Painting cornices and plasterwork

Posted on | February 4, 2009 | 2 Comments

One of the questions we are occasionally asked by Victorian homeowners is ” What colors should I use to paint my cornice molding? ”   First of all, the color schemes we advise for painting cornices would logically also apply to ceiling rosettes and any other plaster work in the room, they being related.

The 19th century designer Christopher Dresser offered one suggestion that we’ve shared for polychroming cornices in his 1873 Principles of Decorative Design.  Dresser recommended the following:

“1st. Bright colours may here be employed.  2nd. As a rule, get red in shadow or in shade, blue on flat or hollow surfaces, especially those that recede from the eye, and yellow on rounded advancing members.  3rd. Use for red either vermilion or carmine; for blue, ultramarine either pure or with white; for yellow, middle chrome much diluted with white.  4th. Use red very sparingly, blue abundantly, the pale yellow in medium quantity.”

He goes on to say it is a “mistake to use many, or dull, colors”, and that gold may be used instead of yellow.  This color illustration in the book was also offered to illustrate these concepts.

 As you can see from the illustrations, Dresser suggests colors for the cornices that are brighter versions of the ones on the walls.  That makes sense.  So take whatever the dominant colors are in your wallpaper or wall paint, then increase their intensity for the cornice.

For a more subtle look, another rule of thumb is to paint the plaster work the background color of your wallpaper, then follow Dresser’s “red, gold (rather than yellow) and blue” direction above but using the softer versions of these from your paper, slightly greater in intensity.

Keep this general principle in mind when coloring any room as a whole: The larger the area to be painted, the softer and grayer (and often lighter) the color should be.  That is why it is always a bad idea to take a color out of a small area in a border, for example, and color a whole wall or room with it.  The result will be too intense and won’t harmonize.  A sophisticated harmony in a room’s color scheme does not come with matching colors, but rather with the skillful use of graduated intensities in color.

When it comes to painting plaster work, another time honored rule: Use dead flat paints, not high gloss.  The more gloss you use the more the myriad of irregularites in your plaster will stand out.  A flat finish on the other hand, will hide those and give your plaster a soft “buttery” look harmonizing seemlessly with any wallpaper.  Metallic gold is the only exception to this rule, but use it sparingly for the best effect.  It will contrast beautifully with the other flat finishes.

One last thought: As with selecting any paint or paper, of course it’s good to try a sample first. Before committing yourself to a scheme, paint a “test section”. and that way conserve your resources.


2 Responses to “Painting cornices and plasterwork”

  1. Kimberley
    February 5th, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

    Even though I know that colors of the past were much more vivid than we tend to think, it’s always a shock to find the evidence right under your nose. I’m stripping 20 layers of old lumpy wallcovering off the walls in my Queen Anne fainting room (in preparation for some B&B wallpaper!) and I’ve uncovered a few patches of the most blinding blue pigment wedded to the plaster. It’s wild. With it’s north-facing window, the room must have looked like an aquarium at one time.

  2. steve
    February 6th, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

    That’s interesting. Do the north-facing windows allow much light into the room? Were there heavy window coverings in the room at one time? Sometimes high keyed colors were used in rooms with less light so they would still read as rich colors. It may have also been used in combination with cream and gold perhaps as a classical revival or Adamesque treatment which was popular during the 90′s.


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