Help Me Paint My House
January 16, 2020 6:20 AM   Subscribe

I moved into a 200 year old farmhouse a few months ago and I have a lot of white walls, my color sense is terrible and I'm looking for advice on how to make my home look better.

These pictures give you a sense of what's going on. The outside of the house is Victorian farmhouse, and the inside is Vermont higgledy-piggledy.

The bathroom is standard bleh, the kitchen is a weird hodgepodge of brown and blue, the dining room is oddly fancy with beautiful inlaid cabinets and woodwork, the family room is classic Vermont ski chalet with cedar planks on the walls, and the staircase is also super fancy. It's two different houses in one. My goal is to use color to integrate the spaces, and I'm just confused. You can see I tried a french mustard in a few places--I don't think it works. I tried a vibrant burgundy for an accent in the kitchen--I do not love.

I've spent way too much time in the local hardware store and all I can definitively state is I do not like browns, purples or forest greens. I'm game for all suggestions, though.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think white walls are great and CAN tie the place together. You have a lot of other colors and woods and whites (if you want) various shades, can really make it fall both peaceful and cohesive. You're furniture is varied, too. Those pieces of furniture with shades of white and tan can make it feel a bit more together.

I feel like adding ANOTHER color to brown and blue and the hodge podge will make it feel a bit chaotic.

YMMV since I like peaceful feeling rooms and go for less vibrancy.
posted by beccaj at 6:46 AM on January 16, 2020 [4 favorites]

I think picking one hue and doing variations on it can bring a large complex space together in a very harmonious way. For that though you have to really like a color, or pick a neutral.

How do you feel about blue? A light airy blue in the kitchen, a darker more formal blue in the dining room, a vibrant blue in the bathroom to liven it up. Blue plays nicely with a variety of wood tones. Stick to one hue of blue, though, and don't go more green or more purple, just lighter and darker and more or less saturated.

Honestly white walls are not all bad, and can be really peaceful. Maybe a very slightly tinted white to something a bit cooler or warmer than what you have now? Or a couple shades down to a kind of dove grey can pick up different light throughout the day and look quite lovely.

The kind of color you choose depends on the function of the room. In kitchens you want to be able to see what you're doing, so pick a lighter color so light will bounce around more. In dining rooms you want to feel cozy and kind of special, so pick a darker color with more richness to it. Maybe there's a place in your home you want to display a bunch of art, so pick a more neutral color so the colors in the art won't be affected by light bouncing off of colored walls. Bathrooms are a good place for bright exciting colors because they're typically kind of small and maybe a little dingy and vibrancy can be really effective without being all over the place.
posted by Mizu at 7:00 AM on January 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

So what do you feel isn't "better" right now? Do the rooms feel dull or cold to you?

I agree that white walls can be very nice, especially with dark woodwork and furniture in a mixture of styles and colors (I personally prefer furniture in a mixture of styles and colors).

You might also consider different shades of white - it looks like you have a creamy beige-y white and a crisp white would freshen things up.

You have all that paneling in your living room - is it really nice paneling made out of real wood or is it thin and sort of blah up close? An easy change would be to paint that room a crisp white, including the paneling.

Also, what kind of style do you really like? Do you like modern? Do nice hotel rooms really do it for you? Twenties? Mid-century? Vaguely old-fashioned? A mix of favorite second-hand items?

If this were me, I might actually just paint everything a better, cleaner white and try to bring some coherency to the furniture/accessories, cuing them to whatever you like best.

For instance, I notice the blue floral slipcover - that's a great, old-fashioned pattern with ruffles (also old-fashioned/Victorian/country). Is that your preference? Maybe work toward cuing your curtains, pillows and throws more in that direction. Similarly but in reverse if the buffalo check pillows and throws are more your line.

I feel like if you've got both red and blue going on in a room, you need either blue or white walls, so if your living room furniture is generally in that blue and maroon florals and plaids theme, I'd go with white there. I have a Victorian house (in terrible shape!) with dark woodwork and my furniture is mostly old stuff in blues and maroons plus some maroon persian rugs and that's what has worked for me. (Maybe white with a maroon wall if you really like the maroon?)

It looks like you like that gold? How is it going to work with your furniture and rugs? If it doesn't work well in most places, maybe keep it on the stairs and in the kitchen, then do everything else white.

I find really dark colors sort of 11th-level decorating - I've painted a couple of rooms deep colors and it's tricky because it brings out flaws in the walls, can feel sort of dank/sweltery when the weather is hot, etc. They photograph very well, but you can't live in a photograph.

If you can wait, now would be a great time to look at some decorating books at the library. (The internet is nice, but the internet skews both on-trend and "buy stuff now".)

If this were my house, I would work toward an old-fashioned, florals-plaids-and-persian-rugs look since you've got that going already and it will go with the woodwork, and paint my rooms white with maybe a blue or deep red accent wall here and there.
posted by Frowner at 7:04 AM on January 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

Based on those photos, I think the dark wood floors and trim are going to make it tricky to integrate with a single primary or complementary color. The width of the trim in particular is fairly wide, which tends to dominate a room. Both the swatches of burgundy and mustard in that kitchen photo would make that room feel very dark (IMO), and I suspect that would be the same for the rest of the house.

In my opinion, as you add more color to walls, it makes the space feel less modern. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it all depends on what you're going for.

You may be better off with a neutral paint color (which is a bit of a misnomer since all neutrals typically have some warm or cool color undertones) such as:
  • A soft and warm off white like Ballet White or a Balboa Mist.
  • At a certain point, these off-whites drift into gray tones, like Collingwood. Again, all grays have color undertones, so it's important to find one that matches your preference.
The other thing I would say is these days we have better options for trying out color swatches than painting the wall. We used Samplize which sells accurately colored 12"x12" decals in specific swatches, cheaper and less destructive.
posted by jeremias at 7:14 AM on January 16, 2020 [6 favorites]

Yes! White walls are great, especially since one of your tags is "brighteningupaspace." Think about undertones and tinges of color in the whites. This designer focuses on paint and color: Laurel Bern 20 great shades of white. I couldn't find it in a quick search, but she also talks about how to avoid a muddy look when choosing colors.
Also consider carefully the shine and sheen of the paints you choose - a chalky or milky finish can sometimes be better than a shiny, reflective finish, depending on how the light hits. And chalky is different than flat/matte depending on the brand and color!
I am still working on my fixer-upper, and if I could start over, I would have painted the whole house with a good primer, and then lived with it for awhile. The other thing I found out was that refinishing my wood floors made me love the space and see its possibilities more than any other thing, and I am so glad I didn't "save it for last" as all the advice said. I wish I would have done it first!
posted by hiker U. at 7:19 AM on January 16, 2020 [5 favorites]

Mizu has good ideas. I came in to say that while jewel colors like the ochre and wine-red you tried are both beautiful and fashionable, they don't go well with the dark warm wood you have. A dusty blue would be better, and Mizu's idea of different saturations of the same blue is great. As Mizu says, blue will go well with your furniture, too.
I think a discreet crown molding separating the wall and the ceiling (and painted white) would give a lot of quality to the spaces with painted walls.
In your cedar paneled family room, you need to work with the lighting, not the paint. I you could find a light fixture that lights down, rather than all over, or up on the ceiling, you could immediately get a more cosy feeling. Supplement with standing lamps in the corners of the room.
posted by mumimor at 7:20 AM on January 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would gently push back on the previous answers and say if you want color on the walls, you should put color on the walls! I think that intense, rich colors look great with dark woodwork and actually unify the space more than the high contrast that the same woodwork makes with white walls. And if you put the color up and you hate it, it's also easy to change.

I have a lot of similar dark woodwork in my apartment and I painted the bedroom a very rich turquoise and the office an intense greenish mustard. I do think sticking with one region of the color wheel helps to unify a space. So across the whole house you could do greens and blues, or mustards and reds, for example.

I would stay away from accent walls myself -- I find they work better in a more modern space and they tend to chop up smaller rooms. And if you're going for color, you may want to try some dark, neutral slipcovers on your furniture to unify the space. I do think the loud patterns that are on them now is making decorating around them difficult.
posted by EmilyFlew at 7:21 AM on January 16, 2020 [6 favorites]

Forgot to mention, it's a wonderful old house !
posted by hiker U. at 7:22 AM on January 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

I really love and have used the Benjamin Moore Historical Colors in our older house. I would recommend finding a booklet from them in-store and taking it home to look at. I think with older spaces you want colours that look like they have gracefully faded a little over time, anything too bright or new looking will be pretty jarring and should be left for modern spaces.

So if you want mustard yellow or brick red (which I think do make sense as ideas), try to pick a buttery golden yellow with brownish grey undertones, or a more aged terra cotta colour vs bright red.

Agree with EmilyFlew about accent walls, these are good for adding personality in blank slate rooms, but your house already has so much character!
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 8:07 AM on January 16, 2020 [7 favorites]

I paired Behr's Provence Creme (wall) and Sweet Maple (trim) in my old kitchen, with terra cortta-colored picture frames and redware as accents; you might consider buying tiny jars of the paint so you can try putting swatches of color on the wall.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:36 AM on January 16, 2020

The best thing you can do is to find a painting, a fabric, a rug, or bedding that has a number of colors that you like in it, and then use that to base the colors of your rooms. Many companies have apps you can upload a picture to and get paint options. Here is Sherwin Williams'. Know that you can take paint chips from any company and had them made at any paint store. You could even use a magazine as a starting point. Personally, I used Martha Stewart from days of yore, and Country Living to help me think about the colorways in my home that is an asymmetrical victorian that has been chopped up into condos, and my unit got none of the original fanciness, and then had a bunch of owners who did terrible things to the house. I have a pinterest board that has pictures I love that help me think of ideas for my home.

A great website for color inspiration is Design Seeds Personally, I think yellow is wonderful color that can be used as a basis for a home. Here is a link to colorways with yellow as the basis for the combinations.

I personally feel that white can look run down and dirty in many homes. I prefer bold colors, but all the paint in my house has similar tones, so there is a cohesiveness to it.
posted by momochan at 9:46 AM on January 16, 2020

This is what Pinterest is for! Dedicate an hour. Search terms like "small living room" "farmhouse kitchen" "classic bathroom" "wood panelling" "chair rail" "DIY" and other similar terms describing your rooms.

Try to avoid the super "grand" rooms and focus on normal-looking rooms that are similar to yours in size and *amount of natural light*. That's really important because natural light makes photos look amazing, and often if I analyze design photos I'm drawn to, it's actually the light that makes me love the room more than the design choices! But the thing is, in my own home, I cannot control how much daylight I get (without breaking walls), so I try to be careful to look for attainable inspiration rooms, which means they must have levels of daylight similar to what I already have available!

"Pin" all the images you like. After an hour or so, look back at your pin boards and see what trends really catch your eye.

My sense is that the paint colours you're looking at are a bit too primary- I see you're experimenting with deep colours. Consider looking at a designer paint line with a really limited palette to help you choose deep colours that have a bit of "dustiness" that makes them more liveable, rather than "intensity" which really works better in perfectly curated rooms. Farrow and Ball is a great one- if you like greens, they only have 4 curated greens to choose from. And their two lighter blues are GORGEOUS and would look amazing with your wood panelling.

Personally I prefer airy, dusty colours for wall paint- I love the soft dusty sky blue and dusty celery green this blogger used in her home, for instance. She has a lot of bright accessories and those softer colours are a great subtle backdrop for her more "busy" possessions.

I would also AVOID cream, beige, tan, or pale grey as your main wall colour- it looks dingy and sad to me.

I also agree with posters above that clean bright pure white paint is classic, modern, fresh, and amazing and will look better than the creamy white you have now. I prefer a semi-gloss or even gloss finish to bounce around even more light, and it's more durable and cleanable.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 11:31 AM on January 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for all the suggestions and I am really looking to get specific color advice and even the names of the paint palettes. The last thing I want to do is pick up more paint samples, slap more paint on the wall, talk to a decorator, look at Pinterest. I have no eye for this. I realize how difficult I'm being!

And I am looking for suggestions other than white; ideally a palette that pulls together antique Victorian and ski house. The family room is meant to show the lodge aspect of the house--I'm not painting that room--the wood is really beautiful.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 11:41 AM on January 16, 2020

am really looking to get specific color advice and even the names of the paint palettes.
I suggest you follow nouvelle-personne's advice, right above.
posted by mumimor at 12:12 PM on January 16, 2020

Since whites and off-white are non-negotiable, perhaps more data is needed. In other words, what shade of brown would you say the wood trim (which is staying) is?

To my eyes, it seems close to Clydesdale Brown and so you're looking for something that will work with that.

Trying to identify and/or recommend a specific color shade based on photos on a computer monitor is a tough ask of this forum. The color models involved are completely different. Paint uses pigment and photos on a screen use light. I worked in a job with color matching for a number of years and jumping across the divide of "real world" color and "computer screen" color was where the majority of conflicts and disagreements originated from.

Despite that, if you think that Clydesdale Brown is accurate, I would look at Silver Lake which in real life has more warm blue undertones than it appears on screen (but doesn't count as white or off-white in my book!)

Or if that's not colorful enough and you want to commit to a true hue, then Sherwood Green is part of the Historical Collection that Sweetchrysanthemum mentioned above and would work well with your wood color, IMO.
posted by jeremias at 2:10 PM on January 16, 2020

Do you like actual Victorian houses? You might need *even more* colours.

Which some people haaaate, but you know, every style is loved by some and loathed by some. You're the one living with it.

Seconding the advice to look at decorating books from the past decades or century from the library -- I think old styles are easier to fit old houses, and it's informative to see what really is `traditional' or `timeless'. Also look at local historical house-museums; their colors will be adapted to the light in your region. (Or not, also useful to know.)

Adding: my partner and I moved into an old shabby house *decades* ago and it was at least ten years before we could do anything purely aesthetic, and longer until we had a choherent aesthetic, and honestly, that's fine. One attractive corner to rest your eyes on is all you need, and you have many attractive corners.
posted by clew at 5:37 PM on January 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm in the middle of choosing paint colors for a house, too, so you have my sympathy! It's totally overwhelming.

Based on your photos and some of the comments from others about Victorian-appropriate colors, I wonder what you think of this palette: If you like it, take it to a paint shop and ask them to work their color-matching-magic.

What I like about it is that it slightly tweaks some of the colors that you were already considering--replace the mustard gold with a yellow that has some green to it, and look at a red-purple and a rich cherry that seem to reside just on either side of your burgundy--and it could work with your eclectic furniture and dark wood, too. That color palette, in a satin finish to bounce some light around but not read as OMG SHINY, would be lovely, I think.

Regardless of what you choose, enjoy your new home!
posted by 2or3things at 9:18 AM on January 17, 2020

Best answer: Old home veteran here.

The easiest way to select a cohesive color palette is to choose one single focal piece that you adore -- a rug, drapery fabric, artwork -- and build each room around that palette. The designer of that piece has already done the heavy lifting for you and picked out colors that work well together.

You'll achieve a cohesive look by sticking to that palette, and only that palette, in each room. (It's ok to go lighter or darker within a single hue.) If your focal piece has lots of different colors, select 3-5 maximum and ignore the rest.

Try to keep pattern variation to a minimum, unless you really love the Victorian or boho vibe. Different textures are usually ok as long as they match your palette hue(s).

Essentially, you're creating a visual rhythm throughout your home. Think of it like a playlist -- it's a greatest hits album, not a Metallica + Iron and Wine + improv jazz mixtape.

OK, so what does this look like in the real world?

Take a look at this chalet. Every object in that room reflects one of the 3 dominant colors in the painting. The blonde cabinets and window wall are the same yellow hue the artist used for the sky. The white wall is the same hue as the snowy mountain. The furniture, rug, knick-knacks, and accents are all variations of the same cool slate blue/lavender/charcoal of the painting. There's a million different textures going on -- wood grain, pleats, shag, velvet, honed stone, metals, pottery -- but it all works because the color palette is harmonious, and doesn't vary beyond those basic 3 dominant colors.

Now let's take a look at a circa 1910s interior from the Boardwalk Empire set. The designer pulled 4 predominant colors from the stained glass window -- soft emerald green, a muted yellow-green, and pastel blue/pink. (Even the characters are dressed in these colors.) They've introduced more pattern into this home because of the transitional era (Victorian to Arts & Crafts) but you can see that even the patterns themselves exhibit a similar visual rhythm as the stained glass. It's large bubble-dots are repeated in the regularly spaced dots on the window sheers, regularly spaced dot-like flowers in the William Morris wallpaper, the arched doorway, and round light ceiling fixtures. The pleated chair, lampshade, and upright frond palm echo the linear fluting in the arched woodwork.

Now let's take a look at your home.

There are two things that stand out: 1) WOOD 2) a clash between warm Victorian architectural elements and modern materials.

1) Let's talk about THAT WOOD. It's beautiful, in your dining room especially, and it's also a minor miracle no one has remuddled it with white paint. The millwork in the rest of the home seems to use the same warm, aged stain. Because there is so much wood, I think you have to embrace this "color" in your palette. The good news is that you have a rug in the dining room that picks up the warm chestnut tones. Using that rug as your color palette, with the understanding that it's a very dark rug, pick 1 dominant color and experiment with tint/shade (light/dark) on the walls. Bring the other colors in through your furnishings.

Suggested Sherwin Williams "matches" you could choose from:

Loggia SW 7506
Grecian Ivory SW 7541
Greek Villa SW 7551
*Crabby Apple SW 7592
Silvermist SW 7621
*Homburg Gray SW 7622
*Mount Etna SW 7625
Garden Sage SW 7736

* These are dark. Dark tones advance (make rooms look smaller) while light tones recede (make rooms look larger). If you choose one of these colors for your dominant paint, maybe use it as a 25% tint on walls and at 100% on doors and other paintable accents. Except the red. It'll only look "correct" at 100%. 25% would be...bubblegum pink. Ick.

All of the colors listed above are:

- Victorianish. Fairly period accurate (I don't have any 1890 - 1910 swatchbooks handy to reference). Would work well with William Morris wallpapers, which would also work well in this home and could be used as a color palette generator.

- Warm. Even the blues have warm undertones, so they will highlight that aspect of your woodwork in a complementary way. Silvermist would probably work very well in your kitchen and bath by echoing the chrome/stainless, while still looking harmonious against the warm wood. (IMHO the kitchen countertop and backsplash are still going to stand out simply because there is so much variation between light and dark, pattern, and material in this room. My inclination would be to replace them, and/or try to darken the tile grout also.)

2) In the kitchen and bath, there are LOTS of competing elements -- between dark and light, pattern, texture, and even architectural era. Each element wants to be "the star" of the room but right now, they're all fighting with one another.

The dark tiles are cool-undertoned and work ok with the stainless appliances, but clash with the warm wood cabinets/warm-white countertop and backsplash. Silvermist paint, or a similar warm-undertone blue may go a long way towards solving this issue.

The contrast between the tiles and the grout is intense and reads as quite modern, but it's not really reflected anywhere else in the room. With such a modern looking floor, I'd expect to see a more contrasty and geometric backsplash (extremely linear stacked tiles, perhaps with similar grouting), or cabinets that dead-match either the tile or grout. You might want to think about putting down a large area rug that picks up the wall color you select. (Outdoor rugs or flatweave wool kilims work great in kitchens, and can be hosed off in the driveway once a year.) It will hide some of the grout and also serve to reinforce your color palette.

The bathroom is also struggling to balance warm wood with modern metals. Again, another place where a warm-tone, light-colored blue might be a good fit. Alternatively, you might think about going with matte black or oiled bronze fixtures in the bath -- it's current, neutral, and would go with the age/style of your home. Believe it or not, you can paint shower frames fairly easily, or just replace them.

But back to wall paint.

Sherwin Williams Emerald matte is for all intents and purposes, flat, and scrubbable. I think a flat finish will serve you better than eggshell, as paints from this era tended either towards lime/chalk (walls) look, or gloss (trim).

They also have a fantastic line up of pre-selected color palette booklets next to the chip samples. Grab a few and take them home for a week to see what looks best in your space.

Best of luck! You have a beautiful home and incredible millwork. They don't build 'em like they used to!!!
posted by muirne81 at 10:38 AM on January 17, 2020 [6 favorites]

The square profile of the moldings, and the dining-room wainscot, also suggest the Arts and Crafts period to me -- a late VIctorian aesthetic/philosophical movement mostly remembered for its wallpaper. (William Morris, but not only him, and others were less antiquarian.) There's a magazine devoted to the style, and hey, they have an article on picking colors based on your light, and your woodwork, and your tastes and all, either dark or light:
neutrals and even greyed pastels have always been used in Arts & Crafts interiors. Lighter colors were popular for sun-drenched rooms, and alongside light woods, and for houses that blended Craftsman and Colonial Revival motifs. Lighter colors often were preferred for bedrooms and certainly for service rooms.

Still, “white” didn’t mean white as our postmodern eyes see it. A recommendation for “white” during the era may have meant pale grey, coffee with cream, beige, even a buff yellow.
They'll have advertisements for *so many* gorgeous expensive tiles and tapestries and wallpapers and what-all, but it was also always a DIY style and I've known several people learn to do up their own houses. It layers well.
posted by clew at 11:43 AM on January 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

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