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Walls Pass Test of Time in Historical Paint Colors

November 28, 1998|From ASSOCIATED PRESS

When it's time for interior decorating in a period home, think paint. Not only is interior painting an easy way to make a room look clean and fresh, but it's also relatively inexpensive. And thanks to companies that offer historical paint lines, old-house owners won't sacrifice authenticity when making this choice.

Some companies base their historical paint lines on documentary research. Usually this includes consulting old color cards, product information and books.

Some go a step further and base a historical paint color on physical research conducted on existing period buildings. Layer after layer of old paint is carefully removed until the original coating is found. Samples are taken of this original coating; through laboratory analysis a reproduction color, based on its pigment, is duplicated in a modern paint.

Remember, our tastes today aren't necessarily the same as those of our ancestors. With this in mind, some companies have modified period colors to appeal to the modern eye. Unfortunately, many suppliers don't say when they've done this.

If striving for a museum-like reproduction in your home, study the color cards carefully. If not, these slight adaptations shouldn't matter.

Prior to 1700, whitewash was a popular interior paint in the Colonies. The inexpensive and easily available mixture of slaked lime and water resembled liquid plaster. (You can still find whitewash paints in some historic lines.) Easy to use, whitewash was a way to make things look clean and neat. One negative was its impermanence. It didn't last long and washed off easily with water.

Another early paint that goes back to the founding of this country is milk paint. Milk, as its name implies, was used as the water and binder. It was often preferred for interior work because it didn't have an unpleasant odor, like the also available oil-based paints.

Like most things, paint and the way it's made has changed over the years--often for the better.

No matter what type of paint you're talking about, if it was made before the onset of the commercial paint industry (1860-70), it was hand-mixed. So you didn't see the uniform consistency that we take for granted today--it had a different texture and was a bit streaky.

The coloring agents or pigments used in early paints were largely earth-based. Some reds came from iron oxide, yellows from ocher, black from lamp black and blues from cobalt. You never got the same color twice, so a painter had to prepare enough to complete a job to ensure uniformity of color. Many house restorers long for the rather uneven look of old, milk-painted walls.

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