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  • Writer's pictureTouring the Past

Notes from the field #2: 'Heritage Colours'

Updated: Dec 28, 2018

In the second instalment of 'Notes from the field' Touring the Past is zeroing in on ‘heritage colours’. We have placed this term in quotation marks for the simple reason that ‘heritage colours/paints’ are not historic, but rather estimations – sometimes rough ones – by modern paint manufactures of traditional paint formulas.

The subject of exterior colour schemes and the historic environment evokes a great deal of passion. This is not hard to understand as colour is often a very strong and immediate visual element to developments in and around heritage settings. Just based on the sheer mass of Council (and paint company) generated advice out there it is a safe bet that it is one of the key factors decision-makers reviewing heritage proposals are going to focus on.

So in an attempt to cut through all the noise here is our take on ‘heritage colours’ – as ever, if questions persist or further expertise is deemed desirable, please consultant a heritage consultant (contact).

Heritage colour schemes Touring the Past

When do I need to be mindful of 'heritage colours'?

Generally speaking, questions about ‘heritage colours’ should enter your conscious when you are introducing new elements into or in the vicinity of a listed heritage place, such as a stand-alone item or conservation area. New work at or near heritage places often involves a development application and decision-makers will want to see a detailed colour scheme and rationale.

‘Heritage colours’ will matter, in different ways, whether the development is at a heritage place or is an infill building in a heritage setting. However, there are situations in which a full blown application might not be needed – particularly say, if the proposal was to repaint an existing exterior colour or substituting an inappropriate scheme with an appropriate one. In such cases, permission is still needed but could be granted via something like a heritage exemption certificate. It is always worth talking to the duty planner at Council or a heritage consultant about such issues – save yourself later heritage headaches and always enquire.

heritage colour schemes Touring the Past

Why should I care?

Well… the reasons are numerable. Colour schemes have the potential to become character-defining elements of buildings and places. They can headline the reasons why people and communities like or do not like change at special places. Further, we would argue that appropriate historically-based colour schemes can play key roles in mitigating discordant elements at heritage sites; helping the new to blend in and resonate with the old.

The conventional – and definitely not wrong – line of thinking is that heritage places look and work better dressed in an appropriate period colour scheme. This enhances streetscape character, lends weight to the perception of authenticity at historic places and fits comfortably with everyday and expert expectations of the historic environment.

The concern with contemporary colour schemes is the speed at which they date (passing fashions) and the risk of creating any jarring relationships with the heritage values of a place or obscuring its origins. In saying that, rules are made to be broken. If the site situation is conducive and the design rationale sound there may be scope for breaking with or reinterpreting a historically accurate colour scheme.

What are 'heritage colours'?

‘Heritage colours’ are essentially a colour scheme deemed appropriate to the historic period, when the building was erected. There is a voluminous amount of technical literature on this subject. Unless you are super keen, be thankful you have engaged a heritage consultant to wade through it.

Briefly, for most colonial, nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings the paint, distemper or limewash would have been mixed on-site. The result was a relatively narrow range of colours that tended to be somewhat muted and ‘earthy’ in hue and flat in appearance. Accent colours, such as Indian Red, Brunswick Green and Eau-de-Nil were then frequently used to pick out features such as ironwork and joinery trim. From the 1890s with the growing availability and popularity of red brick and terracotta tiles, there developed a fashion for painting timber walls and iron roofs in deep reds to imitate high-status materials. For the most part, all-over white exteriors – a trend today – were rarely historically seen.

Interior ‘heritage colours’ – indeed interior and heritage anything – is a grey area and ever so site-specific. We might try and touch on it in another blog – for now, sufficient to say: be reasonable and seek advice.

Heritage colour schemes Touring the Past

Lead alert

Thankfully, lead is no longer used in modern paints but it can be present in older buildings. It is highly recommended, before repainting, that old paint be tested for the presence of lead. If found, lead-containing layers may be retained and painted over; however, if they need to be removed specialist advice must be sought in order to confirm to regulations governing this potential health-hazard (for instance, Australian Standard AS 4361.2).


On the selection front we often see entreaties – particularly from Council – to source the original colour scheme of day one. Sleuthing is directed, with instructions to scrutinise hard to reach places behind metre boxes or window frames in a quest for paint fragments that might hint at that first coat or the process (often complicated and arduous) of paint scraping is encouraged. Practically speaking, in our experience such actions are not warranted or reasonable for the majority of heritage projects.

An effective and generally acceptable course of action is to select colours considered authentic to the place’s major period significance (normally, its originating decade). This can be based upon the findings of Australia’s traditional paint literature and historic photographs. In many cases, due to factors such as fading and old paint, regional differences and bespoke mixtures an exact replication will not be possible. Variety is possible. If you wish to depart from the ‘heritage chart’, then it may be appropriate to blend two colours from the heritage range or lighten or darken the resulting paint.

A few other pointers:

  • do not automatically assume that advertised ‘heritage’ colours from contemporary manufactures are legitimate – do your research and/or ask for advice;

  • remember traditional paint schemes relied predominantly on tonal contrasts instead of changes of hue – do not go overboard and use too many colours (three is normally sufficient);

  • the use of white, black and grey-blue across large surfaces was historically rare and is generally not acceptable;

  • likewise, deep reds and greens were not intended to coexist – avoid;

  • colour schemes on the majority of heritage places should be in a flat or low-sheen finish;

  • remember, painting was not universal in any period. There are many examples of buildings, even those plastered or cement rendered that were originally left unpainted. Critically, unpainted brick or stonework should never be painted or even have a clear coating applied. Beyond the erosion of design philosophy and aesthetics such an action can set in motion dire and expensive conservation issues. Conversely, careless and inappropriate removal of paint can cause permanent damage to many surfaces. Rule of thumb with old places, seek expert advice; and

  • employ premium ranges of industry leading brands. The extra cost is more than made up by the extra lifespan.

Heritage colour schemes Touring the Past

Colour schemes for new buildings in heritage settings

The above advice pertains to new work on heritage items. What about when a colour scheme is being developed for a new infill building in a heritage context? First up, it is often not advisable to pursue a ‘heritage colour scheme’ as it runs the risk of camouflaging change or creating a false sense of history. We would suggest using a simplified version of the surrounding urban environment’s colours scheme. At the same time, avoid the use of bold colours and off-whites as they regularly prove to be too dominant, off-putting and stark.

The solution is always site specific. Settings can be cohesive or eclectic and must be ‘read’ with care. The thrust of the new colour scheme for infill buildings should be dictated towards compatibility rather than distinction.

Heritage Colour schemes Touring the Past


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