Choosing the right brown

For us, brown is the new white.

We know lots of people love a good crisp white, especially on their wood trim. The previous owner of our home sure did, as all the trim in our home was painted white when we moved in.

This (sorta) Old Life: Fireplace with white trim

This shot from last spring shows the white trim in our living room/library.

We likely would like white, too, if we lived in a farmhouse or cottage–but right from the start of living in our 70’s split-entry, we’ve been drawn to brown.

We think brown is warm and cozy, and a nice choice for a house of our vintage.

This (sorta) Old Life: 70s living room

Love the warm wood in this cool 70s room.

via House Home Garden

And that is why we have approximately 6 different shades of brown paint in our storage shed right now (and counting).

This (sorta) Old Life: Paint can samples

Just two of our many shades of brown.

You might not think there’s much difference between Sweet Molasses and Espresso Bean–because, you know, brown is brown is brown–but we’re here to tell you how it really is:  Sometimes brown is gray. Sometimes it’s green. Sometimes it’s olive. It can even be a little bit purple.

And if you accidentally paint one part of your house trim with Espresso Bean, when you were supposed to paint it with Sweet Molasses, you’ll find yourself repainting because they are two entirely different colors.

This (sorta) Old Life: wrong trim color

See those two dark browns? That’s Sweet Molasses on the left and Espresso Bean on the right. You can see that one is almost a little purple and the other is almost greenish.

We recently learned these truths about brown the the way we usually learn things around here:  The hard way. :-)

Because the hard way is so often no fun, we thought we’d share our newfound wisdom with all of you, so you can learn it the easy way.

While we’d love to have titled this post “2 Surefire Ways to Choose the Right Brown,” we really don’t know what those ways might be. But we do know some things that will keep you from choosing the wrong one.

It all started with the mantel…

After Cane stripped our mantel last spring, we knew for sure that we wanted to go with a dark color on the mantle, floor and window trim in our living room.

This (sorta) Old Life mantel

It wasn’t until late last fall, though, that we had some time to begin this transformation.

We began the way we usually do–with little prior planning–and decided to just try putting on some leftover paint that we already have.

I pulled out the deep, rich Espresso Bean brown shown above (from a chair project I’ve just about given up even pretending I’m ever going to finish), and we slapped that up on the two windows flanking our fireplace.

This (sorta) Old Life: window trim color

Unfortunately, this is the only shot I can find of the dark brown trim (because it didn’t last long).

We knew we liked the brown better than the white, but we weren’t sure about it. It was just SO dark against the walls. And thus we learned the first thing you must do if you want to choose the a brown that’s not wrong (and might be right):

Choose  your brown within its intended context.

Although the brown looked all dark-chocolatey on the paint chip and in the can, the contrast between the dark trim and the soft grayish walls made the brown go really dark. As you can see in that shot above, the brown looked almost black.

The more we looked at the color of window trim, the more we realized that we much preferred the milk-chocolatey brown of the frame around the owl hanging on that wall. Here’s a close-up of that:

This (sorta) Old Life: window trim color

(This shot of the frame was taken at Christmas time. The owl was underneath our snowflakes.)

 So, we found a paint chip that matched the color of the frame (Behr’s Traditional Leather) and trotted off to Home Depot for another can of brown paint.

We repainted the trim on the fireplace windows, as well as the trim piece under the mantel. Over our winter break, we also painted the library window–making that whole wall of trim done.

This (sorta) Old Life: 70s living room fireplace

Except, you know it wasn’t really going to stay done, right? Because it’s us, and…you know. We were about to learn lesson #2:

You must see your brown in all kinds of light.

As we shared not too long ago, we recently completed phase 1 of our entry stair re-do, in which we replaced the treads and used reclaimed wood on the risers. As it happened, we used the same dark Espresso Bean on the risers and loved it (which is part of why we put it on the window trim).

This (sorta) Old Life: reclaimed wood stairs

We knew we wanted to paint the railing balusters and shoe rails. We decided to go with the tread color for the balusters and the window trim color (Traditional Leather) for the shoe rails. We liked the brown-on-brown color scheme we chose for the exterior of our house, and we thought that would look good in the entry as well.

This (sorta) Old Life: brown on brown color scheme

So a few weekends ago Cane painted the short railing with the new color, and it looked…funky.

In fact, it looked like an entirely different color. It looked kinda…green.

This (sorta) Old Life: brown with green undertone

Brownish olive, for sure, but that’s still green, for sure.

This (sorta) Old Life: brown on brown color scheme

We really wanted to like it–because we wanted it to work–but we didn’t.

It was OK in the afternoons, when the lights were darker, but when full light was shining on it, it was a no-go. We didn’t like how it looked with the wood handrail (which we want to keep wood), and it didn’t look like brown.

And then–because we finally had some days of bright sunlight–we realized that when the sun shines on the trim we’ve put around the fireplace windows, the color has a definite olive cast to it there, too.

This (sorta) Old Life: wrong brown

Look at the sun shining on the right-side window. Definitely greenish.

So, we pulled out our gazillion paint chips again, and we landed on a new brown: Glidden’s Dark Truffle.

This (sorta) Old Life: Dark Truffle on shoe rail

Dark Truffle almost looks gray in bright light and next to Espresso Bean, but we like that better than olive. (Unfortunately, we now have 7 cans of brown paint. Sigh.)

We put this on our short rail again, just to make sure. And we decided that even though it’s more gray than brown (in this context), that this one is a keeper.

This (sorta) Old Life: Dark truffle railing

Here it is with two coats.

We have to say, this hasn’t exactly been a fun job and we’re not quite done with it. Sanding all the narrow little strips of the shoe rail was more than tedious. But now that we’re in the stage of getting paint on it, we’re pretty excited about how it’s transforming this space.

This (sorta) Old Life: Stairs before and after

It has seemed a little wrong to be spending so much time on this part of the house when we have some other areas with needs that feel more pressing–like our bedroom or the upstairs bathroom or the family room.

This (sorta) Old Life: upstairs bathroom

(Yes, the bird shower curtain has found a home here–because one of the girls living here really likes it and doesn’t care that it totally clashes with the wallpaper. I am so un-inlove with anything in this bathroom (other than the tile) that I really don’t care.)

I’ve felt like the entry is almost a non-space, as all we do is walk through it. But. It is visually connected to our living room and kitchen, and we’ve been surprised at how these changes are changing the feel of the living room.

This (sorta) Old Life: dark stair railing

So, in typical fashion, we’re plowing ahead with the beginnings of our next project, even as we’re continuing to work on this one.

This (sorta) Old Life: tearing up family room carpet

Please, do as I say and not as he so often does: Wear shoes when you’re doing home renovation jobs.

Just as Cane one day last spring suddenly couldn’t live one more day with the horrible carpet on the stairs, yesterday was the day we couldn’t live one more day with the horrible carpet in our family room. It was pretty bad when we moved in, and now it is even more stained and smelly because our dogs loved to urinate on it. (Gross, but too too true.)

This (sorta) Old Life: Daisy

She looks guilty, doesn’t she? (She probably is…)

Talking about whether or not we’re crazy to begin tearing out carpet when there’s still more to do with the stair/trim project, we decided no. We decided that working this way is part of what works for us, and may be an important part of an UnDesign process.

Because we aren’t designers, we often don’t know if something is really right until we throw it on the wall (often literally) and live with it for awhile.

This (sorta) Old Life:  gallery options

(Speaking of walls, we’ve been living with #4–the clear Readers’ Choice, as well as ours. And in the entry, we’ve taken down the owl and daisies with green background art on the column. Clicking on this image will take you to its post.)

We think this way of working is part of UnDesign–or maybe it’s just that UnDesign works well with our lack of home improvement resources (design training and time being the biggest two).

We may have chosen the wrong brown for our trim–and maybe done so twice–which is why we’re really glad we didn’t paint all of the windows at once. We need time to sit with things and consider all our options, many of which don’t occur to us right away. This is one way our lack of much time to work on these things really serves us.

We aren’t sure now which brown we need on the windows. We like Dark Truffle on the stairs, but it does look pretty gray and we don’t know if that’s what we want around the windows. We’re thinking we might need a whole different brown for the windows. (Yes, we know that will mean yet another can of brown paint.)

While we’re pondering this, we might as well tear out the carpet in the family room, right? :-)

This (sorta) Old Life:  tearing out carpet

The carpet is glued to the concrete floor, so removal is a bit of a bear.

Either way, we’ll keep you posted on both projects as they continue to unfold. If you’d like to follow along, please subscribe or follow us. (You’ll find the necessary boxes and buttons for doing so at the top of this page and in the sidebar.)

And if you’ve got any great tips for choosing tricky colors (especially brown!), please drop us a comment. You guys always give us great information and advice.