Choosing Paint Colors for Traditional Homes — From the Office of Royal Barry Wills


Guest post today from Richard Wills and Dave Stuhlsatz, of Royal Barry Wills Associates, another of this architectural firm’s occasional essays on mid-century architecture, design and related issues. – Pam

Choosing colors can be an exhausting or exhilarating activity for a homeowner.  Few other decisions offer such a bewildering array of choices and have such a significant visual impact. Even for traditional homes, where you can use history as a guide, getting things to look right requires some experimentation—and several trips back to the paint store. No designer or architect can claim the final word on what the best choices may be, but we can share some of our experience on the subject.


Historians have revealed that many early American houses were not as somber or muted in color as originally thought.  However, in our practice we lean towards conservative choices, with white for the body and trim combined with dark green shutters  for many Cape or Colonial style home. Another classic combination is pale yellow for the body contrasted with white trim and black shutters. A gray body with white trim, black window sashes and black shutters is another choice.  For something a bit different, try a tan body with cocoa shutters with white window sashes and trim.

Blue  is too strong in our opinion but a blue-gray with white trim and black shutters can work well for a fairly large Georgian style house. Some Victorian style houses have often benefitted from aggressive colors like orange, red and green-blue. Brick houses, despite having a permanent color base, can be whitewashed to good effect. (whitewash is a home-made slurry composed of salt, lime and water that is applied with a stiff brush)  White or pale yellow for windows and trim often looks good when paired with brick or masonry facades.

We don’t endorse any particular paint company—in fact any paint store should be able match or modify a color if they are given an appropriately sized sample. The following list of exterior colors that we have used on some projects may be of some help if you are trying to narrow down your choices.


Body – Benjamin Moore Navajo White #72
Shutters – Benjamin Moore Essex Green #43

Body – Benjamin Moore Pale Yellow #170
Trim & Sash – Benjamin Moore Navajo White #72
Shutters – Benjamin Moore Cushing Green #HC125

Body – Benjamin Moore Annapolis Grey #70
Trim & Sash – Benjamin Moore Sail Cloth #77
Shutters – Benjamin Moore Black #80

Body – Moorewood Manchester Tan
Trim & Sash – Moorewood White #301
Shutters – Woodman (True Value) Cocoa

Interiors are tougher, and again, we lean to the conservative side.  Our best guideline is to not let a wall color overwhelm a room– let the patterns in window treatments and furniture fabric stand on their own.  Off white is always a winner walls and wood mouldings—Benjamin Moore’s Atrium White is a particularly good choice. We advise that mouldings and casings be painted a semi-gloss so that there can be a bit of contrast with the flat or eggshell used on the walls.

Light yellow or pale green can help create a restful atmosphere in a space. Yellow paints often take a few tries to get right in a room because it can be too bright when first applied. Woodwork can also be painted with stronger colors if you want a bolder impact—red hues can work well in some rooms. We like the Historical collections of Benjamin Moore, California Paints and Turco.

When it comes to “mid-century modern” house interiors (such as are featured on RetroRenovation.com) a lot of our advice still holds. The distinctive colors of some the fixtures, appliances and countertop material tends to look better if they aren’t competing with a strong-hued wall surface. A glance at some of the home magazines from that era turns up quite a few pale-blue rooms. Making a color choice based on photographs from that era can be misleading, however. The printing techniques were less sophisticated than what we are accustomed to and color advertisements tended to emphasize luridly colored scenes because they would grab people’s attention.

By Richard Wills and Dave Stuhlsatz
Copyright © RetroRenovation.com 2009


  1. mona says:

    which house color is the first house with the long flagstone path and centered chimney. the one pictured just above your color suggestions?
    is it annapolis grey?

      1. Pam Kueber says:

        But ack, I see what you are saying – the story lists color suggestions but not by the house shown. Sorry! Unless Dave is subscribed to comments and sees your question, I don’t know the answer…

        1. mona says:

          Exactly. There are four sets of color suggestions under the photo of the house with the long flagstone entrance and brick chimney.

          I am trying to figure which color this house is…

          if anyone can help, that would be great!

  2. James says:

    Benjamin Moore Essex Green. Brings back memories. Wonderful traditional color for colonial-style homes. Used it on the shutters of a small dutch colonial I owned in the late 1980s in Cleveland. The clapboards on the lower portion of the house and the shingling on the upper story shed dormer were painted a creamy white with a tinge of yellow. Front door was painted cherry red.

  3. sumac sue says:

    We just spent a few weeks debating a color for the front door. We chose a color similar to the jadeite green that Samantha and Dave used on their cool house (post from August 2, 2009). Our paint is Tranquil Bay by Valspar. Nice, timeless color.

    Another thing we did is take down the shutters on the front. They were white, like all the rest of the trim. Our house has two sets of double windows on front, plus a single window, and all those windows and shutters on this little ranch seemed like overkill. We really like the no-shutters look (less cluttered), but now we have to find the right product to get the paint off the brick where someone painted the shutters while they were still on the house. Any suggestions?

  4. Dix says:

    Some paint companies have started releasing lines of colors borrowed from historic homes and vintage paint chips. I recently painted my room a Reseda-green-ish color that was borrowed from . . . aargh. I forget where. But when I was color-shopping I ran across several different companies with retro color lines.

    1. pam kueber says:

      Hi Dix, yes, go on up to the navigation bar — Product Guides — Paint — and you can see that I try to archive the mid-century historic paint color lineup, as I find’ em.

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