Picking exterior paint colors is the scariest part of their project for most homeowners.

 

The process seems fraught with peril:  What if your house ends up looking garish and (even worse) everybody sees? What if it goes from “old, outdated eyesore” to “expensively painted eyesore”, and now you’ve spent your whole budget and it’s too late to change anything?  Painting your home exterior is about the most public design decision you can make.  What if that happy yellow color that you thought would be so cheerful and unique now just looks neon-bright and angers your neighbors?

 

If the thought of choosing exterior paint colors makes you want to clean out your gutters or tackle  your tax returns instead, you’re not alone.  There are unique challenges to choosing the right exterior paint colors.  The surface area (the whole outside of your house) is huge, which makes it really hard to visualize the result from just those tiny paint chips or “exterior color palette” brochures.  You’ll be spending a pretty penny to get this done.  Success or failure hinges on the right choice of color.  And how can you evaluate and choose color properly when paint colors look so different when they’re outside in direct sunlight??

 

Thankfully, there are some key principles that can help you make that choice with much more confidence!

 

[By the way, we’ll be talking about the main color, also called “body color” or “field color”, on your house exterior.  This is the color of your stucco or wood siding.  A whole exterior color palette will also include a color for your wood trim (fascia, soffits, doors and windows), and maybe a front door accent color.  But by far the hardest part is selecting the main color!  Once that decision is made, the rest is easy.]

 

Here are 4 key guidelines we feel every homeowner must know about picking exterior paint colors:

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1. If your home has existing stone or brick areas that won’t be painted, your stone or brick has more of a say in your home’s exterior colors than you do.

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Like it or not, this is true.  Unless your house has only wood clapboard siding (or synthetic equivalent), painted wood trim, and no other materials, your options are limited by whatever unpainted materials were used on your home’s façade.
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Many homes have entire sides of their home faced in brick or stone, or perhaps the lower half, or maybe just some entry columns wrapped in the local stone.  (By the way, we use “natural material” to describe stone here, but our color guidelines apply even if yours is a manufactured or cultured stone.)  If your house is more contemporary, it may have large areas of unpainted concrete, or even steel.  Any paint color you select MUST “play well” with these materials!
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This is similar to picking the right kitchen cabinet paint color.  Unless you’re doing a full remodel, you need to take your kitchen’s existing materials such as stone countertops or backsplash tile into account.

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Therefore the first step in choosing exterior paint colors is to take these non-painted surfaces into account, no matter how little you pay attention to those areas ordinarily.  You’ll do this by determining the “undertones” of those natural materials.  Undertones can range from pink-beige to blue-gray to taupe.  Whatever those undertones are, you need to know them so you can design your paint color to coordinate.  Otherwise your newly-painted exterior will look like a poorly-designed hodgepodge of clashing colors.  (Examples of this in real life are, sadly, easy to find.)
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Identifying the undertones of your brick or stone

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Exterior house paint color undertones, array
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Your stone or brick will fall into one or more of the following neutral undertones.  (Here they’re paired with Sherwin Williams colors, for reference.)  And don’t worry if you can’t see the undertone in these color chips!  Even to my eye, some of these colors don’t look “pink” or “green” at all  –  not at first glance.  But colors are always viewed in context to what’s around them.  Put two color chips next to each other, and one will look more “green” and one will look more “pink”.  It’s not an exact science, but it’ll help you make an educated decision.
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Here’s the list of undertones (you can find the Benjamin Moore equivalents here):

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PINK-BEIGE:
Sherwin Williams 7555 Patience
Sherwin Williams 6106 Kilim Beige
Sherwin Williams SW 7555 Patience, pink beige undertone, picking exterior paint colors Sherwin Williams SW 6106 Kilim Beige, pink beige undertone, choosing exterior paint colors
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ORANGE-BEIGE:
Sherwin Williams 7716 Croissant
Sherwin Williams 6115 Totally Tan
Sherwin Williams SW 7716 Croissant, orange beige undertone, selecting exterior paint colors Sherwin Williams SW 6115 Totally Tan, orange beige undertone, exterior paint color palette options
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YELLOW-BEIGE:
Sherwin Williams 7688 Sundew
Sherwin Williams SW 7688 Sundew, yellow beige undertone, , good exterior paint color selections
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GOLD-BEIGE:
Sherwin Williams 7697 Safari
Sherwin Williams SW 7697 Safari, gold beige undertone, choosing the right exterior house color
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GREEN-BEIGE:
Sherwin Williams 6148 Wool Skein
Sherwin Williams 7527 Nantucket Dune
Sherwin Williams SW 6148 Wool Skein, green beige undertone, good house exterior color choices Sherwin Williams SW 7527 Nantucket Dune, green beige undertone, good house paint colors
(I know, I know… Nantucket Dune doesn’t look “green” at all! But it’ll look pretty green if you hold it up to your pink-beige Texas travertine.)
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GREEN-GRAY:
Sherwin Williams 7036 Accessible Beige
Sherwin Williams 7640 Fawn Brindle
Sherwin Williams SW 7036 Accessible Beige, green gray undertone, house painting color option Sherwin Williams SW 7640 Fawn Brindle, green gray undertone, good exterior color palette
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BLUE-GRAY:
Sherwin Williams 7064 Passive
Sherwin Williams 7065 Argos
Sherwin Williams SW 7064 Passive, blue gray undertone, gray exterior house color options Sherwin Williams SW 7065 Argos, blue gray undertone, grey house exterior color option
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VIOLET GRAY:
Sherwin Williams 7043 Worldly Gray
Sherwin Williams 7031 Mega Greige
Sherwin Williams SW 7043 Worldly Gray, violet gray undertone, exterior paint color choices Sherwin Williams SW 7031 Mega Greige, violet gray undertone, house paint colors
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TAUPE:
Sherwin Williams 7037 Balanced Beige
Sherwin Williams 7633 Taupe Tone
Sherwin Williams SW 7037 Balanced Beige, taupe undertone, exterior paint color Sherwin Williams SW 7633 Taupe Tone, taupe undertone, picking the right exterior paint color
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By the way, this information on undertones is from nationally-known color consultant Maria Killam, who has written some fantastic blogs about picking the right exterior colors to go with your stone or brick.  (Our Paper Moon Painting color consultants were trained by Maria Killam.)  If you’re not practiced in seeing undertones, her blogs can get a bit technical, but they give some excellent examples of what we’re talking about.  Here are some favorites from her archives:
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So how do you determine the undertones on your own house?

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Undertone here is gold-beige:

Sherwin Williams SW 7697 Safari, gold beige undertone, choosing the right exterior house color

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Try holding a blank piece of paper up against your stone, and it becomes easier to spot which undertones it might have.  Conversely, you can use the list above to pick up those paint chips from your nearest Sherwin Williams, and hold them up to your stone to see what coordinates.  If you’re not practiced in seeing undertones, don’t worry . . . just eliminate the obvious ones that don’t work, and try to come close to what you think it might be.  If you see several undertones, pick the dominant one, the one you notice most when you stand a long way away..

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Don’t skip this step!   Remember, the undertone of your fixed elements is the one thing you can’t change.  Unless you’re doing more than just painting, such as replacing the stone or brick you have now, you must design your exterior color palette with this in mind.

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What about painting your stone or brick?  Unless yours is a lime-washed cottage in Ireland, you’ll rarely see a painted stone house here.  You can paint out small accent areas of stone so that they don’t limit your color choices, but I’d be careful about painting a whole house.  Brick, however, is another matter.  Brick exteriors are painted all the time, and have been for centuries.  We’re huge fans of painted brick homes, having done a fair number of them ourselves.  Here’s our post about whether or not you should paint your brick home.
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Once you’ve narrowed down the undertone you’re working with, you can select some possible color options and test them.  You don’t have to match your brick or stone’s color, but your paint color must either share an undertone, or have an undertone that coordinates well with your brick or stone..
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2. Even if you love bright colors personally, go with a more muted color on your home exterior...

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Why?  Because unless yours is a beach house, or one of San Francisco’s historic Victorian “painted ladies”, bright or saturated colors on an exterior can look artificial, unnatural, even tacky.
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Painted Ladies, San Francisco, photo by JonDoeForty1

San Francisco’s “Painted Ladies” Victorian homes

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Once you know your stone’s undertone, you can decide on which neutral color will look good with it.  It won’t be a strong color!  A beach house can get away with turquoise blue or mint green (especially with lots of contrasting white trim), but otherwise, you’re probably not picking brights for your home’s exterior.  Even if you love color, a neutral is your best choice, nine times out of ten.  Save the accent color for your front door!  Your neighbors will thank you..
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This applies even in older neighborhoods with a “boho” or “modern retro” vibe, like some of the beloved quirky areas in Austin TX.  A house might sport a bright pink front door (we painted a front door “fuchsia pink” on an iconic East Austin house, and we fell in love with it), but the rest of the house will be an off-white, or neutral gray, or pale tan.  A bold homeowner might paint their small bungalow an avocado green with a bright yellow front door, but that’s still a muted, more neutral version of green (as opposed to, say, an emerald green).  Pick a muted color, preferably a neutral, for your exterior!
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Here’s an example I took from the web and Photoshopped, so you could see what I mean.

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.This lovely home in Los Angeles is too “bubble gum pink”.

pink exterior stucco house, too bright

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I love a pink home myself, but this is too cool and bright.  It’s needs to be softer and warmer, like this, which is also much more authentic to the Spanish Mediterranean style of the home:

pink exterior stucco house, much better exterior paint choice

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If that’s too “peachy” for the homeowners’ tastes, this is a good compromise:

pink exterior stucco house, better exterior color

Here’s the original again:

pink exterior stucco house, too bright

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See what I mean?  It’s a subtle difference, but it matters a great deal on a whole house façade.  By the way, this home doesn’t have too many unpainted, natural materials, but it does have some:  the classic red tile roof, and the terra cotta Saltillo tile on the front entry.  Which of the three exterior color options goes best with these fixed elements?  Only the second photo (the warmest option) is a true undertone match.

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3. If you want a white or off-white home, you won’t get to pick an actual bright white..

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A common mistake is to pick a color that is too light.  Colors look  MUCH brighter when seen outside.  Hold a piece of paper outside in the bright sunlight and it’ll be almost blinding.  You don’t want your house to look like a giant reflector.

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A good rule of thumb is to pick a color that is two or three “steps” farther down, on a fan deck,  from the top of the paint strip.  The pretty white homes you see on Instagram or Pinterest are most likely painted in a beige, “greige” (grey-beige), or creamy color.   Here are some examples from our own work:

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Painted brick home exterior in Sherwin Williams Shoji White by Paper Moon Painting, San Antonio TX

Painted brick home exterior in Sherwin Williams “Shoji White”

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Here’s the color chip of “Shoji White”, that this Alamo Heights, TX home was actually painted in:
Sherwin Williams SW 7042 Shoji White, how to pick exterior paint color, pink beige or greige undertone
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.White painted brick exterior in Sherwin Williams Cotton White, Austin Round Rock, TX
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This red brick home in Austin, TX was painted in Sherwin Williams “Cotton White”:
Sherwin Williams SW 7104 Cotton White, choosingg exterior paint color
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Alamo Heights TX home exterior in Sherwin Williams 7014 Eider White by Paper Moon Painting, house painter

Alamo Heights TX home exterior in Sherwin Williams 7014 “Eider White”

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And here’s “Eider White”:
Sherwin Williams SW 7014 Eider White, exterior paint color palette
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Pretty incredible how different these colors look outdoors, right?  All of these homes read as “white”, even though these are the colors used:
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Sherwin Williams SW 7014 Eider White, 7104 Cotton White, 7042 Shoji White, exterior paint color palette, row
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That’s why it’s so important to make sample boards of potential colors and evaluate them outside!
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4.  If you love cool colors like gray, you’ll probably pick something much “warmer” than you expect.

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I also love gray (the entire inside of my home is painted in Sherwin Williams “Agreeable Gray”), but most of the time, when people go to the paint store for samples, they pick a gray that is too cool, too blue.  Natural sunlight already has a very cool color temperature to it.  It’ll “cool down” any color that you see outside, so you need to compensate by picking a color that’s much warmer than you’d expect.
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Here are just two examples:
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Exterior paint color is Benjamin Moore HC-173, Edgecomb Gray, via hiyapapaya
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The shake shingle siding on this home is painted in Benjamin Moore’s HC-173, “Edgecomb Gray” (a green-beige).  Here’s its color chip:
Benjamin Moore HC-173, Edgecomb Gray, green beige undertone, exterior paint color
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Doesn’t look gray at all!  But it “reads” as a lovely soft gray on an exterior.
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And this one:
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Benjamin Moore Amherst Gray and Wyeth Blue, exterior siding color and front door
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Here’s the color used, Benjamin Moore’s HC-167 “Amherst Gray”:
Benjamin Moore HC-167, Amherst Gray, green gray undertone, exterior paint color
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It’s incredible how much the sun will make any color look much cooler, and MUCH lighter.  So go warmer and darker when picking your colors, but especially grays!
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A word about testing your colors

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Get at least three sample colors and paint them on poster boards.  Carry your boards outside and prop them up vertically, in both shade and full sun, to evaluate them.   And be sure you hold them right up against your brick or stone!  You want to see how well your sample colors interact with your fixed natural elements.  Too many homeowners paint a swatch of the test color on their existing stucco or wood siding, right in the middle of the wall, rather than against the edge of the brick or stone area.  Your stone or brick has veto power over your body color.  You must consult it, so to speak, when picking your paint color.

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Still worried about picking house colors yourself?  Get your design-savvy friend to help out!  Sometimes it just takes someone else to look at your sample boards up against your siding to say, “Definitely pick the third sample from the left!”  And of course, you’ll never go wrong by hiring an interior designer or a color consultant.  These pros are trained in selecting color, and can give you some valuable guidance and reassurance.
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To summarize:

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Our four guidelines really come down to two important factors when choosing exterior paint colors:  whether there are any unpainted natural surfaces like brick or stone, and how light a color you can choose.  If you have brick or stone on your home, your desired color needs to coordinate well with those finishes, which usually means selecting a darker, warmer color.  If you want a light color like a white, off-white, or pale gray, going darker and warmer means you’ll be sampling beiges, grays and taupes that’ll “read” as white on your home.  Make sure you test your colors on poster boards, outside in full sun, to see how they look in real life.  It’s amazing how a nice, friendly cream color indoors can look as blinding as a sheet of paper outside!  Sunlight brightens colors considerably, so make sure you test your color options on some large samples first.
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Most of all, don’t be afraid of making the wrong choice.  It’s a fallacy that there is one “perfect” color out there.  In reality, a whole range of colors could work very well on your home, so long as they follow the rules.  Determine which undertones you’re dealing with, pick several sample colors accordingly (remember, they’ll be darker and warmer than you’d normally make them), paint up some sample boards, test them outside in full sun, and you’ll be picking exterior paint colors like a pro!