Historic Paint Colours of Newfoundland and Labrador

A Brief Overview

In partnership with The Paint Shop, this collection of historic paint colours updates one that was developed in the early 2000s as a collaboration between Heritage NL and Templeton’s, a long-time retailer of paints in St. John’s. It was based on the Matchless brand of paints that has since gone out of business. The colours used in this updated palette are part of the Benjamin Moore collection.

The updated collection is intended as a guide for those who are interested in taking an historical approach to painting their wooden buildings. Colour is fashion and fashion constantly changes over time, place, and according to individual taste. This collection is meant to shed light on what the historical paint colours of Newfoundland and Labrador were.


A variety of sources have helped to chart the history of paint and paint colours in Newfoundland and Labrador. For interior colours we scraped down through layers of paint on buildings from the first half of the 19th century to see the earliest interior finishes. For exterior paint colours we looked to archival sources. Newspaper advertisements tell us what colours were being stocked and sold by local merchants. Government records tell us what type of paint was being imported into the Colony of Newfoundland. Personal diaries mention specific colours being used on buildings. With the advent of colour photography in the mid-20th century, we can actually see colours that were commonly used.

The fact that most of our historic buildings were clad with wooden clapboard meant that they were usually painted and that they could be any colour available to their owner at the time. Unlike places built of brick or stone, buildings here could be colourful and varied – a fact that Sir Cavendish Boyle, one-time governor of Newfoundland, commented on when he steamed into St. John’s Harbour in 1901. Paint was decorative but also served to protect wood from the harsh elements of wind, rain, and sun.

In the early days, the colour palette of the province’s buildings was much more limited than today. Colours available were those that could be made from natural materials such as minerals (for example, red and yellow ochre, zinc white, or lime white wash) or plant dyes. Early paints were usually expensive. The fact that individual painters mixed their own colours meant that there was considerable variation in hue. For example, “Prussian Blue” could run the gamut from a fairly light blue to a deep tone.

Early interior pastel colours were often mixed with water (known as distemper paints). Deeper colours such as reds, blues, and salmon were mixed with linseed oil and, in the Georgian era, were meant to evoke the deep rich colours of tapestries that hung on the walls of wealthy English homeowners. In some of the finer structures of the Colony of Newfoundland, such as the Colonial Building and many churches, walls had complex paint finishes with different coloured glazes over a base paint or were skillfully rendered in faux finishes such as marble, granite, or fine woods. Interior wood trims, doors, and even window sashes were painted in faux wood finishes such as oak, maple, or mahogany.


In the first half of the 19th century many wooden buildings, particularly in rural parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, were either unpainted, whitewashed, or covered with red ochre paint made from powdered ochre mixed with seal or fish oil. Evidence of red ochre paint has been found in the archaeological remains of a building constructed in 1610 at the Cupids Cove Plantation – thanks to what was believed to be a spilled bucket of paint.

In the 19th century houses of wealthier residents sometimes employed a different colour for trim work while most houses were a single colour. Until well into the 20th century, houses in many outport communities were white with a coloured trim. Fishing structures such as stages and stores were generally either white, red ochre, brown, or not painted at all, although there were always exceptions to the rule in terms of colour. As well, there were regional or community variations. For example, many of the public and commercial buildings in Bonavista were painted a buff colour.

In the early 20th century, pre-mixed paints became available, particularly with the establishment of the paint division of Standard Manufacturing in St. John’s in 1907. Yet even then, the colour palette remained limited. The wooden buildings of St. John’s in the first half of the 20th century were often painted dark colours such as deep (chrome) green, red, brown, or grey – reputedly because they better coped with the coal soot that flowed from most of the city’s chimneys. Although, there were also houses that were various shades of blue or pink.

After World War II, a much broader range of colours became available around the province, the product of modern industrial paint production processes. The colour palette gradually changed on the outside of houses, especially in the outports. Pastel blues, yellows, greens, and pinks were frequently used. In many communities it was not uncommon to see the second storey of a home painted in a different colour from the lower portion. With the introduction of custom paint tinting, customers could purchase virtually any colour they desired.


The 1970s and 80s saw the beginning of a significant expansion of the colour palette, particularly in St. John’s. A report commissioned by the St. John’s Downtown Development Corporation in 1969 recommended a brighter set of colours. But the restoration of a row of houses on Gower Street in the 1970s (a project managed by the St. John’s Heritage Foundation) just might have been the starting point for this colour revolution. The project used brighter colours and accents on several houses. Bold blues, reds, yellows, greens, and purples started popping up on every downtown street. Eventually, the term “jelly bean row” came into common usage to describe the brightly-painted houses of the older city neighbourhoods.

Restored and renovated older homes and fishing stages around the province, as well as many new builds, now employ a diverse colour palette with contrasting colours for architectural detailing. Provincial tourism marketing often features the diverse paint colour palette of Newfoundland and Labrador while St. John’s regularly turns up on lists of the most colourful cities in the world.

We invite you to explore this website to learn more about the history of paint colours and practices in Newfoundland and Labrador, to learn about investigating the paint finishes used on your historic building, and to get tips for making paint finishes last as long as possible.

Paint boldly and creatively! And please share images of your use of the Historic Paint Colours of Newfoundland & Labrador with us at info@heritagenl.ca.

Pictured from top to bottom: Collins Cove; Twillingate Sun ad from 1928; Hopedale Moravian Mission; Francis Cluett diary, 1908, Belleoram; Parade Street and Harvey Road, St. John’s, photo by Philip Hiscock; Cape Broyle, used with permission of Ronald J. O’Brien’s family; Daily News ad from 1963.