how to paint a painted lady

San Francisco’s “painted ladies” are nearly iconic as her cable cars, or the Golden Gate Bridge. The City by the Bay is not only the birthplace, but also the international capital, of the “boutique” approach to painting Victorians – a style characterized by the generous use of pastels and bright colors, combined in often surprising ways.

Early murmurings of the boutique trend began in the Bay Area as early as the 1890s. Painting and Decorating Magazine ran an article in 1892 announcing that, “An epidemic of striped homes has struck the interior towns of the state [California]. They who would be in fashion, says the San Francisco Examiner, must dress their dwellings in gaudy coats of brown and yellow, cream and maroon, gray, yellow, pink, red or olive, joined with some hue in violent contrast.” The magazine condemned these palettes as “illogical, “fallacious,” and “a violation of good morals” – raising concerns about them “inciting madness” among residents and visitors.

In San Francisco, of course, challenging popular convention was considered jolly good sport, and unconventional color combinations grew ever more popular through the early 1900s. By the time the Haight Ashbury was in full flower for the 1967 Summer of Love, some streets resembled a sea of Pucci scarves, with homes painted pink, lavender and lime green – often all on the same structure. While undeniably playful, San Francisco’s painted ladies also served as a powerful symbol of the City’s anti-establishment spirit. Many Americans outside California found the palettes not only garish but frankly disturbing. (What kind of people would do such a thing? And more importantly, what might they do next?)

In the 1980s and 90s, San Francisco color trends became deeper and richer, with an emphasis on jewel tones and soft metallics. This era also saw the rise of a newfound appreciation for the earthy “era-appropriate” historic palettes.

Today, well over a hundred years after these homes were first designed and built, a wide range of palettes can be seen through the city, reflecting every period in San Francisco history, including a thoroughly modern crop of entirely monochromatic homes (trim and gingerbread details all painted the same color as the body). These last might be considered the most radical statement of the moment, with a tendency to ruffle feathers among long-time San Franciscans and Victorian traditionalists alike. Nevertheless, even this new style has a corner of history to call its own. Shortly after the 1906 earthquake, with the entire city struggling to rise from the ashes, exterior paint was in short supply; and a large number of San Francisco Victorians were painted head to toe in battleship gray, using paint originally intended for ships.

In modern San Francisco, there’s no disputing that you have plenty of options when it comes to painting your Victorian-era home. So many options, in fact, that the prospect of selecting a palette can be downright dizzying for many homeowners. Let’s walk through them together:

If the idea of a subdued historical palette appeals to you, you’re in good company. This has been a strong trend in the City now for several decades, even in the formerly wild Haight Ashbury. In the mid-1800s, Victorian homes in urban environments were generally painted in earth tones: warm browns, grayish browns, mossy greens and reddish clay colors. The most common design concept was to choose a mid-tone neutral for the body, with a darker tone for trim, and the darkest shade of all (often a true black) for the window frames and sashes. Shutters were generally dark as well. True whites were rare, and the fanciful gingerbread trim generally was not accented strongly, if at all. If you are intrigued by the idea of using a historical palette, I recommend the book Victorian Exterior Decoration: How to Paint Your Nineteenth Century American House Historically by Roger W. Moss and Gail Caskey Winkler. You also might want to check out the Historical Colors series from Benjamin Moore and the Preservation Palette from Sherwin Williams.

If cooler or brighter colors hold more appeal for you, you might consider the boutique style – which doesn’t have to be psychedelic. It can really be as soothing or bold as you like. The true spirit of the boutique style is to select a palette that is perfectly unique and makes your heart sing. If you are considering this direction, an indispensable and delightful resource is Victorian Homes of San Francisco by Terry Way. This lush photo documentary contains over a hundred full-color pages of San Francisco’s most artfully painted Victorians, including many careful close-ups of specific trim details to help you appreciate how the color breaks were executed. A true gem of a book – and a great coffee table conversation piece if you live in a Victorian, regardless of how you decide to paint it.

If the interior of your home is cool and modern, a quiet monochromatic design may be the best fit for you. Over the past decade, there has been a strong trend in the city to knock down interior walls of Victorians for the purpose of modernizing the floorplan and bringing in more natural light. If you have approached your interior in this fashion, and especially if you have used a palette of modern finishes, a more restrained facade may be well-suited to your taste. Painting the exterior monochromatically is also a way to create a smoother flow of connection between the interior and exterior of the structure without permanently modifying the historic look of your home from the street. Added bonus: this painting concept is much less expensive to maintain than one with a vast array of colors.

An important fact to accept from the start is that regardless of the palette you choose, some of your fellow San Franciscans will consider your choice to be uninspired, inappropriate or even horrid. And that’s okay. The great thing about San Francisco is that even if your neighbors dislike your palette, in most cases they will still enthusiastically support your right to paint your home however you like. (This is not entirely the case in St. Francis Wood, which has its own recommended color schemes, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.) In most neighborhoods, including upscale Pacific Heights, it is perfectly appropriate to channel Sally Bowles from Cabaret: “If someone should ask why I paint my fingernails green (and it just so happens I do paint them green), well if anyone should ask me I say – I think it’s pretty! I think it’s pretty, I reply!”

Let that be your mandate, my friends: If you think it’s pretty, paint away!

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  1. Pingback: tips for selecting exterior paint colors | Shannon Del Vecchio's blog

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