The Explosion of Color

Posted by on Mar 26, 2014 in Journal, Paint Analysis

Averill Chemical Paint CompanyActually, describing it as an explosion is a charming myth, but I’ll get to that shortly.

The history of ready-mixed synthetic paints frequently comes up when I share my observations and findings of historic paint schemes. When I summarize some of the highlights of early paint manufacturing, it helps our client pinpoint their building not only along the timeline of their own local culture but also its place along national and global timelines. It helps expand their understanding of their building’s unique historical contribution.

So starting with the fundamentals, the primary components of paint are pigment for color, a binder to provide cohesion, and thinners for a smooth, uniform application.

For thousands of years, water-based “milk paint” made with casein (the protein in milk that functioned as a binder) was used as a decorative coating.  It was simple to make and use, and cows and goats were readily available.  It was easy to remove with soap and water whenever a new color was desired.  One challenge with this early paint was its organic protein base, which required it to be used immediately once mixed or it began to spoil.  Efforts were made by the Greeks and the Romans to modify the basic casein formula by adding oil to provide more durability, but casein paint still had limitations.

The Flemish artist, Jan van Eyck (pronounced: yawn fawn ike), is credited with creating, in 1410, the first stable oil-based varnish that served as a pigment binder.[1]  In the Netherlands, during the 17th century, the Dutch invented the Stack Process[2], a manufacturing technique that produced ‘lead white,’ the primary pigment ingredient in pre-20th century paint, on a large scale and at a low price.

Finally, building on the progress above, it was not until the 1850’s that a number of important technology and quality-control improvements enabled the manufacturing and distribution of paint.  Zinc oxide, known as ‘zinc white,’ made its debut during this decade when mass-production made it readily available. Although slower to dry, it was a more desirable material than lead white due to its non-toxicity and color clarity when blended with other pigments.  In 1856, at eighteen-years of age, Henry Perkin (Sir William Henry Perkin[3]) accidentally discovered the first synthetic dye.  It was his failed science experiment, the mythological explosion, which resulted in the creation of an aniline dye ‘Mauveine’, a bright purple pigment. As a young chemist many of Perkin’s experiments detonated, but the resulting success of this one, with its subsequent patent, proved it a far more controlled experiment. The discovery of coal tar-based dyes as a by-product of the new American oil-drilling industry in the late 1850’s, combined with Perkins’ process led to a great number of inexpensive new synthetic dyes.  In the 1860’s, the mass-production of linseed oil, widely used as a binder in paint, was the last necessary advance enabling the manufacture of ready-mix paints.  D.R. Averill from Ohio patented the first in 1867. Offering “over one hundred different shades,” his Averill Chemical Paint Company was one of the earliest pioneers in the industry. He was not too successful however; there were problems with crushing and mixing the pigments that caused the paint to streak badly once dried.

Established in 1866, the Sherwin-Williams Company[4] spent several years testing different versions of D. R. Averill’s formula for ready-mixed paint in an attempt to create a recipe that could maintain the pigment’s even distribution within linseed oil. But it wasn’t until 1876, when Henry A. Sherwin invented a “paint grinding mill,” that finally overcame Averill’s earlier problems[5], and by 1880 they developed a formula that was far superior in quality to any paint previously known.  This launched emulsion-based paints, marketed as ‘oil bound distempers,’ whose formulas were zealously guarded by early paint manufacturers.  By 1890, American ready-mix paints were exported and sold worldwide in a huge variety of colors.

H. W. Johns Paint Color ChartDespite the newness of mass-produced paints and the great number of colors they provided, late 19th century color schemes were exceptionally sophisticated.  Prescriptive literature such as the textbook published in 1830 by Michel Eugéne Chevreul[1], a prominent French art professional, edified the importance of color coordination in the arts.  Translated to English in 1854, Chevreul’s book was widely used by paint manufacturers as a marketing tool.  And by the 1890’s, paint charts, emphasizing color harmony were mainstream; paint store clients were actively encouraged to consider selections not based on personal preferences, but on complimentary and coordinating color schemes.

The history of how ready-mixed paints and color schemes were first invented help informs our decisions when recreating historic finishes for our clients. Knowing the type of paint used can contribute information in surprising ways. For example, when we evaluate old black and white photos we can interpret how fugitive pigments in 100+ year-old paint shift in tone and shade, but I’ll save that discussion for another day. And hopefully this summary does not mislead anyone into thinking milk paints fell to the wayside; casein-casinate formulas had an equally interesting development along this same timeline and were used well into the 20th century. It’s exciting to see they are enjoying a revival today.



[1] Chevreul, Michel Eugène (1839). De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs et de l’assortiment des objets colorés. – translated into English by Charles Martel as The principles of harmony and contrast of colours (1854)


[1]  “Jan van Eyck,” E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, pp 236-9. Phaidon, 1995. ISBN 0 7148 3355 x

[2] George O’Hanlon, “Stack Process Lead White,” M. Merrifield, Original Treatises, etc., vol. 2, p. 770.

[3] Garfield, Simon Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World, (2000) ISBN 0-393-02005-3.

[4] The Sherwin Williams Company, “History Timeline” http://excellence.sherwin.com/history_timeline.html

[5] Moss, Roger Century of Color Exterior Decoration for American Buildings-1820/1920, p. 11. American Life Foundation, ISBN 0-89257-051-2 (1981).