Choosing Exterior Paint Schemes

The Old House Web

Adapted from information from the Paint Quality Institute

A pleasing paint job can transform an old house into a masterpiece. On the other hand, most everyone knows of a house painted in colors that make passers-by shake their heads and say, "what were they thinking?" 

Understanding color combinations will help you choose a winning paint scheme, such as this combination of soft yellow, green and red hues.
PQI Photo

So how do you go about successfully creating a color scheme for your house?

Understanding as much as possible about color theory and vocabulary will help ensure that your paint scheme is something to be proud of. In a PQI study done some years ago, 62% of the homeowners surveyed said they typically do exterior painting for aesthetic reasons. So, while exterior paint is an important means of protecting surfaces, its often color that drives the purchase.

So before you grab the scrapers and paint brushes, learn as much as possible about color theory and color vocabulary. A good place to start is the color wheel.

The Basics of Color

Sir Isaac Newton developed the color wheel in the early 1700s and it has been used ever since as the foundation of color theory. The color wheel is comprised of the following:

Primary Colors
There are three primary colors red, blue and yellow. These are spaced equidistant from one another on the color wheel and are the basis for all other colors in mixing paints.

Secondary Colors
These are made by mixing together equal parts of two primary colors. Mixing red and blue produces violet, mixing blue and yellow produces green, and mixing red and yellow produces orange. On the color wheel, secondary colors are situated equidistant between the two colors that comprise them.

Tertiary or Intermediate Colors
These colors are formed when a primary color is mixed with an adjacent secondary color. For example, mixing blue with green produces the tertiary color, blue-green. These colors are located on the color wheel between the two colors from which they are made.

So, what about black and white?
Black and white, while usually referred to as colors, arent really colors at all. In the paint business, they are actually used to alter the nature of a color. When you add white, you create a tint of the color; adding black or grey produces a shade of the color. The tints and shades of a single color are regarded as different values of that color. The term hue is essentially a synonym for color.

Color Schemes

It's one thing to understand the makeup of individual colors, but quite another to appreciate how (and why) different colors work together in a pleasing fashion. 

For that, it helps to be familiar with four basic types of color schemes: 

  • monochromatic,
  • complementary, 
  • triadic 
  • and adjacent.

These are combinations based on colors found at certain relative positions on the color wheel that have proven to work well for many people.

Monochromatic color schemes

Monochromatic color schemes use just one color; however, they often contain two or more values of that color light, medium and dark blue, for example. 

This type of color scheme is usually (but not always) subtle and conservative; it can also be very sophisticated. A monochromatic approach is often a good option for people who are just beginning to experiment with color, or for those who live in conservative neighborhoods where bold paint colors or color combinations would not be welcome.

The house below is a nice example of a monochromatic color scheme.

monochromatic color scheme
This Italianate style house looks dignified with its monochromatic color scheme in shades of green. PQI Photo

Complementary color schemes

complementary wheelComplementary schemes employ colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. One example would be red and green in the simplified color wheel at the right.

As you might expect, complementary schemes tend to have a great deal of contrast. Consequently, these treatments can be very lively. To keep them from being too lively, it is best if one color is dominant, with the other serving as an accent. 

The house below is a good example of a complementary color scheme.

complementary color scheme
A fine example of a complementary color scheme. Photo: PQI

Triadic color schemes

tiradic color schemeTriadic color schemes involve three colors that are equidistant on the color wheel red-violet, yellow-orange and blue-green, for example.

The simplified color wheel at right offers examples.

These are typically highly complex color treatments that take an experienced eye to compose in an aesthetically pleasing palette. 

The house below employs a vibrant and sophisticated triadic color scheme.

Victorian Triadic color scheme
This beautiful commercial Victorian building is painted in a triadic color scheme of deep red, yellow and blue-green. Such highly complex color combinations require careful planning and a sophisticated understanding of color theory. Photo: PQI

Adjacent color schemes

adjacent color schemeAdjacent color schemes (also known as analogous or related schemes) employ colors that are next to, or near, each other on the color wheel.

An example from the color wheel at right would be green, blue-green and blue.

Typically, one of the three colors would be dominant, probably on the siding, while the other two would be accent colors. Although visually complex, adjacent color schemes are typically not as difficult to create as triadic treatments, since there is inherent harmony in colors that are adjacent on the color wheel. 

The house below uses shades of blue and purple for a lively color scheme.

Adjacent color scheme
Adjacent color scheme: the light purple is the dominant color, used on siding; trim is light and dark blue with complementary accent colors. Probably not the paint job you'd want to give a house in a conservative neighborhood. PQI Photo

Taking it Further at The Old House Web

The Old House Web offers a variety of stories and links forexploring the subjects of potential color schemes for old houses:

  • This link leads to a story with a variety of great examples of glorious paint jobs on old houses. The houses are all past winners of the Paint Quality Institute's "Prettiest Painted Places" contest.

  • If you're looking for hands-on advice on painting old houses, here's an in-depth story that explores most issues you're likely to encounter when tackling an old-house exterior paint project.

  • For books that cover the subject of house paint colors, dig through the selections you'll find here.

  • And be sure to check out Web sites associated with paint companies. Here's a long list, from our Guide to Suppliers.

About the Author
The Old House Web

Search Improvement Project