Historic paint colors were anything but boring, and despite the iconic presidential residence being one of the first things to mind when thinking of American paint colors, white was rarely actually used as a feature house color in America. As it was traditionally hard to produce and maintain vibrant white paints, this point is only reinforced when you refer to that the White House was exposed sandstone for many years before it ever received a coat of whitewash (to protect the stone from winter more than cosmetics). It would be another 20 years before it had actually received a coat of (oil-based) white paint.
When beginning the hunt for the perfect colors to refresh your home's historic look, you should first find the time period that your home was built (or the time period that you wish it were). If you love historical paint colors from a certain era you can incorporate them into any space and use accents and contrasting colors to give even the most modern architecture historic appeal. Historic interiors often prioritized maximum functionality over pure cosmetic allure in the days before climate control and electric lighting. Thus, you might find that some modern interior design rules were bent or blissfully ignored when you are sourcing inspiration for your next historic paint scheme.
Pigments of the 17th and 18th centuries were mostly produced from colors and additives found locally and naturally. Chrome and lead intensified colors so that yellows and greens could shine bright. The popularity of such properties was due in large part to the dim and dangerous lamp lighting that was available to homeowners after the sun had set. Brighter colors warmed up interior spaces and gave unique character to rooms that were frequently used long after the hour one could rely on natural lighting. Pigments were powdered and then mixed with milk, water, and/or oil at the owner's discretion and wisdom. Despite what hundreds of DIY posts on Pinterest might lead you to believe, most people today are quite grateful to have the ease, safety, and accuracy of modern paint technology!
Authentic colors from the 1600s through the 1800s can be mixed perfectly by modern tinting systems and material, which will ensure your home's cosmetic history is paired with the proper modern architectural coatings designed to protect and endure. The most popular colors were shades of green, red, and yellow, many of which were mixed very brightly. White was generally reserved for trim and accents on woodwork or architectural features (as it would need new coats often), and in application it was more of a duller off-white than a clean modern white.
So with this in mind, how do you get started crafting your own historic color scheme?
Image: Fagan Designs
Many Interior Designers use a 60-30-10 rule to plan out color layouts:
- 60% of the color in the room comes from walls
- 30% from textiles (such as your curtains, upholstery and rugs)
- 10% from accent pieces and finishing touches.
Your walls will be doing a majority of the work in making a color scheme effective, so don't focus your budget and effort on the small details instead!
Light room or dark room?
Notice the amount, quality, direction, and intensity of light in the area to be painted. This was often the first consideration in historical paint color schemes. To learn how to maximize your light through strategic color decisions refer to How to Tackle Dark Rooms With the Right Interior Paint Color. Remember that a color that looks super bold in the can often looks completely different when you combine your furnishings and then light it differently.
Seek Historic Color Inspirations
Check out some of the historical paint colors in homes from your home's era. Many high profile historic homes are preserved now as museums (and may offer tours if you are local), thus you should find it easy to gather many photos of schemes to draw inspiration from.
Notable Historic Home Interior Color Scheme Examples:
Photo: Mount Vernon Ladies' Association
Dining Room at George Washington's Mount Vernon
Photo: Elle Magazine
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello Living Room
The ballroom of the Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
The historic exterior paint colors of the Voigt House, Grand Rapids Michigan
Choose your palette
Historical paint colors often contrasted, and weren’t as strict as more contemporary color schemes. Contrasts were done in bright colors to offset built-ins, the insides of buffets and cabinets (showing off fine dining wear), as well as accents and trim. Jefferson in the example above liked bright yellow (made possible during the time with chrome and lead).
This Monticello scheme was intended to relax and uplift it's occupants while not distracting from the frequent (heated) political discussions held there. A Georgian Yellow (absent the toxic metals) paired with Jewwitt White trim and subdued wood tones offer a timelessly inviting living room.
To implement the mood-lifting greens that have been popular throughout North American color history (displayed earlier in the Mount Vernon Dining Room) try Grassy Meadow combined with Modern White trim with touches of Wooly Thyme on built-ins, doors, or other architectural features.
The classic formal look of the Williamsburg ballroom can be matched by combining Meetinghouse Blue with Goldenrod accents and dark wood tones like Chocolate for a relaxed entertaining space that remains steeped in American tradition.
For a traditional exterior combination like on the Voigt House, try Cogswell Cedar paired with Rocky Hill, and Jewett White to complete the patriotic color combination. It creates a classical yet eye-catching look that will stand the test of time while various trends change around it.
Don’t do too little
The idea of an accent wall is a great one, but if you’re going for a historical look be sure to give the entire room the colorful boost that will really give it an authentic historical look. Remember that the boldness of your walls will be tempered with your furniture, fabrics, flooring, and artwork.
Don’t do too much!
Compliment your furniture and rugs, but don’t try to overpower them. You don’t want your walls and furnishings to compete for attention! Let your walls and trim pull your pieces together by using colors that fit well with your textiles, window coverings, and lighting.
Don’t suffer in silence!
Rather than procrastinate with something you don’t really love, call in the cavalry! Paint stores aren’t just for buying paint and supplies: The experts at your paint store have experience in assisting their customers with choosing colors/types of paint and will know all about translating the look you’re trying to achieve into a reality.