Choosing the best historic paint colors

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Home Improvement Tips, Historic Preservation

Most of the pictures we see of truly old houses are in black and white. Given the dull nature of such photographs, it can be very easy to see the past as something that was equally gray and dreary. But historic houses were truly vibrant, often painted with combinations of striking colors that drew the eye. Some of those combinations might have even seemed over-the-top; the interesting thing is that they really worked!

Choosing paint colors that pay homage to the past has become much easier in recent years. Many paint companies have recognized the desire for historic old house paint colors, and they are serving up what customers want. The Historic Collection from Sherwin-Williams is one example; the National Trust Colors from Valspar is another. In some cases the colors are more modern but simply inspired by historic homes, but some colors are as close to the 'real thing' as possible.

There are literally thousands of potential colors for historic homes. How do you choose the right one for you?

What kind of homeowner are you?

Start out by figuring out what kind of homeowner you are. Do you prefer to restore the home so completely that it feels like stepping back a century when you walk through the doors? Then you are the true purist who wants colors that can be verified as not only from the time period of your old house, but were commonly used on homes of your particular style. If you can figure out what colors were used on your particular home, all the better!

Do you prefer to restore as much as you can, but recognize that sometimes modern convenience and aesthetics win out? Then you might prefer paint colors that are historically appropriate, but not necessarily what you would have seen on your house back in the day. These 'heritage' colors are inspired by the original colors found on old houses, but allow you the freedom to choose how those colors will be combined.

Do you want a home that is truly your own, regardless of the age? You are the more modern homeowner who feels comfortable with choosing only the colors you like, and you don't have to have a historic paint scheme to make you happy. This becomes a problem only if you live in a historic district, where paint colors might be limited in order to preserve the look and feel of old houses as much as possible.

Choosing the right paint colors

If you can find old photographs of your home in its original glory, even those black and white photographs hold clues to what your home should look like. Coloration software can give you a good idea of what that colors are underneath all that grey. If you are truly dedicated to the original colors, you can go with more advanced techniques, most of which include looking at the house itself for tiny scraps of paint that have survived all these years.

But for most of us, choosing the right paint colors is a matter of figuring out what paints were common during that particular era, then choosing how they go together to create something unique and stunning. The use of a color wheel can help you determine what you are comfortable with when it comes to colors. Here are a few tips:

  • 'Monochromatic' includes various values of one particular color; for instance, all blues or all greens. These are usually desired for more sophisticated, conservatives homes.
  • 'Complementary' can be very lively, and are made up of colors on the opposites sides of the wheel. The result is an eye-popping combo for fun, elaborate homes.
  • 'Adjacent' uses colors that are side-by-side on the wheel, which results in a dominant color with a few accent colors. This can be either wildly fun or very understated, depending upon those accents.
  • 'Triadic' refers to those that are equidistant on the wheel, such as green, violet and orange. These combos are quite eye-catching and are great for homes that want to stand out.

No matter what paint color you choose, make certain that it suits you. You want to stay true to your old house, but you want to be completely happy there, too -- sometimes finding a middle ground between the historic and the modern is the best way to go.


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