Painting the porch ceiling blue: It's catching on

The Southern custom has spread to the North. Many different shades will do.

When Rebecca Parlakian and Larry Giammo renovated their 1940s farmhouse five years ago, they added a porch. To make the addition look as if it had always been there, they installed beadboard on the ceiling.

The final touch: painting the beadboard a sky blue. "It's so airy and fresh . . . and so summery," Parlakian says.

Blue porch ceilings are said by some to promote a cool, calming atmosphere. The tradition also has some superstition behind it - that blue ceilings ward off evil spirits, as well as spiders and wasps, and that blue is a harbinger of good luck.

Adina Brosnan-McGee chose Benjamin Moore's Caribbean Breeze, a tropical turquoise, for the porch ceiling of her Cape Cod-style house. "When you pull in the driveway, it's very welcoming," she says.

From the palest of powder blues to varying shades of aqua, teal, cobalt, robin's-egg, periwinkle and gray, blue porch ceilings are popping up all around. Once just an old Southern tradition, this subtle design detail has made its way North and is being introduced to new generations.

The cerulean color is undeniably pretty, but that's not the only reason people are painting with blues.

Some have heard that the color fools spiders and wasps into thinking the ceiling is the sky and, therefore, not a place where they can hang out or build webs and nests (a theory many homeowners say is untrue).

Others believe blue is a harbinger of good luck. And some are convinced the color actually extends daylight and promotes a calming, cooling and relaxing atmosphere.

Then, there are folks from the South who believe blue ceilings scare evil spirits.

That can be credited to the Gullah/Geechee culture, a mix of African tribes that made up a large part of the slave population once found in the Carolina Low Country (from Georgetown, S.C., through the Georgia Sea Islands), says Leigh Handal, a director at the Historic Charleston Foundation.

These people brought many customs and myths with them to the United States, including the superstition that the color blue warded off evil spirits ("haints," or haunts). The Gullah people would paint the woodwork around their windows and doorways to ward off the haints, Handal says. The practice spilled over onto porch ceilings, and the color came to be known as "haint blue."

But don't call the foundation to find out the exact color: "There is no official haint blue color," Handal says. "The Gullahs used whatever pigments of paint they could get their hands on. Haint blue is just blue."

(That said, the Historic Charleston Foundation has two licensed paint collections through Duron Paints featuring a color that represents their interpretation of haint blue, a deep shade of turquoise called "Gullah Blue.")

Yet today's homeowners are fixated on finding the perfect shade.

Customers inquire about blue ceilings "all the time," says Carl Langhorne, an assistant manager at Strosniders Hardware Store in Bethesda, Md., who said he has noticed an increased interest in the last two years.

"Some people are manic about it. They get three, four, five different quarts trying to get the right color," Langhorne says. "Some people try to mimic the sky. Others don't care as long as they have it and as long as it's blue."

He has heard the Gullah myths but says he thinks most people paint with blue simply because it makes them feel good. "It gives you a nice relaxing, mellow vibe," he says. "I like it. It beats basic white."

Langhorne starts his customers' search with a few suggestions across the spectrum of blues: Benjamin Moore's Mystical Blue ("more of a true blue"), Crystal Springs ("blue with a little green to it") and White Satin ("periwinkle blue").

The choice should ultimately be based on the other colors on the house and what the homeowners like best, he says. "I always tell them, 'It's your ceiling. You can do anything you want.' "

But most paint experts agree that the best shade of blue is the one that fits the look of the house. "You don't want [a blue ceiling] to look like an afterthought or like it came out of nowhere," cautions Zoe Kyriacos, architectural color consultant for Colors by Zoe in Takoma Park, Md. "You want to make it look like it was part of the package."

She says blue can be used on any style of house; it just depends on the blue.

"A traditional house would use a more traditional color, something lighter. On a contemporary house you can do something bolder, something brighter." Kyriacos prefers blues with hints of other colors, which make the blue more complex and interesting, she says. A blue with a drop of red in it, for instance, adds "a little warmth."

Also consider the natural light. Colors tend to get washed out when used outdoors, so there's a little wiggle room to go darker than you would indoors. But be careful not to go too dark.

"You want to keep the blue soft, light and airy," Langhorne says. "If you go too dark, it will bring your ceiling down and make the space feel smaller and more closed in, even outside."

For Parlakian, the process was easy. She simply picked a subtle shade she liked (Benjamin Moore's Arctic Blue) and painted.