Home & Garden Columns

The Hue and Cry of House Paint

By Jane Powell
Friday January 19, 2007

By Jane Powell 


Of all the things you will ever have to do to your house, deciding what color to paint the outside is one of the most difficult. While some people just don’t care what color their house is, I think many owners are so overwhelmed by the whole thing that they simply opt for the default color: beige. And that makes for a very boring streetscape.  

While beige is inoffensive, at the other end of the scale, people who pick their own colors (from paint chips) have saddled their neighborhoods with houses painted bright blue, orange, or purple. Picking exterior colors is hard, and I say this as someone who does it professionally. But I’m not going to explain the whole color wheel thing—instead, I am going to offer some rules to follow, and some tried-and-true color combinations that will look good on almost any building. Think of this as What Not To Wear for your house—follow the rules and your house will look better. No, you will not get a $5,000 VISA card. (If you still can’t handle it after this, I’ve included contact information for some color consultants at the end.) 

There are three main things to be painted on the average house: the body, which is what’s on the walls (siding, stucco, shingles, etc.); the trim, which is all the wooden moldings around the windows and doors, as well as the edge of the roof and various other brackets, moldings and such; and the sash, which is the movable part of the windows.  

Rule #1: No picking colors from paint chips without trying them on the house.  

Paint chips can be used to narrow down to color combinations that you like, so that you can then buy quarts and try them out on the house. The fifty bucks you spend on quarts will be well worth it. 

Rule #2: Trim should be the lightest color, sashes should be the darkest, with the body color somewhere in between. 

This means there will be at least three colors on the house. Some painters balk at this. Don’t let them—the windows need to be a different color. And don’t do it the other way around, with dark trim and light sashes- it makes the façade look busy. Pick the body color first- it’s the hardest, and there’s going to be a lot of it. 

Try out colors around a window or door, so that you can see how they look together. I generally use the front of the house, which brings us to: 

Rule #3: Ignore the neighbors. 

As you try colors, your neighbors will give their opinions, which will mostly be that the color is “too dark”, “too light”, “too yellow”, or whatever. Occasionally your neighbors will be right, but if you have picked the right color combination, they will rave about the color they didn’t like once the house has been painted. 

Rule #4: Things which are not painted or meant to be painted (shingles, bricks, stonework, concrete) should not be painted, unless they have already been painted.  

If already painted, it’s best to paint them a color which resembles the color they would be if they weren’t, such as raisin or grey-brown for shingles, a reddish color for brick, gray for stone. This is not permission to paint the bricks bright red and the mortar joints bright white like a cardboard Christmas fireplace!  

Rule #5: NO BLUE! 

Blue is the most difficult color to use outdoors, so don’t even go there. If you must, don’t go for bright blues- use teal, midnight, or grey-blue, and only on the sashes. Another difficult color is terra-cotta, which can be lovely when it’s right, but a salmon pink or tomato soup disaster when it’s wrong. 

Rule #6: If you see a paint job with good colors, copy it. 

Well, maybe not if it’s your next door neighbor. Also, the paint companies have tried their best to make up lovely color combinations for you. Most companies have historic palettes with period-appropriate colors.  

Here are some (limited) color combinations that seem to work on most houses—you can mix and match. 


Body Trim Accent 


Chamois Cream Forest green 

Sage Green Burgundy 

Olive Green Eggplant 

Butterscotch Dark Teal 



The colors will not be called that, of course, since the paint companies have their own names. My personal favorite paint color name is Corporate America. Yup- it’s gray. So buy some quarts and try them out. If you are still overwhelmed, hire a color consultant. An attractive paint job will increase your home’s value and enhance your street as well.  



Iliumarts- Jeanette Sayre 


(510) 451-7046 


The Color Doctor- Bob Buckter 


(415) 922-7444 


Arthur Deco Color 

(510) 849-3568 



Photograph by Jane Powell 

Forest green sashes (Benjamin Moore Essex Green) and cream colored trim draw attention to the arched front window of a Maxwell Park bungalow at 5539 Brookdale, Oakland. The stucco is painted a butterscotch tone which changes with the light. This home is featured on the cover of Bungalow Colors by Robert Schweitzer.