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Colorful Issues in Choosing Exterior Paint

Colorful Issues in Choosing Exterior Paint

by Gordon Bock

Don't Get Stuck on the Color Wheel
Colorists in the 19th century were greatly influenced by discoveries in the field of optics and harmonious colors. However, old-house owners should not take theory on opposites and complements too literally. Use the color wheel as a guide, not a rule.

Since the 1970s, few images have summed up restoration more dramatically than an old house surrounded in scaffolds and "under the brush" with a fresh, colorful paint scheme. Even folks not bitten by the old-house bug now accept that some antique architecture is better bright than white--a complete reversal from the notions of 50 (more or less) years ago. Yet, if color is appropriate for old houses, the question quickly becomes: Which colors?

There's no canned answer, no formula or litmus test for what color scheme is right for your particular old house. Some background reading in magazine articles and books can expand your knowledge and options, as will an on-site visit from a color conultant. For most old-house restorers, there lies a spectrum of issues between the decision to paint and the actual work. We'll try to separate out a few of the different shades here.

What are Historic Colors?
Understanding a little about historic color research is the logical place to start. Museum houses, landmark buildings, and similar properties that have a mandate to educate the public are often interested in presenting their exteriors as close as possible to how they looked at some point in the past. To do this, they examine the surface (as well photos and other documents) to try to determine the colors and placement that have actually appeared on the building--often referred to as the "chemical" or "scientific'' approach. Since the 1950s, modern historic paint color research has developed an arsenal of tools and methods to aid in this process.

Andrea M. Gilmore, principal with Building Conservation Associates in Dedham, Massachusetts, uses this scientific approach in her work interpreting historic paint samples. She starts with color evidence from on-site paint archeology. Not surprisingly, she finds that "there are common colors and levels of repetitions for each period of time." She compares the evidence with published material that is, historic color charts, diagrams, pattern books, and literature--to see how it fits the broader picture of an era. In short, there are three steps to the process: l) determine the original color; 2) determine how it is placed on the building; 3) relate it to the historic documentation. Colors can then be matched to off-the-shelf or custom-mixed paint.

Impact of Paint Documents
Published records of exterior paint colors are hard to find for years prior to 1840, but there is a wealth of material for the mid-to late-19th century. In many ways, the most useful documents begin with Andrew Jackson Downing, popularizer of the romantic and picturesque. According to Downing, one should pick exterior house colors from nature. He was quick to capitalize on the power of publishing in his campaign for natural, stone and earth hues. When Downing published Cottage Residences in 1842, he featured one of the earliest actual architectural color cards. "Downing was the first color polemicist," notes John Crosby Freeman, color consultant and long-time OHJ contributor. "He used color to change the viewer's perception of architecture. Downing hated white wooden buildings; he thought they were dishonest."

By 1880, Downing's ideas had been expanded by late Victorian tastemakers and the fashion for aggressive, multicolored paint schemes. But they continued to build on his methods. Color standards gained a new purpose with the perfection of ready-mixed paint and color printing. The color card was the ideal promotion for a paint industry that, after the Civil War, was able to offer standardized colors, rather than the somewhat unpredictable tones of a handmade paint.

Standardized colors went hand-inhand with the complex, machine-made woodwork designed for "picking out" in the polychromy of the late Victorian era. It also empowered the buyer to use them. Not only could homeowners purchase and apply their own paint, but they could also select from a palette of sophisticated colors.

As the 19th century waned, the trends in exterior colors moved away from aggressive, multicolor schemes. House bodies in fewer colors were more the vogue--mossy greens and browns for the Shingle houses, for example, or ubiquitous white again for the rising Colonial Revival style. In fact, companies that had once pushed many colors to highlight Victorian architecture were advocating its use to "modernize" the same buildings, now grown passe. With paint it was possible to effectively "paint away" ornamental details with one color.

Choosing Historical Colors
Documents, then, give us valuable background on the history of paint. But does every historic house demand historic paint colors? Most old-house owners--and not a few museum buildings--are free to choose colors beyond what is literally accurate for the building. For one thing, Old-House Journal readers live in their old houses, and most want to paint in colors they can live with. For another, the historic paint evidence on the house may be (gasp!) unreveallng, uninteresting, or otherwise unacceptable. After all, tastes in paint colors change over time.

"It is possible to paint your historic house in appropriate colors and still express your personal taste," notes Roger Moss, co-author of Victorian Exterior Decoration. One way is simply to do what any past owner of your house would have done: choose from the selection of available colors according to his or her taste. A historic house owner today has the same opportunity: choose from among the period color cards used in tile house's era. This straightforward approach requires a little homework on historic paint documents, but it can produce a historically appropriate color scheme.

To be historically appropriate, exterior paint colors need not be picked from an archival document, either. They should, however, have some connection to the past that evokes an association in the viewer. It is this lack of connection that makes 1960s electric purple, for example, look awkward on a house obviously built before the industrial revolution, no matter how tastefully it is applied. John Freemall suggests two touchstones.

First, historical colors should emulate other traditional building colors. In other words, consider colors that have some relationship to a local or likely building material. This is not as abstract a concept as it sounds. Brown looks at home on many early old houses because it is the color of weathered wood and stone. Reds are associated with brick in areas where it is the material of choice. In the sunny South, where Spanish tile is common, orange doesn't look at all out of place. In fact, paint colors of the past were often marketed with descriptive names like "sandstone" or "brick."

Second, the colors should have some relationship to colors used in the past. Most early historic paints--and many used up to 1900--are based on naturally occurring earth pigments. For example, ochres (for orange-yellows) and iron oxides (for reddish browns) are highly stable and combined readily with other pigments to prodnee shades of surprising versatility. Lampblack and white lead have been manufactured for centuries, used alone or blended with other pigments. Colors such as maroon and mauve, however, were not possible until the late industrial revolution.

Beyond History
The issues behind exterior colors are not all historical, of course. A paint iob has to be practical as well. "Resist the temptation to 'tart-up' your color scheme," cautions Roger Moss. "Like people, houses don't look good in party dress all the time." If you want to add a touch of personal color preference, choose an accent area, such as the sashes of windows or the panels of shutters. Not only will this be plenty of surface for a bit of whimsy, but it can also be repainted much more easily than a large area if the color should lose its appeal.

Today, as in the past, exterior paint color has economic implications. If your old house is not a mansion, chances are it was never painted like a mansion, and a baronial color scheme would look out of place. Lighter colors are still the most durable because they reflect ultraviolet light and heat. Blues and greens--among the most unstable colors 200 years ago--are still subject to fading and shifts of hue. "One of the most popular color combinations of the 19th century was grey and white," notes Roger Moss. "It was easy to mix, easy to touch up, and it stood up well." Always consider what the paint going to do to the house from a maintenance perspective.

Consider Your Community
If you live in a locally designated historic district, be aware that you will eventually encounter a body with overall responsibility for its exterior paint colors. Typically, it's a Historic Architecture Review Board--a "HARB" in preservation lingo--but it may have a different title or additional duties. Check with this group before you paint--or even buy paint!

The impact and authority of these review boards varies widely. In a high-profile district, as in Savannah, Georgia, or Charleston, South Carolina, an old-house owner may have to pick from an official, researched selection of colors, or submit a proposed paint scheme for approval. In fact, most bodies are advisory only and pass their recommendations on to a government staff or commission. Their concern is the context of the neighborhood or district-sometimes with tax breaks and National Register listing in mind. Rather than dictate colors or placement, they require only that they be appropriate for the style and era of the house. Many have resources or suggestions for choosing colors. After all, exterior paint colors have a public impact. You're not the only one who has to live with them.

Special thanks to ]ohn Crosby Freeman, "The Color Doctor" (610-539-3010), and Roger W. Moss, Executive Director of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, for help with this article.




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