What is Historically Accurate?

by Deb Crowell

Having owned several historic homes, knowing what exterior paint color combinations were historically correct was often a conundrum.  Since none of my homes had original clapboards or trim, it was not possible to determine its original colors.  Given that, I relied on restoration resources to guide me.  One of the best articles I found was prepared by John Fiske for the Ipswich Historical Commission and the Architectural Preservation District.  Here are the cliff notes.

Colonial Period (1640-1780)

First Period (1640-1720s) Clapboards oftentimes were not painted or stained, but left to weather. Trim was then either left unpainted or painted Indian red/Spanish brown. If they were painted, generally it was two colors with their trim and sash the same color and the door distinct.

Second Period or Georgian (1725-1780) In this period body colors included dark stone colors, chocolates, orange, ochers, greys and reds.  Trim was almost always white, however, the white had a more yellow tone when compared to today’s bright whites. Doors were always a dark color and typically selecting from chocolate, red, green or blue.

1740—1780, Second Period: Meetinghouse Blue, 
Standish Blue, Landon Dove, Parsnip

Federal Period (1780-1830)
The federal period saw a shift away from the stronger Georgian colors.  The favored body colors were white, cream and straw, however, orange, pea-green, red and slate were also seen. Trim was white or the same color as the body while shutters and doors were dark green or black.

Greek Revival (1825-1860)

The earth-based pigments and natural stone colors of the federal period continued until the 1850s. The body colors were the same with white or off white, stone (such as greys, pale blue greys, grey browns and tan) and straw (ochres and yellows).  White, off-white and cream continued to be the colors of choice for trim.  However, sash was now often painted black.  The most common color scheme was a white or off-white body, green doors and shutters and black sash.

Early Victorian (1840-1870)
Federal period body color choices continued with traditional stone and earth-colors still popular.  Trim saw a dramatic change as white was not used. Instead it could be a darker shade of the body color or, if the body color was dark, the trim would be a lighter shade.  Sash was often painted the same color as the trim.

1860s—1880’s, Victorian: Picholine, Codman Claret, 
Portobello, Danish Pine

Later Victorian (1870-1900)

Paints were now being mass produced and available in resealable cans resulting in a wide range of possibilities that included pastels and deeper and more saturated colors. Strong contrasts with three color schemes for the exterior became the norm.  The three-color scheme was most popular with body, trim and sash all being distinct colors.  The sash, along with the doors and shutters, were always the darkest of the three colors. The color selection was based on color harmony; either harmony by analogy (adjacent colors on the color wheel) or harmony by contrast (opposite colors on the wheel).

Second Empire/Mansard (1855-1885)

A neutral palette continued at the beginning of this period with greys, tans, ochers and warm beiges prevalent.  Later, stronger colors appeared in combinations that included russets, olives, grey-green, ochers and browns.  Body and trim were typically two shades of the same color with the trim often being the lighter shade.  Sash, doors and shutters were black or very dark green.

Queen Anne (1880-1915)

This period is easily recognizable due to the use of different architectural elements including towers, bays, gables, porches and varied size windows. This architectural style lent itself perfectly  to four and sometimes five-color schemes. The body would be one or two intense colors.  If the house had shingles and clapboards, each would be its own color.  Trim color would be chosen to unify the two body colors with decorative accents painted a distinct color.  The sash would be the darkest color with choices typically being dark green, deep brown, black, dark red, maroon, chocolate, or deep umber.

Shingle (1880-1990)

As the name suggests, a “woody” appearance was dictated. The body would typically be stained or painted deep brown. Dark olives, grey-browns and dark greens were also seen.  Trim would be beige, tan or a dark contrasting color such as dark green, dark olive, or maroon.  Sash and doors were always dark.

Now you have an overall idea of what is appropriate for your period house when choosing body, trim, sash, shutter and door colors.  But where do I find paint formulated in the right shade and which shade do I choose?  To takeout the guesswork, Historic New England outlines precisely which colors are appropriate for each period using California Paints color chart, Historic Colors of America. 
To read the full article by John Fiske click here
Reading:  “The Anatomy of Color: The Story of Heritage Paints and Pigments” by Patrick Baty.  Find it on Amazon here


  1. The California paint chart above is a fantastic resource for color, both for interiors and exteriors. Beautiful and nuanced shades.

    1. I've used a few of these colors and haven't been disappointed!


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