Preservation ABCs: Y is for Yellow Ochre

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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Y is for Yellow Ochre

The Chinese Room painted in Yellow Ochre at Gunston Hall. Click photo for source.

The Chinese Room painted yellow ochre at Gunston Hall. Click photo for source.

Y is for Yellow Ochre because historic preservation studies need to discuss paint colors. While ordinances will not (typically) dictate the proper color of your house, each architectural style has appropriate colors. You can easily notice this when browsing the historical colors section of Benjamin Moore (check out the Colonial Willamsburg palate*), California Paints Historic Colors of America, the National Trust Historic Colors Valspar line, and others. Paint is expressive and indicative of architectural trends, cultural statements and fashion of the time. Browse through the California Paints guide for an overview and comparison between the decades of the 20th century.

As for yellow ochre? Simply put, ochre is a naturally occurring earth pigment (mostly clay with iron oxides) that would be used to color the paint. The boldness of the color can be altered by heating the iron oxides. Ochres (the pigment) are more than yellow; they are red, orange and brown.

Colors of previous centuries are not always what we’d expect (you can thank the USA bicentennial red, white, and blue patriotism for that). Colors exhibited wealth, and were not neutral as we once thought. Blues, purples, greens, yellows all made a social statement, in an impressive way.

Do you choose historically accurate colors, or mix your modern vibe with a historic house? When should colors be historically accurate? Any pet peeves you have?

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13 thoughts on “Preservation ABCs: Y is for Yellow Ochre

  1. colin says:

    While I am sure that there are people out they that say you should always be true the natural creation I say it depends on the interior furnishing. I love the idea of an historic house that is in the 21st century with all the furnishing in the 21st century. The house is the template and the furnishings become the accessories and then you can choose more modern colors if that makes any sense to you.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Good point, Colin. Furnishings, linens, etc. with the appropriate colors for them (as opposed to the house) makes a different. Perhaps the exterior color is more important than the interior color? Though I do not like to see plaster medallions painted individual colors when they should be white. It makes me cringe.

  2. JennNAdams says:

    I usually pick colors that are bright and colorful, something that brightens up the room a lot more. They also tend to help a person’s attitude more positive and cheerful. But also, whatever goes well with the furniture, don’t want them to look out of place.

  3. Jen says:

    It really does depend upon the home—sounds silly to some, but I have learned to wait a few months before painting to let the house ‘speak’ to me. The vintage/era-appropriate palettes are very helpful—and really, I think if someone has a historic home, they are a great starting point even if you don’t choose all historic shades; as you said, many are surprised by the variety they have to choose from!

    • Kaitlin says:

      Excellent idea, Jen, to let the house speak to you. Paint colors are hard, but fun (like painfully good, right?). I am always surprised by the variety of paint colors, but I’ll admit – I don’t stick to only the “proper” colors for that particular decade. I like to mix it up.

      • Jen says:

        Well…in our 1951 Cape Cod, my office was a sort of nuclear Granny Smith apple green. Just one room, but boy, did it pop! And keep me awake. 😉

  4. Suzassippi says:

    Recently, my husband and I were looking at a beautiful 1870s house. While the dark green of the formal living room and the gold of the dining room were stunning, the orange walls and purple ceiling in an octagon shaped bedroom were just wrong at so many levels. And then there was the shocking electric blue with a black and white tile floor in another bedroom…as one of my professors used to say, “you just can’t go around doing this stuff mindlessly.”

    • Kaitlin says:

      Wow, orange walls with purple ceiling. That can’t possibly fit anywhere. I like your professor’s quote. Lately on home design blogs, etc. there seems to be a black and white trend…as in a thick stripe of black across the ceiling. Weird, I think.

  5. Chad says:

    My house is a 1920s bungalow and I use a color called “rice pudding.” Its kind of a cream color. I know that historical colors are often brash, but I definitely prefer a light subtle neutral color so that I don’t get a headache. And I definitely hate dark colors–they are depressing, don’t take advantage of sunlight, and shrink a room.

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