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Selecting Exterior Paint Colors

Painting your exterior is a huge investment. Get it right with tips from Paint & Color Experts Amy Krane and Amy Woolf.

Amy Krane: Welcome to Let's Talk Color.

Amy Woolf: I'm Amy Woolf, principal designer at Amy Woolf Color and Design.

Amy Krane: And I'm Amy Krane, founding designer at Amy Krane Color. We're both professional color experts who specialize in Architectural Color. We met while training and years later the conversation is still going strong.

Amy Woolf: We both live our lives immersed in color and design. We often agree, but sometimes we don't, because color is personal. Color truths, however, are universal.

Amy Krane: In each episode we'll unravel the mystery of choosing colors for your home or business, both inside and out.

Amy Woolf: So today we're going to talk about choosing paint colors for the exterior of your home. This is a large financial investment and you should expect a good paint job to last about 10 years, so it's a big deal. Your paint colors are the number one component of your home's curb appeal.

Amy Krane: There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing an appropriate color palette for your home's exterior and one good place to start is the region you live in. A lot of that has to do with the light that you get where you live. Amy and I are in the Northeast, and based on the light that we get, muted colors really look great on a house's exterior. But if you're in Florida, you can get away with pink and turquoise and yellow if you really want to go that route. In the southwest, typical colors are adobe and clay colors. In the Northwest, muted colors look great too because it's really low light with a lack of sun. And in the Midwest, earth tones are often associated with the popular styles of architecture there.

Amy Woolf: I think there are certain color palettes that have a strong sense of having a “rightness” about them with a particular kind of architecture. Beyond that we want to look at the neighborhood - generally, what's going on in your area. We'll take a look at your plans for resale. If you're sticking around, then you have a little more room to be idiosyncratic, whereas if you think you'll be selling or moving within a couple of years it's probably better to play it safe. Of course, there's HOA regulations and there are fixed elements like the roof, stone, brick, landscaping, hardscaping...

Amy Krane: Absolutely. Roofs can be a lot of different colors. They can skew brown or gray for instance, and when you get up close and take a look at a shingle for a roof, you've got granules of a lot of different colors mixed in there. But when you stand back, the roof has an overall tone to it, and you really have to think about how that tone works with the body color of your house.

Amy Woolf: Ideally, when you're picking a roof color, I recommend you pick something that's going to leave you a lot of room, a great deal of flexibility. But sometimes when we're dealing with a house where the roof is good to go, it's got another five, 10, 15 years in it then we need to work around that color. So it's important not to forget that that's part of the equation.

Amy Krane: Absolutely, and a lot of homes are clad in a variety of different materials, more modern homes or newer homes, I should say, often have some stone veneer on it, where older homes may have actual stones on it. And these stones are all earth tones, so they really guide you towards the kind of colors you might want to have on your home. It's a very good idea to try and pull your body color out of one of the stones' colors or even from the mortar that is used to bind the stones together.

Amy Woolf: One of the important considerations with stone is whether or not you want to enhance the look of the stone or have that stone settle down some. So by using color theory, if you want to enhance the stone, you can move toward the opposite side of the color wheel. For instance, if it's a pinkish stone and you want it to look more pink, you can move toward greener neutrals because green and red are on the opposite side of the color wheel. If you want that pinkish stone to settle down, then what you would do is pick a red color or a brown, that's a red-based brown, and that'll help that pinkish stone settle.

Amy Krane: Yeah, brick is also a really big one that confounds a lot of homeowners. I get a lot of calls about what to do with brick. We all know that bricks in the US have red and orange tones, although there are yellow and tan tone bricks as well. And the same rules apply as what you just spoke about regarding the stone. If you've got siding along with the brick or just trim, you can go for a color which enhances and makes the brick colors stand out by going with a compliment or choose instead, a warm neutral that blends with it. But brick is red and it's a very pronounced color, it is not a neutral, so you've got to be really careful about the colors that you choose to use with it.

Amy Woolf: I think one of the big mistakes I see is when people try to match brick. It's really tricky. They pull a reddish orange brown out of the fan deck and they think it matches, but then when it goes up on the house, it ends up looking really garish. So for me, when I'm trying to coordinate a color with brick and come up with a so-called match, I always find a color that's a little less bright and less light, a little darker, a little de-saturated, and that allows that brick to be IT. Let the paint color coordinate to kind of settle down the brick or it can enhance it.

Amy Krane: A good point. Another color that's really great to use with brick as a trim color and you don't see it too much is black. It's a bold choice, but if a home has a little bit of siding or just wood trim, black is really nice with it and neutrals look great with it, too. I think you really hit it on the head. You don't want to go too bright when you're working with brick. You want to be muted or you want to be darker with the paint color near it.

Amy Woolf: So how do we figure out what it is that you like? Where do you get your ideas from?

Amy Krane: One of the biggest things to take into consideration is what's going on in your neighborhood. Take a look at your direct neighbors. Look at three houses to your left, to your right and across the street, because you really don't want to repeat a color palette used right next door to you. But even more than that, you can go beyond that and drive around your neighborhood and see what's there. You can both define what you like as well as what you don't like.

Amy Woolf: There's a lot of information in what you don't like. Sometimes it's harder to articulate what you do like, but the things you don't like can be really informative. So as you're driving around, take notes, take pictures, and once you've gathered a fair bit of data, you'll start to see a pattern emerge.

Amy Krane: When I meet with clients and talk about what kind of colors might be right for them for an exterior, I say: On a continuum of one to seven, where do you want to fall? Please don't pick one and don't pick seven. Neither are going to be good. But otherwise, it's all fair game. Do you want people to really notice your house or have it blend much more into the houses around it? You know, I have this concept I call: Fit in, stand out. You're always wanting to fit into the context of your neighborhood, your architecture, your region, but then you want to stand out to some degree. So the question is - how much do you want to stand out?

Amy Woolf: What you need to think about is the overall color vibe. Are you looking to have a contrasting color scheme, or do you want something that's more subdued with well-blended neutrals. A contrasting scheme can be created from neutrals as well, but you kind of want to figure out where you want to be on that continuum between a very restrained palette on one end and a vibrant, lively palette on the other. And whether or not you want to stay all warm, stay in the cools, which I don't actually recommend for a house, or mixing the two.

A long time ago, I lived in New Jersey and some folks in the town I was in painted this big old Victorian about five shades of purple, and it was a big story. It was in the newspaper, and the neighborhood was... Well, let's just say very concerned. We already know that color is emotional, and I think you can get a lot of traction out of the emotional power of color, but it can also be problematic. And I think that expressing yourself and being creative is a wonderful thing. I think it's probably helpful not to upset your neighbors too much,….. just enough.

Amy Krane: And not only is there the emotional component, which is huge, but there's also the whole concept of associations. You have your own personal associations with certain colors, and then there are more cultural associations with certain colors. Another part of our training, Amy, right? And for me, since I can kind of remember back to the "hippie dippie days" and being in Upstate New York places like Woodstock... When I see a purple house, that's where I go. I go straight to a hippie dippie house… and I go running and screaming... So I am extremely particular about if or when I would ever use purple on a house. And there are very few kinds of purples that I would use. They would be extremely muted and close to gray. But never say never, you never know. That's my own association with a color and it plays for everyone.

For some people, white is clean and pure and classic and beautiful, and someone else might have grown up in a house where they had a terrible upbringing, a terrible time being raised and the house was white, so when they see white they go running and screaming because it doesn't feel good and it doesn't remind them of good things. Another interesting thing to think about when combining colors is how you might do it differently in an interior than in an exterior. One thing that I always make a point of doing if I'm stacking colors, meaning putting one on top of another, in an interior, is I almost universally put the heavier, darker color on the bottom. For instance, think about a dining room with a chair rail. You've got your chair rail which can match the top or bottom color, or the chair rail itself can be different, but you've got a color on top and a color on the bottom. Darker is better below.

But on an exterior, I usually put the darker color on the top, and that's really interesting. Why? I think it's because when you're out in the great wide expanse with a big open sky above you, putting a dark color on top grounds the house, it brings it back to Earth. Whereas when you're inside, you have a ceiling above you and that feels different. It's more finite. So where you are has a really big effect on how you're combining colors and the way you do that outdoors can be different than indoors.

Amy Woolf: I also think that when we're doing a color scheme we're looking for a certain rhythm and balance. And when I say rhythm, what I mean is to have the colors kind of move light to dark to light to dark across a facade or through a home. That rhythm is what gives a paint scheme some interest. And so when I think about putting that dark color on the upper portion of the house, we see that a lot in the four squares and the craftsman type houses here in the Northeast, I would agree with you, Amy. I always put the darker color up top too. And I think that's about rhythm, because the foundation is inherently going to be darker, and then you're going to have a middle area, which is the first floor, which is going be lighter, and then you're going repeat that darker color on the top, so that's what's creating that rhythm.

Amy Krane: Another way rhythm and balance is important and pertaining to stacking colors is if your foundation is visible. Again, I would put a darker color on a foundation or the same color as the body of the house, or the lower section of the house, if it is multi-toned. Just the idea of having a very light color on the foundation doesn't really make sense to me.

Amy Woolf: I often pick what I call a shadow color, a color that's sort of a gray brown that'll settle in and disappear behind the landscaping, just something that goes away.

Amy Krane: It's very important that you take your landscaping into account, and not just the trees, but also any perennials and flowering plants that you put around it, because even though they flower for a limited amount of time, they're there and you really need to take a look at the blend of the different colors.

Amy Woolf: There's a building in my neighborhood that's painted a brick red, sort of a rusty brown color, and every year for a couple of weeks, there are these azaleas blooming out front that are that vivid pink, purple color. And the pain it causes me is not insignificant.

Amy Krane: Azaleas. They're killers aren't they? I like certain ones in doses. But sometimes you see on older homes azaleas planted at different times and they're right next to each other. You'll go straight from the hot pinky fuchsia ones, next to the red and orangey pink ones. I'm a big fan of combining colors like that... I think that can be really sensational, but when it comes to those azaleas... Ewwwww. Another thing to think about is trends. We're talking about a long-term investment here. You're going to be looking at the color of your house for a relatively long time, like you spoke about, Amy. Yet trends come and trends go. They come and go more slowly in terms of exteriors.

Where we live, in the Northeast of the United States, since about 2014 or '15, we started to see a prevalence of really dark home colors which were not around before that. Colors like stark black and almost black, charcoal and navy. Navy is really hot now but you really have to think about how much you love it. Consider whether you're going to sell soon. If you're a person who really loves trends overall, in the clothes you wear, your interior design etc. then you can consider something like that. But acknowledge that a trend is a trend, and what looks great today, 10 years from now, seven years from now... What if the trend changes and it makes your house look really dated?

Amy Woolf: I think that taking a look at the style of the architecture is important as well when considering trends to figure out whether your house can actually tolerate a trend. I think there are certain kinds of homes, contemporary, for instance, that can absolutely take that dark, dark paint trend that we're seeing right now. I did an A-frame last year and we used black for the trim and a near black for the body of the house, and that's going to carry because of the architecture. I think putting black on a craftsman bungalow or a split level may or may not work. It really depends on the overall appearance and other materials used on the house. I can see black working there, but I think it may not have the longevity if it's applied to a house where the architecture doesn't support it.

Amy Krane: I think that's a really good point. Personally, I like dark colors on historic houses. I think it looks really great. I happen to really like it without a contrasting trim, which is another trend going on now - having the trim and the body of the house be the same color. Sometimes even the front door is the same, and sometimes that's just too much for a person, and that's where they want to add that pop of color. So it looks really great in my opinion on both very modern homes as well as historical houses: Federal, Colonial Georgian, that kind of thing. But I'm in agreement with you. A split level. Not so much, I mean, a lot of this is personal taste also, that's one thing our listeners have to understand - that there are color guidelines and rules which can help you as you go forward choosing a color palette for your home, but at a certain point, you go beyond the rule and into personal taste. And at the end of the day, you need to make yourself happy.

And to decide whether you are going to like the color that you've chosen, a really great thing to do is to test the paint on your house. I tell my clients to test a five-foot square of the color, two coats on the front of the house and on another side of the house, or two sides of the house where the light is different. And I think it really tells you a lot because colors change when they're out in the ambient light. Colors that are bright get brighter. Everything gets lighter, and you really need to see it on the house to know if it's the direction you want to go.

Amy Woolf: I sometimes have people paint a 4 x 8 sheet of sheetrock with a coat of primer and then two coats of paint because they can carry it around and see it from all different angles. But I agree with you, painting on the side of the house is the most important way to test, because the texture of the substrate affects how a color will look. Also consider the current color. If your house is white now and you're thinking about going with navy blue, that navy blue is going to feel so, dso, so dark by comparison. Sometimes I'll even have people put a color sample up against a glass window or sliding door, just to get it away from the current field color. Because that can have such a huge impact.

Amy Krane: I think it may be helpful to have folks hear about the common mistakes we see. You've got to make sure the roof doesn't clash with your siding. They really, really have to work well together, and obviously the architecture of your house is going to determine the pitch of your roof and how much of that roof color you see. But in some homes, it's a very steep pitch, so it's a major, major part of the overall coloration of your home. Another thing is how you combine colors when you're choosing trim. You have to consider how all the colors work together, how much you want that trim to stand out or blend...

Amy Woolf: I think one of my biggest pet peeves around accent colors is when people use whites that are really just too bright and they look so stark against any kind of a field color. Even for an all white house, I rarely use the brightest of whites. I almost always pick a white with a little tone, a little dirt, so to speak, because it does help the house settle and feel like more a part of its surroundings.

Amy Krane: That makes a lot of sense. I think also you have to be cognizant of how many colors you're using on your home, many of us love color, and it's hard to choose which ones you want to use. You might love the decorative elements of your home wanting to emphasize them by changing their color. But you really have to step back and look at the home as a whole, even with beautiful decorative flourishes, the takeaway of a home should always be one cohesive whole. So you have to be careful not to choose too many colors for your home. The one kind of architecture that we all know can withstand many different colors, is what's known as a painted lady Victorian. They've got a lot of different accent colors, and we're used to seeing them. With that kind of architecture multiple colors makes sense but there are few, if any, other styles of homes in the United States where you would ever use that many different colors and still say the house looks good.

Amy Woolf: I think that's particularly relevant lately. In the last 10 years or so, we've seen a lot of mixing of materials on homes. You can see a house with clapboard and board and batten and shakes up in the eaves, and two different kinds of roofing, standing seam metal with asphalt shingles, and then a little bit of stone-cladding around the foundation. In my opinion... That's already gone too far. That's a few too many things. One of my rules is, "just because you can, doesn't mean you should!" And so in that case, in particular, I think it makes so much sense not to overdo the paint colors. You can use paint as an ally in bringing some cohesion and settling down all those materials. So keeping it measured is wise. I read once that the magic number is five... You should be looking at five different surface materials. Trim is one, field color is one, foundation is one, roofing is one, there's not a lot left. And I think that five number is a great place to start. You can bend the rules a little bit, but again, keeping things moderate, I think... is always preferable.

Amy Krane: Well, I think that just about wraps it up. I hope you've learned something today about exterior color for your home. Join us next time when we talk more about color for the built world.

Amy Woolf: And if you have any questions, you can find us at... Let's Talk Paint Color dot com. Drop us a note and let us know what you'd like to hear about.


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