- Paint & Color Formulation
- Colonial Homes: Monochromatic Choices
- Federal, Greek & Roman Revival: Lighter Hues
- Victorian Homes: Painted Ladies
- Modern Homes: American Ingenuity
If your house is deemed architecturally historic in nature, it's important to select the appropriate paint colors for its exterior. When deciding on a historically accurate color, consider the paint colors available at the time when the style of house was first built. Many factors influenced the formulation of those colors such as the availability of pigments, paint composition, and trends of the time.
Paint & Color Formulation
Paint composition throughout history has shaped color choices. Traditional paints of years past were simpler than today's formulations, using only three components: linseed oil binder, a turpentine vehicle, and a pigment (typically white lead) which provided opacity as well as color.• American homes were not always painted. Prior to the Revolutionary War, homes were built of clapboards and shingles harvested from the finest old-growth eastern white pine, white cedar, and white oak. These higher quality woods were impervious to the elements and insects.
• In the early 19th century, the world had a limited selection of color choices in paint. The only pigments stable enough, affordable, and abundant were used on exteriors and derived from natural, organic colorants such as red iron oxide, lamp black, or colored clays (raw sienna, yellow ochre, and raw umber).
Prussian blue, verdigris green, and other chemically produced pigments were scarce and extremely expensive. In addition, they were subject to unstable color shifts and consequently not used as frequently. Synthetic organic dyes and pigments were developed in 1856, making them readily available and affordable. This time in paint development history expanded consumers' options, changing the color of the American landscape.
• The impact of paint composition can also be seen in white lead's modern substitute, titanium dioxide, which was introduced in the early 1920s. Titanium dioxide is brighter and with a much higher reflective index than white lead. If you desire to obtain a traditional appearance for a house built prior to 1920, off-white is appropriate since it is closer to white lead.
• Paint in the 20th century went through numerous chemical and technological advancements. In-store paint color mixing became possible in the 1960s, and while getting a "custom color" previously meant blending two ready-mixed colors in a specialty hue, paint colors can now be made to match just about anything.
Colonial Homes: Monochromatic Choices
Colonial homes built prior to 1780 were painted in affordable deep, earth-based hues such as yellow ochre, charcoal gray, brown, pea soup gray-greens, and barn-red siding with off-white sash and trim. Monochromatic (tints and shades of one hue) paint color schemes with siding and trim provided an additional way to achieve the earth-toned look for Colonial houses.
The popular "Spanish brown," a reddish-brown pigmented with red iron oxide, was ever-present in the 18th century homes, used for both a primer and finish coat for interiors and exteriors.
Federal, Greek & Roman Revival: Lighter Hues
By the early 1800s, the pendulum swung to lighter color schemes. From the early 1790s through the 1830s, our fledgling nation was captivated by classical Greek and Roman themes that mimicked architectural antiquities such as colonial, federal, and Greek revival. This classical trend favored light, delicate colors, such as off-white or cream on siding, trim, and window sashes.
Also during this time, exterior shutters came into common use. Shutters were painted for protection, typically in dark green. The "shutter green" we know today most likely began as a much brighter hue. Copper-based components, used in all the early green pigments, darkened over time due to exposure to the elements. The color names of this period are of French origin, such as verdigris and paris green.
Victorian Homes: Painted Ladies
The Victorian homes of the late 19th century were a colorful contrast to the earlier white and green colonials. As the Victorians grew in popularity, steam-powered machines emerged into the milling industry, allowing for production of mass quantities of inexpensive decorative trim and siding—giving the Victorians the venue to strut their stuff.
The flashy Victorians required a rich array of colors to highlight their intricate details: siding was to be painted in one color, trim in a second, and window sashes in a third.
When there were more components than one siding material such as shingles or clapboards, each was given its own signature color. One unifying trim color pulled them all together. Windows were complex, often containing a variety of sashes with individual panes in multiple patterns and all on the same house. This important element gained interest with accenting colors such as deep alligator green, burgundy, purple-brown, russet, and apricot.
The Victorian palette was dark and complex, incorporating tertiary color harmonies (made by mixing one primary and one secondary color). The emerging paint industry seized the opportunity to accommodate these color-loving ladies, bringing significant advancements in paint chemistry and color formulation.
Modern Homes: American Ingenuity
With millions of soldiers returning home, post-WWII initiated the largest residential housing boom in U.S. history. Homes had to be built faster and less expensively than ever before, catapulting advancements in construction engineering, furniture design, building materials, fabrics, and manufacturing.
The following prosperity and optimism of the 1950s led to two major architectural camps: modern and traditional.
Modern homes, such as midcentury modern and ranch styles, were built with new and innovative ways of designing homes and using materials. Midcentury modern homes have a distinctive color palette with fields of accents, while the 1950s ranch-style house characteristically used multiple exterior siding materials. Redwood, cedar, and other natural stained woods were in colors that accentuated the brick and stone set alongside the traditional clapboard and shingles.
The traditional camp held on to established designs, and homes were precise reproductions. Examples of these traditional homes include Craftsman and revivals of colonial, Georgian, Tudor, and Spanish colonial.
Traditional home paint colors varied according to design. Trim color for Tudors and Craftsman styles were deep olives, greens, dark browns and maroons. Georgian and colonial revivals' trim, window sashes, doors, and shutters were typically dark. Their bodies were yellow, white, gray, gray-blue or gray-green.
Today's homes incorporate brick, concrete, stucco, stone veneer, wood siding and trim, and vinyl, and their exterior paint colors vary widely according to style.
The most long-lived and commonly used exterior paint colors have been those we've relied on to perform in demanding conditions. Historic paint colors have weathered the test of time. They deserve the recognition as key players in shaping the American architectural palette.