Production and Appearance
How were paints made prior to the widespread use of factory-made
paint after 1875 [or earlier]? How did they look? The answers
to these questions are provided more to underscore the differences
between early paints and today's paints than for practical
Duplicating the composition and appearance of historic paints,
including the unevenness of color, the irregularity of surface
texture, the depth provided by a glaze top coat, and the directional
lines of application, can be extremely challenging to a contemporary
painter who is using modern materials.
The pigments used in early paints were coarsely and unevenly
ground, and they were dispersed in the paint medium by hand;
thus, there is a subtle unevenness of color across the surface
of many pre-1875 paints. The dry pigments had to be ground
in oil to form a paste and the paste had to be successively
thinned with more oil and turpentine before the paint was
ready for application. The thickness of the oil medium produced
the shiny surface desired in the 18th century.
In combination with the cylindrical (or round) shaped brushes
with wood handles and boar bristles, it also produced a paint
film with a surface texture of brush strokes.
The early churches and missions built by the French in Canada
and the Spanish in the southwestern United States often had
painted decoration on whitewashed plaster walls, done with
early waterbased paints.
By the mid-17th century oil paint was applied to wood trim
in many New England houses, and whitewash was applied to walls.
These two types of paint, one capable of highly decorative
effects such as imitating marble or expensive wood and the
other cheap to make and relatively easy to apply, brightened
and enhanced American interiors.
In cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and later,
Washington, painters and stainers who were trained guildsmen
from England practiced their craft and instructed apprentices.
The painter's palette of colors included black and white and
grays, buffs and tans, ochre yellows and iron oxide reds,
and greens (from copper compounds) as well as Prussian blue.
That such painting was valued and that a glossy appearance
on wood was important are substantiated by evidence of clear
and tinted glazes, which may be found by microscopic examination.
Early paints did not dry out to a flat level surface. Leveling,
in fact, was a property of paint that was much sought after
later, but until well into the 19th century, oil paints and
whitewashes showed the signs of brush marks. Application therefore
was a matter of stroking the brush in the right direction
for the best appearance. The rule of thumb was to draw the
brush in its final stokes in the direction of the grain of
Raised field paneling, then, required that the painter first
cover the surface with paint and afterward draw the brush
carefully along the vertical areas from bottom to top and
along the top and bottom bevels of the panel horizontally
from one side to the other.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, for very fine finishes,
several coats were applied with each coat being rubbed down
with rotten stone or pumice after drying. A four to five coat
application was typical; however nine coats were not uncommon
at the end of the century for finishes in some of the grand
mansions. Generally, they were given a final glaze finish.
Though expensive, this type of finish would last for decades
and give a rich, smooth appearance.
Color matching is complicated by the fact that all early
paints were made by hand. Each batch of paint, made by painters
using books of paint "recipes" or using their own
experience and instincts, might well have slight variations
in color — a little darker or lighter, a little bluer
and so on.
The earliest known book of paint formulations by an American
painter is the 1812 guide by Hezekiah Reynolds. It gives instructions
for the relative quantities of tinting pigments to be added
to a base, but even with proportions held constant, the amount
of mixing, or dispersion, varied from workman to workman and
resulted in color variations.
Knowing all of the facts about early paints can aid in microscopic
paint study. For example, finding very finely and evenly ground
pigments, equally dispersed throughout the ground or vehicle,
is an immediate clue that the paint was not made by hand but,
rather, in a factory.
By the first decades of the 19th century more synthetic pigments
were available — chrome yellow, chrome green, and shades
of red. Discoveries of light, bright, clear colors in the
plaster and mosaic decoration of dwellings at Pompeii caught
the fancy of many Americans and came together with the technology
of paint to make for a new palette of choice, with more delicacy
than many of the somewhat greyeddown colors of the 18th century.
Of course, the blues which could be produced with Prussian
blue in the 18th and 19th centuries were originally often
strong in hue. That pigment — as were a number of others
— is fugitive, that is, it faded fairly quickly and
thus softened in appearance. It should be remembered that
high style houses from the mid-17th to late 19th centuries
often had wallpaper rather than paint on the walls of the
important rooms and hallways.
Another paint innovation of the early 19th century was the
use of flatter oil paints achieved by adding more turpentine
to the oil, which thus both thinned and flatted them. By the
1830s the velvety look of flat paint was popular.
Wherever decorative plaster was present, as it frequently
was during the height of the Federal period, distemper paints
were the coating of choice. Being both thin and readily removable
with hot water, they permitted the delicate plaster moldings
and elaborate floral or botanical elements to be protected
and tinted but not obscured by the buildup of many paint layers.
(The use of water-based paints on ceilings continued through
the Victorian years for the same reasons.)
Unfortunately, flat paints attract dirt, which is less likely
to adhere to high gloss surfaces, and are thus harder to wash.
Victorians tended to use high gloss clear (or tinted) finishes
such as varnish or shellac on much of their wood trim and
to use flat or oil paints on walls and ceilings.
In interiors, paint could be used creatively and imaginatively,
most often to decorate rather than to protect. Decorative
forms included stencilling, graining and marbleizing, and
trompe l'oeil. Stencilling. Stencilled designs on walls were
often used in the first half of the 19th century in place
of wallpaper. Old Sturbridge Village, in Massachusetts, has
paintings showing the interiors of a (c. 1815-1820) farmhouse
which has both stencilled walls--imitating wallpaper--and
painted floors or oiled and painted floor cloths, imitating
fine carpets. By 1850 and for the next 60 years thereafter,
stencilled and freehandpainted decoration for walls and ceilings
became a high as well as a humble art. Owen Jones' Grammar
of Ornament, published in 1859, provided the source for
painted decoration from Portland to Peoria, Savannah to San
Graining and Marbleizing
If floors, walls, and ceilings were decorated by paint in
a variety of styles, the wood and stone trim of rooms was
not omitted. The use of faux bois, that is, painting a plain
or common wood such as pine to look like mahogany or some
finer wood, or faux marbre, painting a wood or plaster surface
to look like marble — realistically or fantastically
— was common in larger homes of the 18th century. By
the early 19th century, both stylized graining and marbleizing
adorned the simple rural or small town houses as well. Often
baseboards and stair risers were marbleized as were fireplace
surrounds. Plain slate was painted to look like fine Italian
marble. In many simple buildings, and, later, in the Victorian
period, many prominent buildings such as town halls and churches,
the wood trim was given a realistic graining to resemble quarter
sawn oak, walnut, or a host of other exotic woods.
Churches, courthouses, and state capitols frequently received
yet another remarkable use of paint: trompe l'oeil decoration.
Applied by skilled artists and artisans, painted designs —
most often using distemper paints or oils — could replicate
threedimensional architectural detailing such as ornate molded
plaster moldings, medallions, panels, and more.