Amazing Historic Paint Colors That Might Shock You

Amazing Historic Paint Colors That Might Shock You


How to Use Hot Historical Paints in Your House

If dull and drab comes to mind when you imagine historic colors used in yesteryear, think again.   When researchers first started investigating colors from the past in the early 1900’s, they would scrape through layers and years of paint to uncover what they thought were accurate colors of the day. What they didn’t realize was that the oil in the paint had broken down and aged causing it to grow duller and darker.  When analysis methods became more sophisticated, they discovered that the colors were actually very bright and vivacious.

Mount Vernon, Home of George Washington

Paint Collection made by:  Fine Paints of Europe

The  ‘New Room’ at Mount Vernon, home of George Washington.   

The colors are from Fine Paints of Europe Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon.org

Color: Wash Basin MV25 – Walls

Color: Tin Plate MV34 Wide Cornice Molding

Color: Palladian White MV108  Woodwork

Color: Holly Hedge MV110 Accent Green

Color:  Large Dining Room Verdigris MV 13 Walls

Color: Palladian White MV108  Woodwork, Ceiling

Color: Large Dining Room Green MV1 The Plaster Frieze and Chair rail


Hear how this historic green was made from the oxidation or rust from copper.

Paint the Walls

Take a look at images of Mount Vernon here and notice that the plaster walls look mottled.  The pigments used in making paints in Colonial America were coarser in texture causing the painted wall to show the brushstrokes. Couple that with the fact that plaster walls are porous and primers or wall sealants of the day still let the paint dry a bit unevenly.  As a matter of fact, plaster walls had to dry for a year before applying any kind of paint or wash.

Today is a different story.  Priming your walls and using a roller, not a brush, for the large areas will give you a nice even look.

Tips in Choosing the Right Colors

There were no interior designers in colonial times. However, there were architects and their job was to marry their building design and the interior design to fit their entire vision of the house in a very holistic manner.

There are a few ways that they paired colors successfully and you can, too.

  • Choose a neutral color.

    Every room has a neutral color somewhere.   White is obviously the most often used, but a neutral can be any color whose value is pale or lightened making it look washed out.

  • Two Intense colors together.

    If you’re in absolute desperate need of using another powerful primary, decide which one is the main color – the boss of the room. The second vivid color should be decreased in intensity, so gray it out a bit and use it as an accent color or for woodwork. There are so many wonderful bright historical colors and if you simply cannot help yourself and must have them all in one room, you are leaving Colonial and flowing into a Boho style.  There is nothing wrong with that, actually it is quite wonderful.

  • Room to Room- Avoid the Circus Effect.

    What about rooms that can be seen adjacent to each other? That’s another topic unto itself. In the Williamsburg, Virginia room with colors by Benjamin Moore below, there are two pretty intense colors in adjacent rooms which actually looks pretty stunning. But note, walls in the entrance room are whitewashed and the woodwork is a grayed out blue, a soft slate blue and not as intense in value as the red.  In planning a colors scheme,  be mindful of what is happening in the next room.

Geddy Gray CW–720

Mopboard Black- CW 680

Bassett Hall Green – CW 480

Heritage Red HC-181

Wythe Blue HC-143

Wickham Gray HC-171


It is called woodwork for a reason. The trim, doors, banisters, railings, ceiling and base molding were most often  made of wood. Hence, woodwork.

Color for the woodwork with white walls

This opens up a few possibilities – different shades of white on woodwork gives a wonderful clean, crisp look with depth to it. In earlier days, the walls were most often whitewashed or even left in their natural plaster state while the woodwork was painted in darker colors so would hide the dirt and wear.  Today, durable semi-gloss, gloss or high gloss paint gives the option of using lighter colors.  They are all wipe-able if not washable. Do not use wall or flat paint on your woodwork if you can avoid it.

Colors for woodwork with colorful walls

Stay white or light against contrasting darker walls. There are so many shades of white from super crisp starchy white to a pale, warm linen white. It depends on the look you want.  For pale colored walls,  darker color on woodwork is an option and can be a fantastic look.


Normally and historically, most ceilings are whitewashed or a plain old ceiling white. But today’s options include using color which warms up any space. For a traditional look, stay within the same color family as the walls or woodwork. If the walls are blue, do a pale, pale, pale grayed out blue on the ceiling. If there is a lot of white woodwork or beams,  painting the ceiling  darker can produce a library like effect- it can be quite nice.

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