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Constituents of Historic Paint: Pigment, Binder, and Vehicle




Paint is a dispersion of small solid particles, usually crystalline, in a liquid medium. Applied to a surface, this liquid has the special quality of becoming a solid, protective film when it dries. Paint also enhances the appearance of surfaces. A late Victorian writer observed that the coming of a painter to a house was cause for celebration. Indeed, these statements not only indicate the chemical and physical complexity of paint, but also its emotional impact.





Pigment made the paint opaque, thus preventing deterioration of the substrate caused by ultraviolet light, and added color, thus making the paint attractive. White lead, a whitish corrosion product of lead, was most often used to provide opacity. The white pigment in a colored paint is often called the "hiding" pigment. In addition to preventing the sun's damaging rays from hitting the surface of the substrate, the white lead also helped prevent the growth of mold and mildew. Not until early in the 20th century was a successful substitute, titanium dioxide (TiO2), patented, and even then, it did not come into prevalent use by itself until the mid-20th century (earlier in the century, titanium oxide and white lead were often mixed). Zinc oxide was used briefly as a hiding pigment after 1850.

Early tinting pigments for house paints consisted of the earth pigments — ochres, siennas, umbers made from iron-oxide containing clay — and a few synthesized colorants such as Prussian blue, or mercuric sulfide (crimson). From the early 1800s on more pigments were developed and used to offer a wider and brighter variety of hues.





The most common binder in interior paints was, and still is, oil. Chalk was sometimes added to waterbased paints to help bind the pigment particles together. Other common binders included hide glue and gelatin.





The fluid component was termed the vehicle, or medium, because it carried the pigment. Historically, vehicles included turpentine in oil paints and water in waterbased paints, but other vehicles were sometimes used, such as milk in casein paints.

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