Exterior Paint Colors - How To Choose?

by Richard Taylor, AIA - Date: 2007-04-17 - Word Count: 811 Share This!

"Dupioni"; "Faux bois"; "Intaglio"; "Pulmonaria"... Rare tropical diseases? European politicians? Expensive appetizers?

Nope, they're paint colors! If you're thinking of painting the outside of your house you might be wondering whatever happened to red, green, and blue!

Paint Paralysis

The dizzying array of color choices and their associated names are enough to give a homeowner a case of Chromophobia - the fear of colors. How do you decide what color(s) to use when there are so many options?

At $40 a gallon or more for quality exterior latex, you can't afford to make a mistake. And if you don't like the colors, your neighbors probably won't either; colors have public impact - you're not the only one who has to live with them. But a little research and planning can help you get started with the confidence that the final paint job is one that you - and your neighbors - will be pleased with.

Field, Trim, and Accent

An existing house isn't a blank canvas - after all, you're not changing the color of the roof, the brick or stone, and maybe not even the windows (if they're vinyl or aluminum clad). Roofs and masonry walls are large areas of unbroken color and natural starting points for creating a palette.

An exterior paint scheme should be made up of at least three colors: the field - large areas such as walls or roofs; the trim - corner boards, window trim, fascias, rakes, etc.; and accent - specific elements including doors, shutters, and other architectural features.

Field colors make up the majority of what you'll see on the house and will lead you to the choice of trim and accent. Are you trying to make your house look a little more prominent on the street? A lighter field color will make it look larger; a darker color will visually shrink it. "Unattractive" elements - gutters, downspouts, etc., should also be painted the field color to help them "disappear" into the background.

But it's the trim color that can make or break the scheme. Painting the trim the same color as the field can work in some cases, but it can also give the house an "unfinished" or "wedding cake" look. Darker trim - especially around the windows - can cause a "frame" effect, where the windows look like pictures hung on a wall. Keeping the trim lighter than the field is almost always a safe bet.

The accent color is where the excitement is. Once you've chosen an attractive combination of field and trim, make it "pop" with an eye-catching accent color. It's a tool to give life to an otherwise muted color scheme and draws attention to the important features of the house. The front door, shutters, and the windows frames (not the trim) are good places for accent colors. Windows painted with accent and trim colors together can be the most interesting part of the composition.

Choosing a Paint Scheme

The two most important considerations in choosing a color scheme are the architecture of the house and the neighborhood context.

Historic architectural styles, for example, look best in their original color schemes, although these can vary quite a bit. Original Colonial and Colonial Revival homes were often quite colorful on the inside, but less so on the exterior. Often they were painted in a single color for the field and trim, with a second color for an accent. Combined with prominent red brick chimneys and a brick or stone base, the effect is a three-color scheme.

Victorian homes - often referred to as "painted ladies" - sometimes showed off six or more colors of trim and accent. Making that look good today takes the services of a color specialist and a lot of time. But a similar effect can be had with as little as three colors if they're well placed on the house.

The Craftsman style of the early 20th Century sported a darker, earthier color scheme using deep browns, greens, and reds. The current popularity of the style is making more homeowners consider richer color schemes for their homes.

Take cues from the other houses in your area - a house should have its own personality and style, but houses don't look good in "party dress" all the time.

Final Coat

Whether you're comfortable with choosing colors or not, you have several resources that can make the decision much easier. Many paint manufacturers have produced pre-selected color palettes arranged by architectural style or color range that specify compatible field, trim, and accent colors. They're available at paint and building supply stores and most are very well done.

Many paint companies have online paint selection programs that suggest proper color combinations - some even allow you to preview colors on photographs of real houses, or on a digital photo of your own home. Sherwin-Williams.com and Lowes.com both have excellent online tools.

Plan ahead, be bold in your color choices, and use paint company resources. But don't ask for red, green, or blue in the paint store - they won't know what you're talking about!

Related Tags: luxury home plans, residential architect, paint colors, exterior painting, choosing paint colors

Richard L. Taylor, AIA is a published author and recognized expert in Residential Architecture. He is President of Richard Taylor Architects, a 5-person firm in Historic Dublin, Ohio. Residential Architect Luxury Home Plans

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