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Exterior Color of Country Houses
Downing, Andrew Jackson The Architecture of Country Houses, Including Designs for Cottages, and Farm-Houses, and Villas, with Remarks on Interiors, Furniture, and the best Modes of Warming and Ventilating, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1850, pages 198-206 [Including the "Hints," above].

   The color of the outside of a house in the country is of more importance than is usually supposed, since, next to the form itself, the color is the first impression which the eye receives in approaching it; and, in some cases, the color makes its impression, even before we fully comprehend the form of the building.
   The greater number of all country houses in the United States have been hitherto painted white -- partly because white-lead is supposed to be a better preservative than other colors (though the white paint generally used is one of the worst in this respect), and partly from its giving an appearance of especial newness to a house, which, with many persons, is in itself a recommendation.

Congregational Church, Charlotte, Vermont (1980)

No person of taste, who gives the subject the least consideration, is, however, guilty of the mistake of painting or coloring country houses white. And yet there are so many who have never given the subject a moment's thought, that we must urge upon them a few arguments against so great a breach of good taste.*
   Our first objection to white is, that it is too glaring and conspicuous. We scarcely know any thing more uncomfortable to the eye, than to approach the sunny side of a house in one of our brilliant midsummer days, when it revels in the fashionable purity of its color. It is absolutely painful. Nature, full of kindness for man, has covered most of the surfuce that meets his eye in the country, with a soft green hue -- at once the most refreshing and most grateful to the eye. Many of our country houses appear to be colored on the very opposite principle, and one needs, in broad sunshine, to turn his eyes away from them, to relieve them by a glimpse of the soft and refreshing shades that everywhere pervade the trees,
the grass and the surface of the earth.
   Our second objection to white is, that it does not harmonize with the country, and thereby mars the effect of rural landscapes. Much of the beauty of landscapes depends on what painters call breadth of tone -- which is caused by broad masses of colors that harmonize and blend agreeably together. Nothing tends to destroy breadth of tone so much as any object of considerable size, and of a brilliant white. It stands harshly apart from all the soft shades of the scene. Hence, landscape painters always studiously avoid the introduction of white in their buildings, and give them, instead, some neutral tint -- a tint which unites or contrasts agreeably with the color of trees and grass, and which seems to blend into other parts of natural landscape, instead of being a discordant note in the general harmony.

  There is always, perhaps, something not quite agreeable in objects of a dazzling whiteness, when brought into contrast with other colors. Mr. Price, in his Essays on the Beautiful and Picturesque, conceived that very white teeth gave a silly expression to the countenance -- and brings forward in illustration of it, the well known sobriquet which Horace Walpole bestowed on one of his acquaintances -- "the gentleman with the foolish teeth."

Uvedale Price: no white teeth here.

" A landowner and author, best known for his Essays on the Picturesque (1794-1801) which were influential throughout the nineteenth century. Price stated that 'Picturesqueness, therefore, appears to to hold a station between beauty and sublimity'. Price's views on estate layout were summarised by Blomfield: 'Price advocated a threefold division — the garden immediately round the house was to be formal, the garden beyond to be in the landscape style, and the park to be left to itself.'" Source:

Essay on the Picturesque

Although Sir Uvedale Price (1747–1829) cannot be described as a writer of gardening manuals, his theoretical contributions to the debate over what constituted a ‘picturesque’ landscape greatly influenced practising landscape gardeners. His Essays on the Picturesque (1796) were a reaction to the transformations by ‘Capability’ Brown and his imitators of many country estates into smooth undulating stretches of grass, belts of trees and serpentine lakes. Price considered these impoverished and disfigured and set about defining ‘picturesque’ as distinct from Burke’s categories of the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘sublime’. Source: The picturesque style, University of Otago.

   No one is successful in rural improvements, who does not study nature, and take her for the basis of his practice. Now, in natural landscape, any thing like strong and bright colors is seldom seen, except in very minute portions, and least of all
pure white — chiefly appearing in small objects like flowers. The practical rule which should be deduced from this is, to avoid all those colors which nature avoids. In buildings, we should copy those that she offers chiefly to the eye‹such as those of the soil, rocks, wood, and the bark of trees, — the materials of which houses are built. These materials offer us the best and most natural study from which harmonious colors for the houses themselves should be taken.
   Wordsworth, in a little volume on the Scenery of the Lakes, remarks that the objections to white as a color, in large spots or masses, in landscapes, are insurmountable. He says it destroys the gradations of distances, haunts the eye, and disturbs the repose of nature. To leave some little consolation to the lovers of white-lead, we will add that there is one position in which their favorite color may not only be tolerated, but often has a happy effect. We mean in the case of a country house or cottage, deeply embowered in trees. Surrounded by such a mass of foliage as Spenser describes,

In whose inclosed shadow there was set.
A fair pavilion, scarcely to be seen,

a white building often has a magical effect. But a landscape painter would quickly answer, if he were asked the reason of this exception to the rule, "it is because the building does not appear white." In other words, in the shadow of the foliage
by which it is half concealed, it loses all the harshness and offensiveness of a white house in an open site. We have, indeed, often felt, in looking at examples of the latter, set upon a bald hill, that the building itself would, if possible, cry out,

Hide me from day's garish eye."

   We may also add, that while few objects are more disagreeable than bare and tame villages — so there are, on the other hand, few which give more pleasure to the eye than the contrast of a few white cottages surrounded by foliage, and set in a wide landscape, where only the universal green ofwoods and meadows is to be seen.
   Having entered our protest against the general use of white in country edifices, we are bound to point out what we consider suitable shades of color.
   We have said that one should look to nature for hints in color. This gives us, apparently, a wide choice of shades; but as we ought properly to employ modified shades, taken from the colors of the materials of which houses are constructed, the number of objects is brought within a moderate compass. Houses are not built of grass or leaves, and there is therefore, not much propriety in painting a dwelling green. Earth, stone, bricks, and wood, are the substances that enter mostly into the structure of our houses, and from these we would accordingly take suggestions for painting them. Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was full of artistic feeling for the union of a house with its surrounding scenery, once said, "If you would fix upon the best color for your house, turn up a stone, or pluck up a handful of grass by the roots, and see what is the color of the soil where the house is to stand, and
let that be your choice." This rule was not probably intendedto be exactly carried into general practice, but the feeling that prompted it was the same that we are endeavoring to illustrate — the necessity of a unity of color in the house and the country about it.
   We think, in the beginning, that the color of all buildings in the country, should be of those soft and quiet shades called neutral tints, such as fawn, drab, gray, brown, etc., and that all positive colors, such as white, yellow, red, blue, black, etc., should always be avoided; neutral tints being those drawn from nature, and harmonizing best with her, and positive colors being most discordant when introduced into rural

Design II Symmetrical Bracketed Cottage, Fig. 13

In the second place, we would adapt the shade of color, as far as possible, to the expression, style, or character of the house itself.
   Thus, a large mansion may very properly receive a somewhat sober hue, expressive of dignity; while a country house of moderate size demands a lighter and more pleasant but still quiet tone; and a small cottage should, we think, always have a cheerful and lively tint. Country houses, thickly surrounded by trees, should always be painted of a lighter shade than those standing exposed. And a new house, entirely unrelieved by foliage, as it is rendered conspicuous by the very nakedness of its position, should be painted several shades darker than the same building, if placed in a well-wooded site. In proportion as a house is exposed to view, let its hue be darker, and where it is much concealed by foliage, a very light shade of color is to be preferred.
   Wordsworth remarks, in speaking of houses in the Lake country, that many persons who have heard white condemned have erred by adopting a cold slaty color. The dulness and dimness of hue in some dark stones produces an effect quite at variance with the cheerful expression which small houses should wear. úThe flaring yellow,î he adds, úruns into the opposite extreme, and is still more censurable. Upon the whole, the safest color, for general use, is something between a cream and a dust color.
   This color, which Wordsworth recommends for general use, is the hue of the English freestone, called Portland stone -- a quiet fawn color, to which we are strongly partial, and which harmonizes perhaps more completely with all situations in the country than any other that can be named. Next to this, we like warm gray, that is, a gray mixed with a very little red, and some yellow. Browns and dark grays are suitable for barns, stables and outbuildings, which it is desirable to render inconspicuous — but for dwellings unless very light shades of these latter colors are used, they are apt to give a dull and heavy effect in the country.*

   • The following hints for mixing shades for outside painting, may be of service to persons in the country who have to depend on their own wits. The colors are supposed to be first finely ground in oil, and then mixed in small quantities with white-lead and boiled linseed oil. A few trials will enable the novice to mix agreeable neutral shades - especially if he will be content to add a very little of the darker shades at at time, and try the effect with the brush. After the proper shade is obtained, enough should be mixed at once to go over the whole surface.

Fawn color. White, yellow ochre, and Spanish brown.
Drab. White, Venetian red, burnt umber, with a little black.

Gray stone. White, lampblack, and a little Venetian red.

Brownstone. Spanish brown, chrome yellow, with a little white and lampblack.

French gray. White, ivory black, with a little Indian red and Chinese blue.

Slate color. White, lampblack, and a little Indian red.

Sage color. White, raw umber, Prussian blue, and Venetian red.

Straw color. White, yellow ochre, and orange chrome.

Chocolate. Spanish brown and black - or, for a lighter shade, Venetian red and black

   A very slight admixture of a darker color is sufficient to remove the objection to white paint, by destroying the glare of white, the only color which reflects all the sun¯s rays. We would advise the use of soft shades, not much removed from white, for small cottages, which should not be painted of too dark a shade, since that would give them an aspect of gloom, rather worse than glare. It is the more necessary to make this suggestion, since we have lately observed that some persons newly awakened to the bad effects of white, have rushed into the opposite extreme, and colored their country houses of such a somber hue, that they give a melancholy character to the whole neighborhood around them.
   A species of monotony is also produced by using the same neutral tint for every part of the exterior of a country house. Now there are features, such as window facings, blinds, cornices, etc., which confer the same kind of expression on a house that the eyes, eyebrows, lips, etc., of a face, do upon the human countenance. To paint the whole house plain drab, fives it very much the same dull an d insipid effect that colorless features (white hair, pale eye-brows, lips, etc., etc.) do the face. A certain sprightliness is therefore always bestowed on a dwelling in a neutral tint, by painting the bolder projecting features of a different shade. The simplest practical rule that we can suggest for effecting this, in the most satisfactory and agreeable manner, is the following: Choose paint of some neutral tint that is quite satisfactory, and, if the tint is a light one, let the facings of the windows, cornices, etc., be painted several shades darker, of the same color. The blinds may either be a still darker shade than the facings, or else the darkest green.* This variety of shades will give a building a cheerful effect, when, if but one of the shades were employed, there would be a dulness and heaviness in the appearance of its exterior.

* Thus, if the color of the house be that of Portland stone (a fawn shade), let the window casings, cornices, etc., be painted a light brown, the color of our common red freestone — and make the latter shade by mixing the requisite quantity of Spanish brown with the color used in the body of the house. Very dark green is quite unobjectionable as a color fo the Venetian blinds, so much used in our country, as it is quite unobtrusive. Bright green is offensive to the eye, and vulgar and flashy in effect.

   If, on the other hand, the tint chosen is a dark one, then let the window dressings, etc., be painted of a much lighter shade of the same color.
   Any one who will follow the principles we have suggested cannot, at least, fail to avoid the gross blunders in taste which we have so long been in the habit of committing in the practice of painting country house.
   Uvedale Price justly remarked, that many people have a sort of callus over their organs of sight, as others over those of hearing; and as the callous hearers feel nothing in music but kettle-drums and trombones, so the callous seers can only be moved by strong opposition of black and white, or by fiery reds. There are, we may add, some few house painters who appear to be equally benumbed to any delicate sensations in shades of color. They judge the beauty of colors upon houses as they do in the raw pigment, and, we verily believe, would be more gratified to paint every thing chrome yellow, indigo blue, pure white, vermillion red, and the like, than with the most fitting and delicate mingling of shades to be found under the wide canopy of heaven. Fortunately fashion, a more powerful teacher of the multitude than the press or the schools, is now setting in the right direction. A few men of taste and judgment, in city and country, have set the example by casting off all connection with harsh colors. What a few will do at the first, from a mice sense of harmony in colors, the many will do afterwards, when they see the superior beauty of neutral tints supported and enforced by the example of those who build and inhabit the most attractive and agreeable houses; and we trust, at no very distant time, one may have the pleasure of traveling over our whole country, without meeting with a single habitation of glaring and offensive color, but see everywhere something of harmony and beauty.

* We have already published some of the following remarks in the Horticulturist.

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