How We Got Color to Here 

We thought it would be interesting to talk about paint. This month, we thought we could start with a brief history. The subject covers a lot of area, (and yes, the pun is intended!).

We are going to start off with a brief history of paint to give you some idea of how paint came about and actually how little the composition changed over time.


The Origin

Humans have been using pigments, the color in paint, for quite some time. In fact, according to ‘Earth Date’, the oldest discovery to date of ground ochre and charcoal is over 100,000 years. The mixture was found in South Africa’s Blombos cave. Around 40,000 years ago, people living in Europe, Indonesia, and Australia painted images of hunters and animals on the stone walls of cave. Perhaps the more widely known example is in the Lascaux Cave located in southern France about 25,000 years ago.

Where It All Started

Ancient paint mixtures were made from a variety of sources. Early paint mixed pigments from plants, and minerals, such as iron ore, with water, saliva, animal fats and urine to create images and to color themselves. The Lascaux Cave depicted above was near a well-used ancient iron ore mine. These were not the only types found so far, however. Pigments included the use of blood, saps, berry juices, dried plants, charcoal, and roots to generate a very basic color palette.

The Egyptians improved the binding agents with sources such as eggs and beeswax. They also utilized a wider variety of minerals that increased the colors available. Minerals such as green malachite and blue azurite are added to the binding agent increasing the colors available. Egyptians also introduced plaster and the new binding agents afforded the paints to adhere better to this new medium. As an art form, painting on dried plaster began in Egypt.

The Greeks made the leap to painting frescos on wet plaster, and the Romans expanded this method of painting. This method added to the vibrancy of colors, and to some historians such as the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Greeks method is considered the ‘True Fresco’ painting. The Greeks also made a lead based white paint that was widely used in the ancient world. This basic white paint remained pretty much the same until the nineteenth century. More on lead paint later.

The Romans utilized both Greek and Egyptian materials to make the paint used during their time period. Romans had a wider trade network that afforded the makers of paint a wider variety of sources for pigments. Again, new sources add new colors. Below is an image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicting the ‘cubiculum’ or bedroom from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale. Note the intricate depictions and mostly see the color palate that was widely used.

The Renaissance Revolution: Unleashing Vibrancy through Oil Binding Agents

The colors’ appearances are a function of the binding agents used in this time period. While the use of different minerals and organic pigment grew, it wasn’t until the Renaissance period that oils were used as a binding agent. This dramatically changed the vibrancy of those colors. The paintings done during this period are close to the same vibrancy they had when used originally. The artwork below depicts St. Paul Preaching in Athens. Artwork from the Sistine Chapel. Note the difference in the vibrancy of the colors.

From Small Business to Industrial Marvel: The Evolution of Paint Manufacturing

The American Coatings Association tells us that until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing of paint was largely small business at best. In fact, the first recorded paint mill was opened in Boston in 1700 by Thomas Child. The manufacture of paint began its industrial march. Paint was still difficult to ship. It was heavy and bulky. Many folks continued to mix their own with the powdered pigments they could purchase. That all changed in 1867 when a fellow by the name of D.R. Averill patented the first pre-prepared or ‘Ready Mixed’ paints.

Now things have changed. Due to the difficulty of shipping, paint mills started springing up all over the country. The process of manufacturing paint became less specialized.
The mid 1880’s saw the industry remain dispersed in population centers and industrial centers throughout the US. This was the norm until the mid-1900’s. In the early 1900’s, the boom in industrial production created a market for all manner of paints and coatings. Assembly line products all needed some way to protect them. Paints and coating were the answer.

We mentioned earlier that we would talk about lead paints. Lead-based paints were first used by the Greeks. There is evidence that lead poisoning was known back then as well. The overexposure to the lead manufacturing process has been documented throughout history. Its use in paints, however, was not addressed until WWII. When the adverse impacts of low exposure in paint products became apparent, the industry voluntarily began to replace some of the lead-based pigments when alternatives became available. This was prior to WWII. During the 1950’s, the industry began to eliminate lead-based products from all house paints. In 1978 the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned its use entirely.

From Small Business to Industrial Marvel: The Evolution of Paint Manufacturing

Today, with the use of synthetic pigments, paint comes in just about any color you can imagine. Just walk into any Sherwin Williams paint store and look at the array of color that would stagger ancients. Paint and coatings have become an integral and vital part of our daily lives.

Many of our homeowners ask us what the difference is between cheap paint and premium paint, and is premium paint worth it? ‘Cheaper’ paints are thinner and have less pigment and less binder. This causes the paint to coagulate, drip, show brush marks more readily and most importantly, they do not provide full coverage. This could cause you to apply several coats, using more paint. So, the simple answer is yes, premium paints are definitely worth it!

Another aspect of paint you may want to consider is a color’s LRV. That is the Light Reflective Value of a color. Generally, the lighter the color, the higher the LRV. This has become more important as Homeowner’s Associations and Architectural Review Committees have set guidelines for exterior home colors. Typically, these are regulated by a color’s LRV.

Paints will remain an important part of our environment. Next month we will take some time to look at paint color, and the interesting trends in how color tastes have changed over the years.