PAINTING YOUR HOUSE
by Joelle Steele
Are you ready to slap a fresh coat of paint onto your house's fading exterior and brighten up that dingy kitchen or master bedroom? Before you rush out and buy several gallons of paint, let's examine how color affects you and your house, as well as anyone who might one day consider buying your home, and then let's talk color selection.
In general, the best paint jobs are those that bring the exterior color to the interior, and vice versa. This is important because the outside is what people see first — curb appeal — and when they enter, there should be a good transition color-wise. This is just the basics of good design, but it is also of particular importance if you are planning to sell your home, because buyers drive by and see the outside first, and they generally expect the interior to be similar to what they see on the outside. When they don't, they often feel their time has been wasted or that they have been somehow misled. Either way the result is the same: no sale.
EXTERIOR PAINT COLOR
Selecting a suitable color scheme for the exterior of your house will be dictated in large part by the style of your house and the kind of neighborhood in which it is located. For example, in older neighborhoods, Victorian and Queen Anne architecture can be quite colorful when painted in authentic color schemes. However, using those same color schemes on a ranch-style house in post-1940s suburbia would be very inappropriate and probably quite unattractive. Ranch-style houses can be colorful, but only if that is the style of the entire neighborhood. Otherwise, a colorful ranch or rambler would look out of place.
Look at what the colors are on your neighbors' houses to get clues for what the appropriate color schemes might be on your street. You will probably find that, with few exceptions, exterior colors are generally quite subdued. Does this mean that if your favorite color is purple that you can't paint your house that color? Probably. But, you might be able to paint your exterior a soft cool gray and paint some of your interiors with selections from a purple palette. Or, depending on the exterior woodwork, you may be able to paint your door a very dark plum and maybe accent your window trim with a very small line of that same color. Outside, less is always more.
Another thing to consider when picking your outside colors is what color the houses are immediately next door to and across the street from yours. If your neighbor's house is a mustard color and you paint yours a light lemon yellow, your houses will both suffer and detract from one another. You also don't want to select the same color as that of your neighbor as that will not allow either of you to have a distinct look to your home. Picking a very dark color in a neighborhood of very light colors is also a mistake as then you will be far too distinct and won't match the style of the neighborhood at all — you may even offend your Home Owners Association, if there is one.
Picking colors that do not blend well with nature is also something to consider. For example, chartreuse (that very high key lime-yellow color) deviates from the greens found in most outdoor trees and plants, and using this color on your exterior will make your house look out of place with the environment in general. There's a house down the street from me that is painted such a garish green that it actually clashes with the color of their lawn. My own ranch-style house was a beige color with dark brown trim. I was okay with the trim color but I didn't like the beige body color because it had such red/pink undertones. So when I painted, I chose a beige with more yellow undertones. That very subtle color change made a huge difference in the overall appearance of the house.
Another item to consider when selecting colors outside is the color of your roofing material and any stone or brickwork on the house. You don't want to paint your house in a color that doesn't match or complement the roof tiles. Look at your house from across the street and see what color the roof really is and what colors will look best with it.
To begin selecting your palette, go to your favorite paint store and pick up some sample chips (those little cards with color strips on them with names like "field green," "castle gray," "blue storm," etc.). Take chips only of the colors you like best and think will look good on your style of house, next to your neighbors, and in your neighborhood.
The first thing I do when picking colors is to remove all of the shades that I definitely do not like at all. I usually just draw a big "x" through those individual chips with a black felt-tip pen. If there are colors that I'm not too crazy about but still might consider, I don't cross them out at all. Then I mark the colors I like best with a small star or dot in the corner of each chip. I then look at just those starred or dotted colors I like best, and from those, I x-out the ones I like least, leaving me with about three to five colors that I like a lot.
I always make sure that the colors I choose for the exterior will carry on into the inside effectively when I select my interior colors. For example, if I don't want to carry blues or grays indoors, I won't select them for the exterior either. But if I want a light beige or a sage green on the interior, I will try to find several beiges or greens that match the interior colors and then create palettes based on them for use on the exterior of the house.
Having selected my favorite colors, I now create a palette for each of those colors. For example, if I picked four favorite colors, I will now create four palettes, each consisting of three colors: my favorite color; a lighter or a darker shade of my favorite color; and an accent or complementary color that matches or contrasts well with the other two colors (pick a white or ivory for an accent if trying to pick a third color is too difficult for you — you won't go wrong that way). The favorite color can be used as either the body color or it can be used on the trim or the door. The lighter or darker shade of the favorite color can be used in either of those same ways. The accent color will be used the least, usually for the trim or for the door, and in combination with the favorite color or its darker or lighter shade as an accent too.
Now you pick the color scheme you like the best. Go to the paint store and buy a quart or a little sample cup of each color and paint some large squares of it onto the house, next to each other, on the trim or wherever the combination of colors will be, and on each side of the house. This allows you to see how those colors really look when they are dry and in the sun or in the shade. And colors do look very different under different lighting, so you need to see how the colors you choose will look on all sides of the house at different times of the day.
Ask your friends and neighbors for their opinions of your color combination. You don't have to go with what they say, but having some other input can be very helpful. Once you're sure that you like what you see, you can go and buy enough paint to do the whole exterior.
In most cases, you can paint your house almost any color. It is the particular shade of that color itself that is at issue when you are making your choice. If your neighborhood can support strong color, and you want a red house, pick a deep brick red instead of a cherry red. Or, if you need to be more subtle in your neighborhood, pick a light gray body color or a very light gray-blue, and add a dark red accent color for the front door and parts of the trim. Be careful and exercise discretion when painting garage doors, especially with post-1940s architecture in which the garage door so often dominates the front of the house. If you are painting your front door red, that's fine, but don't paint the garage door the same color. It is an excessive and distracting use of such a vibrant accent color.
When it comes to selling a house, houses painted in light yellows are believed to be the fastest sellers, but houses painted in a soft dove gray with white trim supposedly command the highest selling prices. The difference? Yellow is perceived as pretty and cheerful, but gray is considered to be rich and elegant. In the last house I lived in down in California, I went for the cheerful look but kept it very subtle when I painted the house a light straw yellow with white trim and added very dark green decorative shutters. It sold a year later in a few short days and at an excellent price.
Color is by far and away the most inexpensive way to redecorate and revitalize your interior. People make two mistakes with color indoors: too many colors or too few. That means that finding a good balance is the trick. And there are some relatively easy ways to handle this dilemma.
When in doubt, pick darker and lighter shades of the same color to expand the color range to allow a good flow of color from one room to another and from one part of the house to the other. In general, it is a good idea to limit your entire interior palette to only three main colors that go together well, and then use lighter versions of those colors throughout the house if you want some variety. Begin by selecting your three colors from the darkest colors on each strip of "paint chips" at the paint store. If they go together, then the lighter versions of those colors on the tops of the strips will usually go together too.
For example, I like green in the rest and relaxation areas of the house, and I like a brighter and cheerier color in my office and in the entertaining areas of the house. So, I picked only two main colors for my mostly open-plan house: a dark green and a rich dark peach. The trim was already a dark walnut wood, and I didn't want to bother with painting it, so the walnut wood became my "accent" color. But it would be boring to use just those two colors of green and peach, so to expand on that very limited palette, I also selected lighter shades of those colors. I ended up with four shades of green and three shades of peach. They all went together seamlessly because the two dark green and peach colors looked so good together and therefore the lighter versions all looked good together as well. I didn't use the green and peach together in the same room, except in my accessories, but when you looked from a green room into a peach room, the colors looked very natural and flowed together well.
I also tried to select fairly subtle greens and peaches to begin with so that I would not get tired of looking at them and so that my future decorating choices would not be too limited. Getting tired of a color or color scheme can be a real problem. You can end up painting and repainting year after year if you select colors that are fatiguing to the eye or too trendy. Also, picking very high key colors, such as vivid canary yellows or brilliant orchids, will make it hard to decorate your house — or sell it. In fact, before (or while) you pick your paint colors, pick your carpets, drapes, bedspreads, upholstered furniture, artwork, etc., and make sure they all go together from room to room, and then pick the paint colors that go with everything.
Now, after telling you about my peach and green color palette, I must tell you that I changed my mind! Hey, it happens. While I liked the color scheme in general, I found that the peach was just too close to my least favorite color (pink) for my tastes, and that the lightest green looked a little too minty to me. So, two years later, I repainted everything, keeping a medium olive-sage green for accent walls, but replacing all the other walls with a wheat beige in two shades. These beige tones even make the dark trim look more attractive. On the whole, I had to do quite a bit more work, but I am much, much happier with this color palette.
White walls are always an option, but keep in mind that a small room will not appear that much bigger when painted white. And if you're selling your house, the right colors sell! And, a house that is dark inside because it has few windows or the sun simply doesn't travel in a direction that lights the house inside, will not look any brighter inside with white walls. In fact, it might even look dingy with white walls. Going with what you have to work with is easier than trying to make the sun move to an angle where you would like it to be! I lived for five years in a very dark house in California. It was painted white inside when I moved in, but it was still dark and gloomy. I decided to just "go to the dark side" colorwise and put color on the walls, even dark shades. I had white trim throughout the house and that made a great contrast with the wall colors I chose. Instead of looking dark and dreary, it looked colorful and warm.
Some designers believe you should stick to certain colors in one room or another, but I think you should pick colors that you really love and that make you feel good and comfortable in whatever room you're in. If the colors you choose don't make you feel all that great in any given room, pick another better color scheme. Sometimes it's just a matter of picking a different shade of the color you like. For example, a friend of mine loves yellow and wanted a yellow kitchen. She picked a very bright golden yellow. I thought it would look awful, but she insisted on using it, and it did look awful, especially since it was a shiny satin finish. Within a year, she repainted the kitchen in a much lighter and more muted shade of yellow. It now looks sunny and warm. It's really gorgeous and she likes it so much better. The moral of this story is: That little paint chip color won't look the same when it's covering an entire wall. As with selecting paint for your exterior, paint big squares on your walls to see how the colors look before you paint the entire room or the entire house. This will also let you know how the room is going to look at different times of the day and under natural and artificial light. Also, remember that a shiny surface enamel or satin finish can look very different than the flat version of the very same color.
PSYCHOLOGY OF COLOR
There are a few caveats with regard to selecting colors for indoors. These are based on studies that show how people react psychologically and emotionally to certain colors. Don't use a lot of blue in a dining room (suppresses appetite) or in any room if you are prone to depression (you may really end up feeling blue), and don't use too much yellow in a baby's room or a master bedroom (babies have been found to cry more around yellow walls and couples tend to fight more in yellow rooms). If you want a very relaxing room, use cool versions of a color; if you want to feel vital and active, use warm versions of a color.
MAPPING OUT YOUR COLORS
Before you start painting your exterior or your interiors, draw a rough floor plan of the house and mark the walls with the colors you plan to put on them. This will help you visualize where all the colors belong and will also help you decide exactly how much paint to buy. Always pay particular attention to making a good color transition from the outside of the house to the indoors at all of your entryways.
If you are not good at picking colors, if you can't tell what goes with what, get some input from a designer who knows and understands how to select color. It's money well spent for a brief consultation. And some paint stores have designers on staff to assist you. Paint is relatively cheap, but the labor to paint is not, even if it's your own time and effort. Try to get it right the first time so that you don't have to buy more paint and repaint everything (like I did ...).
This article last updated: 10/28/2015.