Playing Up Exterior Architectural Features with Paint

burnin_ dog/stock.xchngOne mantra of decorating is that paint is a cheap way to spruce up your space. This is certainly true of interior spaces and it’s generally true of exterior painting, when compared to other exterior alterations. However, the cost of paint for an enitre house exterior is still a significant one and it’s very important to plan the project carefully, and test the colors before making the commitment. 

First, decide what architectural features to highlight with paint

Most exterior paint projects comprise at least two paint colors – the main walls and the trim. Some houses, such as Victorian “Painted Ladies,” may use several different trim colors to highlight the rich use of woodwork and moldings. OTOH, unattractive elements such as gutters, downspouts, garage doors, or even poorly placed windows can be downplayed when they're painted the same color as the main house walls. If painted a different shade, particularly a lighter one, these elements will stick out like sore thumbs. Therefore, it’s important to decide before the painting begins which features will be played up and which hidden.

Should I paint architectural features with dark or light paint?

Architectural features to highlight include window trim, doors, corbels, gingerbread, balustrades and porches. These elements will pop out and feel more substantial if painted in a lighter color than the main house, and will recede a bit if painted a darker color than the walls. Lighter paint will truly highlight the detailing of these architectural features, because it catches the light, making it a popular choice for houses with beautiful details. A darker paint will highlight the trims’ lines, but not showcase the fine details as well as a lighter paint.

A white or other very light house will appear larger than it is, but dark paint on a small house will make that house seem more important. A dark color on a large house can be very striking, but perhaps overly imposing if the house sits on a small lot. Paint color schemes can be used to draw attention to the front door, if it’s oddly placed or obscured by the landscaping. There is nothing less inviting than a "missing" front door, even if it’s not the primary entry in use. Likewise, white-trimmed windows will feel larger and more welcoming, while windows without a contrasting trim will literally fade into the woodwork so that the house will feel very unfriendly. 

How to contrast unpaintable surfaces

Choose paint colors to complement any unpaintable surfaces, such as brick or stone. If your house has a brick or stone bottom half and a painted clapboard top, then lighter color on top will brighten the whole space. However, if the top half of the house is bricked while the bottom requires paint, it may work best to use a darker color that will feel like a more substantial support for the heavier top half.

Testing paint colors before painting architectural features

If you live in a historic home or one based on a classic historic architecture (Colonial or Victorian, for instance), choose from a variety of tools to select the right paint combination. Many paint companies offer color charts based on historical documentation, which can help you choose the right paint combination for your particular house style. Paint companies also offer computerized “visualizers” so you can test how your colors will look in relation to each other.

And finally, always test your colors with real paint. Paint large swatches on different areas of the house and on different architectural features, and view them during different times of day and evening. Colors can change and are influenced by both other colors around them and the reflection of the sun. That's why taking the time to test your colors will ultimately save time and money and produce a better result.

Linda Merrill writes for

Updated August 21, 2018.

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