Saturday, June 22, 2013

Painting the Italianate House

The subject of painting an Italianate house is one that is still of concern today. Often, owners who buy an old house are confronted with a horrendous, bizarre, historically inaccurate, or just plain ugly paint scheme that destroys the house's effect. Paint is as important a part of architectural design as anything else, and the creators of Italianate homes put as much thought into their paint schemes as the design. For advice on painting a 19th century home, I recommend wholeheartedly Victorian Exterior Decoration: How to Paint your Nineteenth-Century American House Historically by Roger W. Moss and Gail Caskey Winkler, an invaluable source of information for painting all types of Victorian homes. It is to their work I owe most of this discussion.

Before the 1840s, most American homes were painted white with accompanying green shutters. Despite the various wild colors found on Colonial houses such as black, red, bright yellow, dark blue (an electric blue house in historic Deerfield comes to mind), Federal architecture and especially Greek Revival favored a stark white, no doubt to simulate the classical white stone of ancient Greece (of course Greek architecture historically was painted a variety of zany colors, but they didn't know that very well at the time!). In Cottage Residences, Downing railed at this prevailing custom, saying "the glaring nature of this color when seen in contrast with the soft green of foliage, renders it extremely unpleasant to an eye attuned to the harmony of coloring, but its very great prevalence in the United States could render even some men of taste heedless of its bad effect. No painter of landscapes that has possessed a name, was ever guilty of displaying in his pictures a glaring white house...on the contrary...the buildings have a mellow softened shade of color in exquisite keeping with the surrounding objects." (14-15)

For Downing because houses were set in a natural landscape and white is not a 'natural' color, its presence was incongruous with its surroundings. The pleasing effect of sunset and the variation between shades due to shifting light inspired Downing's disapproval of white, a color that was "always lighted up" and never mellowed by changing light. He advises that houses should be painted the color of "soil, rocks, wood, and bark" to harmonize with objects in the landscape rather than contrasting with them. He also maintained a larger house should be painted a darker color while a smaller house should be painted lighter because of its exposure. Trim should be painted several shades darker than the main body of the house. To illustrate his ideas, Downing in Cottage Residences produced a hand painted example of appropriate house colors, pictured below. A, B, and C, he remarks, are shades of grey while E, F, and G are "drab or fawn color"; Downing preferred the fawn shades especially because they simulated Portland Stone.

Although Downing's color palette was not completely followed (green for the main body was advocated by some of his followers and lighter trim was often allowed), the main colors for a home were overall grey or brown. Sometimes light blue, light purple, and pinks were used as well and represent more flamboyant but historical colors. In 1861, John Riddell's book, Architectural Designs for Modern Country Residences (which can be viewed here) included the first color plates showing appropriate colors for houses. I have posted a few below, but the book includes several more. This book is essential to knowing about how houses were painted in the early 1860s. Downing's palette is evidenced here, although there are variations.

We can see the variations of fawn and grey along with yellow. Trim in these houses is often a lighter shade, and certain details, especially the stripes on the cupola trim are picked out. One aspect to note is the painting of the tent roofs with stripes; this was a particularly common custom on Italianates that is rarely in evidence today. Although it might seem ridiculous or garish, that's how they did it. Notice as well how the architect takes drape color into consideration. I believe the varying drapes represent alternatives for a house. In the first example below, the drapes could be red or blue. Sometimes in the plates they even fill the cupola with cloth. For Riddell, the drapes seen from the street were an important part of the effect and should have a uniformity. Finally note the main roofs. Unlike the typical grey roof we expect, many of these houses have tin, copper, or tile roofs. Although of course grey slate was often used, there was always a preference for more colorful roof effects especially tile which simulated Italian architectural practice.

Ultimately, this color scheme may strike us a dull. Come on, it only includes grey, yellow, and brown! What about the colorful "painted ladies"? The painted lady style, which originated in San Francisco in the 1890s was California specific and much criticized at the time. Although it may be appealing to make your house in New York or Ohio stand out with bright colors, that doesn't reflect historical practice at all. Another thing to consider is that the Victorians loved to simulate more expensive materials; it was a world of artifice. Doors of pine were painted to look like more expensive wood (faux graining), for example. Often a house may have some stone elements such as window surrounds or lintels, and when these are of stone, the wooden trim and architectural elements should be painted to resemble the color of the stone parts. Also keep in mind that the usual finish for an Italianate was either stucco or brick. Both were often painted and the chimney as well was painted to match the house's color.

As the 1870s arrived, darker colors began to be applied to houses, especially olive, green, and orange. This period loved 'tertiary colors' or colors made from mixing two secondary colors like russet (violet and orange), citrine (green and violet) and olive (green and orange). These tertiary colors were destined in the 1880s to mostly replace Downing's scheme as the current fashion although the Downing palette remained throughout the century. Italianate was waning by the 1880s, though, so these colors apply to late Italianates of the 1870s, when the Downing palette was still popular, and Queen Ann houses, where they dominated. The white trim was more an influence of colonial revival design in the 1880s and 1890s. Previous to the interest in colorfully painted Victorian homes in the later 20th century, the fashion was to paint the houses completely white to lessen the drama of the very out of fashion architectural complexity. I agree with Downing that this is the worst way to paint a Victorian. Not only is it inaccurate, but it makes a house filled with architectural interest boring and flat when it should be fun!

The Victorian house, and the Italianate in particular, should be colorful but not overly so. If you want to achieve the original effect that the architect or designer had in mind with your house, work within the right palette to keep a level of design integrity.


  1. Great. It would be nice to have Window blinds for the architecture. They are good protection for the heat of the sun. Windows that are in the sun's direction should have them. Roll up blinds would be nice so that it would be less hassle.

  2. One must certainly be careful when restoring the original colors of a vintage Italian home. It would be best to maintain its classic look, though it may require a bit of ingenuity, or at the very least a bit of research to replicate the original colors. It may sound daunting, but restoring it to its former glory is a reward in itself.


  3. Help! We have a very large, very white Italianate house we are getting ready to paint. We have already repainted it white once and agree with this discussion that it is too stark and does not blend into anything in the landscape. If anyone would like to give us advice the house has a wiki page, Governor James Taylor Lewis house. The house has been white for about 100 years, before that dirty creamy brown brick. We have also never seen brackets as large as this house. It makes the house look "top heavy". Any advice would be very much appreciated!!

    1. What an impressive house! Congratulations (and those are some copious brackets!). It is indeed very white, but there are many solutions. If you would really like to find out the original colors, you can have a paint test done on part of the facade that will tell you what the original colors might have been. Check for sure if the lintels over the windows are stone. If they are, strip them and see what kind of stone and then paint the trim according to the color of the stone, if they are stone. It looks like it was built in the 1860s and that the body is brick. If you look through the many houses on this blog, which I recommend so you have a lot of options, people who want to have unpainted red brick frequently go for a few possibilities, brown, white, tan, or green trim. Personally, I like the brown trim unpainted brick look, if you are going to have the warm terra cotta of the bricks. If you would like to go with painted brick, I would choose a subtle color, pale yellow, grey, tan, or even pink for the body and then I would pick a strong trim color like brown, dark green, or a dark grey. Then, you can have fun picking the third trim accent color, like yellow, cream, red. The ironwork should definitely be green or black. I would really recommend getting the book I cite above. There are a lot of examples out there, so happy hunting and let me know how it turns out or if you have any more questions!

    2. Hi there I am a Wisconsin local as well! We live in Janesville Wi and have quite a few Italinate homes in town if you look up the William Tallman Or Lincoln-Tallman house here in Janesville, you can see a great example of the color scheme that we see around here on most of the Italianate homes in Janesville and the nearby surrounding areas.

    3. Thanks for the tip; I'll do a post on it.

  4. Is it authentic to pick out the spoon carvings and reliefs on the columns in Indian Red or a dark purple?

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