Historic paints: Why they’re different and why it matters

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

Painting a room today is, all things considered, a rather easy process: Open up a can of pre-mixed paint, grab a brush, and, in a few hours, your room will have a new look. But it wasn’t always so simple.

A few hundred years ago, the act of painting a room—from mixing pigments to rolling it on the wall—was an involved, multi-step process, one that’s still practiced in historic houses across the U.S.

In the 18th and early-19th centuries, before the advent of pre-mixed paints in the 1870s, interior house paint was generally mixed on-site and in small batches. These paints generally had short shelf lives and were made as they were needed.

Paints could be sorted into two primary categories: oil and distemper. The main difference was the binder used to suspend the pigment in paint. For oils, the binder was linseed oil. In distemper, pigment was mixed with hide glue and water.

What these different paints had in common was the presence of colored pigment. These pigments generally came from organic sources like the iron oxides of ochre and sienna to yield colors like yellow ochre and burnt sienna. The pigments were ground using a muller and slab.

The muller is a large, hand-held stone used to grind the pigment against the slab—think of it as a kind of mortar and pestle. From there, the pigment was mixed with the binder, whether oil-based or glue-based, to form the paint.

But don’t think that these paints were dull or muted because they came from the earth. Paint was highly saturated due to the sheer amount of pigment in the mix. In the 18th century, vibrant chemically produced colors like Prussian blue and chrome yellow also became available. These brilliant colors gained widespread popularity: Thomas Jefferson painted the dining room of Monticello chrome yellow, and George Washington used Prussian blue in the west parlor of Mount Vernon.

While it was a process to make the paint, it was equally tricky to apply the paint to the wall.

At the Nathaniel Russell House in Charleston, South Carolina, a bedroom was being restored last October. Throughout the restoration process, an emphasis was placed on recreating the original paint scheme—down to the method the distemper paint was applied to the wall.

Historic paints: Why they’re different and why it matters

After discovering the original wall color, a deep yellow ochre, the Russell House had paint conservator Suzanne Collins research application techniques in 19th-century paint guidebooks before mixing an exact match with two shades of yellow ochre and a pinch of black. The paint was then prepared on-site and applied.

“You have to keep a wet edge when applying distemper, because there’s water in the paint, and it’s water soluble. So, if you try to paint over dry distemper, it will wash right off,” says Lauren Northup, director of museums at Historic Charleston Foundation. “You need to start in one corner of the room and sort of slap it up as fast as possible—it’s a real nail biter!”

The yellow ochre walls are striking due to the texture of the finish, a salient characteristic of paints with hand-ground pigment: “We’re so accustomed to the sleek finish of latex paint,” says Northup. “When you look at distemper, though, you get struck by the dimensionality of it. You can really see the human hand at work. It’s not an even finish at all, and that’s because of the actual raw pigment.”

Two-hundred years later, some of the most innovative modern paints are building upon the legacy of small batch production and distinctive finishes. The recently released Century line of paint by Benjamin Moore, for example, offers not a varied finish like the distemper paint, but a rather what’s called a “soft-touch matte finish”, which is silky and actually designed to resemble the touch of fabric.

“The line brings a whole new dimension to paint—a new color experience,” says Harriette Martins, Benjamin Moore senior brand manager. “Century paint brings a tactile element into the conversation of modern, high-quality paints.”

Not unlike the yellow ochre distemper in the Russell House, the colors of the Century collection, 75 in all, are also quite deep and saturated—something which was designed to underscore the distinctive finish and the exceptional quality of the product.

While paints today can be engineered to have remarkable finishes and eye-catching colors, that doesn’t mean their 18th- and 19th-century ancestors lacked integrity or durability. There are houses all over America with examples of 18th-century paint still intact.

At Drayton Hall, a Georgian plantation house in South Carolina, shades of yellow ochre, blue-green, and a darker green still remain from the plantation’s centuries-long lifespan. Some of the paint has survived naturally, although some of the surfaces were recently treated by a conservator.

“A paint conservator carefully went around and sprayed an Aquazol solution on the walls, and then used a small patch of mylar to press the solution into the paint,” says Trish Smith, Curator of Historic Architectural Resources at Drayton Hall. “The solution dries completely clear, and it ultimately helps the paint better adhere to the walls.”

Conservation techniques don’t always have to be so fancy: In Stone Ridge, New York, about 90 miles north of New York City, the historic Wynkoop House—completed in 1772—retains 18th- and early-19th-century oil paint in many of the residence’s principal rooms.

“A smoker lived in the house before me,” says homeowner Gary Tinterow. “When I first got to the house in 1992, I very carefully, with a very soft brush, cleaned the 18th-century paint with distilled water and a touch of ammonia. I haven’t touched it in 24 years.”

Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, says that you can use everything from a gum eraser to white bread—“it’s wonderful if you need a light abrasiveness”—to lift things like fingerprints and small marks off the wall. However, his best advice, one which we wholeheartedly agree with, is to let the paint shine.

"Appreciate the patina, the shadows, and the fading that has occurred from light naturally entering the room. That gives a nice sense of depth, even on a gray day. My point is: Do nothing. All of my 18th- and 19th-century paint is just untouched. All I do is dust the walls.”