Exterior paint ideas for Victorian houses

Postcard Row, the collection of six artfully painted Victorian homes along San Francisco’s Alamo Square, is as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge. But they’re not isolated examples of the city’s famous architecture. In fact, about 16,000 of them still exist, remnants of a building wave from 1849 to 1915 that once totaled 48,000.

Since their heyday, their exterior colors have undergone numerous changes, in tune with the times. Originally bright, many changed hues to battleship gray after both World Wars (due to the excess of cheap leftover paint available), then became vibrant once again — some clearly with psychedelic origins — in the 1970s. Today, the trend leans toward rich, deep and complex. 

These historic houses were dubbed “painted ladies” by authors Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen in their 1978 book Painted Ladies – San Francisco’s Resplendent Victorians, and the name continues to define them, throughout the United States as well as San Francisco.

When it’s time to refresh or repaint these architectural gems — or any other home, for that matter — the process of choosing a new color palette can seem daunting to homeowners. If that’s your situation, relax. We’ve asked Todd Worsfold of Color Touch Painting and Dave Shapiro of Pacific Coast Painting, two long-time painting contractors and color specialists,  for some tips to consider as you move through this sometimes-circuitous process.

Personal preferences

We all have our color preferences, whether they are associated with our wardrobe (hated that green dress) or our memories (loved that red car). To begin the selection process, decide which colors you like and which you definitely do not like, and communicate them early.

Research color combinations in magazines or books such as Painted Ladies. Cruise your neighborhood or those around the city and note the houses that catch your eye. Write down their addresses for your contractor.

“One client indicated she wanted something fairly rich and ‘masculine,’ with no white trim,” Worsfold recounts. “We identified a house with a color scheme that she liked and then modified it. The colors are basically green, mustard, rose, plum and gold.”

Consider what you can’t change

Two unchangeable things are a given: weather and sun exposure. Fortunately, San Francisco doesn’t have the seasonal weather extremes found elsewhere in the country. Shapiro says that three coats — a primer (after spot priming those areas worn bare by the elements ) and two finish coats of paint — give the best results.

The color of your neighbors’ houses is another consideration. What if you have a boldly colored property next door? One solution, Worsfold says, is to pick a color for the body of your home that doesn’t clash, yet stands on its own — in a good way. The red and gold accents here “pop” and add drama, he says.

Conversely, you don’t want a color that blends in too seamlessly with your neighbors and becomes, say, the third yellow house in a row, he says.

Perhaps surprisingly, you should factor the current color of your roof into the decision.

Choosing the colors

By design, Victorians have three or more colors that highlight their architectural details and ornamentation. At a minimum, you’ll need one color for the base, one for the trim and one for the accents.

According to our experts, the first step is to choose the base color (the color for the siding or stucco). Once you've decided that, play with the main trim (the window trim, the garage door frame, front door, fascia, etc.), then the accent (details such as the sash or the ornamental “flourishes”). “Accents are the key to the final look,” Shapiro says.  “You have to know where they are and what colors to use.”

You can also add visual interest in other ways. For example, if the house has brickwork or stonework below the siding, you may want to add a belly band, a horizontal band between the brick or stonework and the siding above, to delineate the areas. In this case, Worsfold advises, use a lighter color on the top and a darker color beneath it, which grounds the house (dark stairs also ground the house).

When you've determined your color scheme, color test it with samples at various times during the day, for richness, contrast and light. This is your opportunity to change colors without spending a lot more money and time. Then, once you’ve made these final decisions, your painter has a blueprint to work with.

Biggest color mistake

Sometimes the homeowner’s chosen colors are too “primary” (red, green, yellow), which can be jarring, Worsfold says. You can remedy this by mixing some of the body color with the accent color, and vice versa, creating custom colors that maximize the flow and harmony.

Prep, prep, prep

Scraping old paint, sanding, filling, caulking, repairing, replacing, spot priming: that’s the drill with Victorian houses (the color is actually the fun part). Due to their age, many of these historic structures have damage that’s invisible, in addition to the peeling paint and cracked trim that meets the eye. Prepping the house will expose any problems, including soft wood, mold and rusted nails that must be fixed prior to painting. You (and your budget) need to be prepared for extra time and possible expense once you get into this necessary, preliminary step.

Final results

When your new painting project is completed, you’ll not only have a home you love but also an architectural beauty that pays homage to its origins. 

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