Yes, it’s a fact: Early in our history, those with the means to buy painted finishes chose bright colors like the fabled Prussian blue used by George Washington. Their alternatives—earthy, ground pigments mixed with minerals and binders—tended to be both similar to and harmonious with the colors found in building materials like stone and brick. Nothing flashy, in other words.
That said, even historical palettes based on earth pigments are surprisingly varied. This is especially so considering the tints come from about eight core colors, sourced either from iron oxide or copper. The warm hues so familiar to us from early American applications—brown, burnt orange, tawny red and pink, rich tan, and yellow—come from iron oxides like ochre, umber, and sienna. Copper is the basis for many blues and greens, including the turquoise color known as Egyptian blue, first mixed 5,000 years ago.
The eight essential colonial colors are the most stable natural colorants. They’re also available almost everywhere. In the 17th and 18th centuries, that made it easy for German and Swiss immigrants settling in Pennsylvania, for example, to transfer their folk painting traditions to the new world, resulting in Pennsylvania Deutsch furniture and decoration.
Before the first pre-mixed paints appeared in the 1870s, paints were mixed locally on site by blending dry pigments with minerals like sand from a nearby beach, quarry, or desert. That means that a historical paint made from red ochre, for instance, can vary wildly in color from earthy brown to reddish purple, depending on the “mixers.” No wonder historical color palettes tend toward regional hues.
These traditional pigments impart a subtle movement and life to painted surfaces, which modern synthetic paints cannot match. Notably, white is not among them, nor is a pure blue. As a result, when the first modern pigment, Prussian blue, was introduced in the 18th century, it was a smashing success. A rich dark blue with greenish undertones, it has a high tinting strength but is changeable when exposed to light and air.
Our first President lavished this late 18th-century status symbol on his Virginia home, Mount Vernon. The West Parlor was painted a bold robin’s-egg blue and the large dining room was treated to a rich emerald verdigris with blue undertones. Washington had chosen vivid and expensive colors for his walls, but the tints soon began to fade and experience color shifts, two phenomena that still inform the idea of what “authentic” Colonial colors should look like. In fact, the fashionable use of Prussian blue in interiors of wealthy landowners like Washington helped spawn the taste for the subdued (faded) grey-greens and pale blues in Greek Revival architecture 20 years later.
Fading and the color shifting which takes place so dramatically in blues is a sought-after look today. Consider that adding elements as simple as a drop of black or green colorant or several drops of white can change the appearance of blue paint in astonishing ways. Depending on tweaks in the formula, the finished tint can range from nearly black to startling green to softest pale blue.
White, essential as a ground for pigments and for lightening darker paints, was available in the form or lime and chalk. Lime was most frequently used as a coating, brightening the paint underneath. It is most notably an ingredient in washes, like the whitewash put to use by Tom Sawyer in the Mark Twain novel. Lime washes have a powdery finish and give surfaces a subtle translucency; the finish also allows the wood or wall surface underneath to breathe.
Chalk is a cheap pigment with a history that goes back to Roman times. It can be powdered into simple wall paints such as distemper and casein, but its most interesting characteristic is its versatility when mixed with other mediums. For instance, chalk dries to an opaque finish when mixed with water, but becomes transparent when mixed with oil or wax. Thanks to this versatility, chalk paints are among the hottest designer paints, especially ideal for decorative finishes from burnishing to crackled and alligatored finishes.
The Original Organic Paint
Versatile and made from casein, a dairy protein, milk paint has a long history of use on furniture, walls, even exterior cladding. When mixed with natural earth pigments, milk paint has a unique, flat finish with subtle variations in shading that suggest the patina of age.
Milk paints are most familiar in the colors of the earth, particularly oxide-containing clays, but the palette isn’t limited to these tones. Since the paint comes in dry powder form, the painter has complete control over the outcome, including the creation of custom tones, tints or shades, and opacity. For example, simply varying the amount of water added to the mix can result in effects from translucence to a soft color wash, or to an opaque solid color.
Milk paints are especially prized because they don’t fade over time. Because the paint bonds to porous surfaces like wood, it won’t chip or peel, either. It does, however, stain easily. Most companies recommend that it be sealed in high-traffic areas, and offer complementary lines of sealants.
In the past, homeowners added linseed oil or tar derivatives to strengthen milk paint’s durability for outdoor use. Today, at least one milk paint company, Olde Century Colors, offers an acrylic latex milk paint. The colors and appearance are typical of the past, but the paint has all the durability of modern formulations.
Core Paint Colors
Those essential to early American paints are mostly derived from iron oxide. Early copper-based colors tend to be expensive and at least slightly unstable, so they were rare and precious.
Yellow Ochre This is probably the most universal and versatile of pigments. Bright, warm, and rich with no hints of green, it’s considered the best base for cream tones. When mixed with white, it loses some of its mustard-like qualities. The more white used, the cooler and creamier the tint.
Red Ochre Strongly associated with the buildings of ancient Rome, this psychologically powerful colorant can produce colors from bright or true red to salmon or pale pink when mixed with white. It’s often applied underneath gold leaf or paint to warm the top color when burnished.
Raw Sienna Originally from the Tuscan region of Italy, raw sienna is a clean light brown capable of transparency and richness. It has great permanence and is ideal for mixing with other colors for various effects.
Burnt Sienna Deeper and richer than red ochre, it produces rich, clean browns, and pinky browns when mixed with white paint.
Black The strongest natural black comes from carbon. Its ancient antecedent is lamp black, collected from chambers positioned over flames. An essential for darkening or toning down other pigments, it can produce off-whites and pale blues when mixed with whites such as casein.
Raw Umber Considered a universal toning color for white and other light paints, it makes an excellent colorant for aging techniques that suggest dirt or varnish.
Burnt Umber This reduced and oxidized version of raw umber produces dark rich browns that historically used as top coats and for decorative treatments such as graining.
Terra Verde A mix of iron oxides and small quantities of manganese, this green earth pigment is useless as a body color, but its transparency makes it an excellent for glazing.