How to Choose Colour for your Period Home | Edward Bulmer Paint

Every age has used colour to adorn interiors.

We know this from illustrations, accounts and old paint layers. Much research has been done into historic colours and there is a wealth of advice now available to recreate period schemes. Until the early C20th these colours were all made with natural, earth and mineral pigments. The discovery of crude oil changed all this as petro-chemicals and colourants were developed. Today modern paints can simulate old colours but they are not able to replicate the appearance of old paints.

If you want all the benefits of period colours we offer the answer!  No other paint range is completely dervied from natural pigment, used by artists for centuries. 

Here are some rules of thumb from Edward, an experienced, architectural historian for decorating in period styles and some personal colour selections to guide you.  If you use our Hand Painted Colour Block or Hand Painted A5 Colour Box you will find an interesting description of all our paint colours and a reference to the suitablity of each colour to each historic period of architecture.

Medieval (15th Century)

Stick to white!  Select a white that is tinted with a small amount of earth pigments or black - if you would like deeper colour in your medieval home, introduce it in the fabrics and textiles you use.

  • Plain White through to Dove - shown on our colour card.  Go down the chart from Plain White to Pearl Colour and then up from Silver White through to Dove.
  • Use our wall Emulsion which has a matt, wonderfully chalky finish. It is easy to apply, has excellent coverage but is extremely durable.  If you want a more artisan, rustic feel, we offer a traditional distemper which is dead chalky! 

Tudor (16th Century)

Only very well-to-do Tudor houses would have used coloured paints, often in the form of stencilled or polychrome decoration.  So best to keep to the off-whites here and again bring in richness with fabric and furnishings.  Emulsion can be used to give the effect of limewash and soft distemper as long as the surface is corrrectly prepared.  Exposed timber beams can be painted in with the walls and ceiling, though traditionally they are best left unpainted and well waxed.

  • Plain White through to French Grey - shown on our colour card.  Go down the chart from Plain White to Pearly Colour and then up from Silver White to French Grey.
  • Use our wall Emulsion which has a matt, wonderfully chaly finish.  It is easy to apply, has excellent coverage but is extremely durable.  If you want a more artisan, rustic feel, we offer a tradition distemper which is dead chalky!

Stuart (17th Century)

The age of coloured walls dawns in this period as rooms were finished in panelling and plaster.  Remember that pigments varied in price a great deal and so the vast majority of colouring would have been done with 'cheap' pigments - naturally coloured earths and black (from burning oil or wood).  For richer schemes the browns predominate and blue starts to make an appearanve in the richest interiors and paint was often used to imitate the appearance and colouring of different marbles and expensive woods.

  • Plain White through to Lead colour, Garter blue through to Azurite, Lute through to London Brown.  Go down and then up the chart from Plain White to Pearl Colour, from Silver White to Mouse Grey, from Ash Grey to Lead Colour. Colours up from Garter Blue to Azurite.  Lute, across to Cinnamon and down to London Brown.
  • Use our wall Emulsion which has a matt, wonderfully chalky finish.  It is easy to apply, has excellent coverage but is extremely durable.  If you want a more artisan feel, we offer a tradtional distemper which is dead chalky!  Both these finishes can be used on plaster decoration.
  • Use either our water-based or oil-based eggshell on early wooden panelling.  Both are the highest quality paints and easy to apply, uniquely allowing your historic woodwork to breathe.  Though the water-based eggshell takes less time to dry.

Georgian (18th Century) - George I and II

Panelling remains ubiqutous in the early C18th and would always have been painted in linseed oil paint.  The colours generally relied on what became know as the 'common colours' though richer interiors would often be green.  As timber gave way to plaster, cheaper water-based paints could be used and a wider palette employed.  Panelling was painted one colour floor to ceiling.  As the style changed to plaster walls with timber mouldings, we find the beginning of the use of off-whites to pick out the mouldings.

  • ‘Common colours’: Plain white through to Inferior Grey
  • ‘Fancy colours’: Drab Green, Granite Green, Eau de Nile
  • ‘Timber colours’: Lute through to London Brown, Sang de Boeuf
  • Use either emulsion or distemper on the walls and either water-based or oil-based eggshell on wooden panelling and other wood or ironwork.  Both eggshells are the highest quality paints and easy to apply, uniquely allowing historic woodwork to breath.  The water-based eggshell takes less time to dry.

Georgian (18th Century) - George III

The Adam brothers turned out to be the poster boys for the late C18th and by dividing up every surface with ornament they introduced the opportunity to use a great range of colours even in one room. As they were used selectively they could be expensive and so a truly polychromatic palette evolves. As you would expect, off-white is still widely used (mainly for raised ornament) but coloured blue and green grounds abound and the concept of colour balance comes to the fore. Adam, Wyatt and others realised that the colours opposite each other on the colour wheel balanced each other and this can be seen as the secret of the harmony they achieved in their colour schemes.

Plain white through to French Grey, Wash Stop through to Fine Grey, Inferior Grey through to Verdigris, Pea Green through to Warm Stone, Etruscan Brown through to Lavender.

Regency (Early 19th Century)

  • Plain White through to Clay, Ash Grey, Lead Colour, Inferior Grey through to Sky Blue, Sea Green through to Cerullian Blue, French Blue, Aquatic through to Verdigris, Invisible Green, Tea Green through to Celadon, Warm Stone through to Ochre, Nicaragua  through to Lilac Pink.
  • Emulsion or eggshell.

The last George, as regent and then monarch, set fashionable decorating alight – he could not stop and the height of his love of the exotic can be seen in the Brighton Pavilion! This was the era of the specialist house painter and paints were expected to deliver colour as well as the effects of all sorts of rare and costly veneers, marbles and bronze. The mainstream would have adopted the colour palette that came out of this and certain novel colours became fashionable as advances in paint chemistry made them affordable (yellows are the classic example). Rooms were painted more architecturally, as the prevailing sensibility favoured the antique credentials of Grecian rather than Roman culture.


Victorian (19th Century)

What to use:

  • Whiting through to Milk White, Silver White through to Mouse Grey, Slate, Aerial Tint, French Blue through to Aquatic, Light Olive Green, Invisible Green, Tea Green through to Celadon, Brimstone through to Clove, London Brown through to Laylock.
  • Emulsion or eggshell.

The classicism that had gripped Britain since the mid C17th gradually wore off in Victoria’s reign as our country’s empire builders realised the potency of promoting our own national styles rather than those of the Mediterranean. The colour palette developed with it and it is fair to say it lost a little of its gaiety and took on a more solid caste. Paint chemists continued to make a wider range of colours commercially available and our expanding empire introduced a wealth of different exotic styles – each with their own palette. We became readier to use weighty colour everywhere so that even ceilings could be seen as 'continued walls’ and painted with dark shades.

Modern (20th Century)

What to use:

  • Plain White through to Dove, Wash Stop through to Lead colour, Aerial Tint through to Ethereal Blue, Pomona through to Ochre, Buff, Russet through to Lilac Pink.
  • Emulsion or eggshell.

What goes around comes around. Victoria died and after a brief period of excess a new reality set in, peppered with world events and economic fluctuation. In a strange way the colours used in decoration reflected this through the decades, moving from the earthy tones of arts and crafts to the paired back brave new world tones of Art Deco and Modernism. In this period (c.1930) we created the first plastics from the by-products of refining crude oil for fuels. This gradually enabled the commercial development of paints by chemical companies rather than traditional paint makers. The availability of colours ballooned to give us the choice we have today, though we have retained our love of off-whites, derived ultimately from our default palette – white with a little cheap (earth) pigment!

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