traditional colours for Nordic buildings

Forge from Ørbæk, Funen rebuilt in Frilandsmuseet, the open-air museum north of Copenhagen.

For centuries buildings throughout the Nordic region have been painted to protect them from the weather. By tradition these colours have been dark, often deep reds or ochre yellow, although by the 18th century more ostentatious or more fashionable buildings were usually painted softer grey or buff colours to imitate expensive stone. Colour was used more and more as a signal of wealth and social status.

Many of these dark colours come from minerals including Swedish red or Falu rödfarg that is made with an iron oxide from copper with zinc and silica from the mines at Falun in Dalarna. This pigment was held in a starch binder (often rye flour) mixed with linseed oil that gives a matt but durable finish.

The paint protected timber cladding and framing and its infill and in some places it was popular because with white painted or inscribed lines it imitated high-quality brick - a much more expensive building material. 

Blue paints in particular, using ultramarine or Prussian Blue and later cobalt, were not only expensive but faded or reacted with the lime in mortar and plaster so the colour was used less often on the exterior. Chrome oxide and zinc were available for deep green colours from the early 19th century onwards but again these were expensive pigments and were not as common as red or ochre yellow.

It is deep dark red that is seen most on the outside of buildings throughout the Nordic region for farm houses, barns and summer houses and there is a Finnish expression - punainen tupa ja perunamaa - a red house and a potato field - said to suggest that that is all you really need in life to be happy.

Timber-framed buildings in a courtyard in Copenhagen

Timber-framed buildings on Grønnegade in Copenhagen

A single-storey building in Roskilde, Denmark

A row of small house in Ystad in Sweden

Traditional houses surviving in Oslo

Timber houses along Bryggen, Bergen. Image from Wikipedia - click for longer version of the block

A 17th-century timber-framed building in Køge, south of Copenhagen

Detail with the date of the house in Køge

Carved and painted framing to a house in Køge

Striking colour in Køge - note the benches with ornate stone ends that flank the doorway

Detail of a window in Køge

Mäster Mikæls gate, Södermalm, Stockholm. These houses were built after a fire in 1723 that destroyed an extensive area, but before regulations in 1736 prohibited the construction of houses in timber.

A row of houses in Södermalm, Stockholm

Darnstredet in Oslo

House on Store Strandstræde in Copenhagen showing that use of dark colours survived even in 18th and 19th-century buildings

19th-century buildings in a street south of the cathedral in Helsinki