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May 05, 2021
When I was a kid, my mother worked at a music school in a big old building on the lakefront. There were these little cliffs at the edge of the lake where I’d sit and daydream all kinds of stories. I liked picking up rocks that had broken off the cliffs and use them to draw on the larger stones. Sometimes the rocks would just scratch the surface, leaving white scrapes. Other times, the rocks would draw black or dark grey – those were my favorite. I can’t draw, so I mainly scribbled, but it really felt like magic, that this rock in my hand could actually be some kind of secret pencil.
Little did I know that I wasn’t far off. That was basically the first prototype for the pencil, an example of one of the earliest color depositors used by our long-time ancestors. When we talk about those early cave-paintings that are the great-great-great-times-infinity grandparents of the paintings we know and love, we’re talking about pigment like that deposited by the rocks we all used to play with as kids.
The real question is – how did we get from rock drawings on cave walls to the recycled paint we’re so proud of today? When did we start distilling natural pigments into formulas that could go all over our walls? We’re going to take a little look into that today and trace the development of paint from its early days all the way up to now.
Our journey begins with our friends the cave-people, who started making their dwellings more homey with drawings that depicted their stories and goings-on. They used pigments made from colored earth, from soot, from crushed rocks and dried plants, and bound them using liquids such as water, saliva fatty oils or animal blood, in. In addition to being the first evidence of interior design, these murals are also our earliest storybooks and journals, preserving tales of great hunts and adventures from thousands of years ago.
The next great milestone in paint came about 2000 years ago, in Egypt. We have much evidence of Egyptian innovation in the great tombs they left behind, with walls covered in depictions that are still vivid today. These paints gained their bright colors and staying power from the ground-up semiprecious stones, such as lapis lazuli and malachite, that acted as pigment alongside age-old staples ochre, lead, blood and glass. The color palette was limited to white, black, yellow, green, red and blue, but the vivid masterpieces created with these few colors was effective and somehow still exceedingly luxurious.
After this, we’ve got to jump forward – oh, a few hundred years. Since ol’ Gutenberg came up with that famed press of his in the fifteenth century, there aren’t too many written records regarding interior paint before that point. There’s some evidence that the profession of house painter predates that – actually, it seems that it was a fairly esteemed position in England due to the nature of the job, which involved mixing pigments with solvents in small batches on site in an action that looked almost alchemical. You actually might have seen this process before, if you have an interest in crafts – the pigment is ground into the oil on a slab with a miller, a large, hand-held stone until they’re perfectly combined. (It’s an incredible process to behold – you can check it out here!)
Across the pond, as America was just getting started, having a painted home was not a high priority; in fact, it was downright frowned upon. The pilgrims considered painting your home to be a display of immodesty, wealth and vanity, though it didn’t entirely dissuade folks from taking the leap; in fact, a preacher was charged with sacrilege in 1630 for painting the interior of his Charlestown home. Despite the effective paint-prohibition, murals thrived, with homes secretly covered in full landscapes and gorgeous sky images, and this was no mean feat considering that the paints of that time were very thick in texture.
The industrial revolution changed the game entirely. It started in 1718 with the invention of a machine that would replace the miller and slab, and automate the process of grinding pigment. Paint mills started popping up all over the place, and the advent of steam power boosted productivity and output. The equation of steam power plus mills made mass production of paint possible for the first time: no more waiting for the specialist to come by and mix you up a batch. Besides the evolution of paint production, the industrial revolution brought further change in the form of new markets that required paint and coatings, as nearly anything that was produced on an assembly line required some kind of finishing layer.
We finally meet the first company to produce ready-to-use paint in 1866 with the birth of a name that might be familiar to you – Sherwin-Williams. Their big contribution the paint industry was the innovation of a tin can that consumers could reseal, to save unused paint. 1883 brought the first competition to the market with the opening of Benjamin Moore, whose focus was on expanding the available palette of colors. Their greatest achievement in that field was a long time in the making, but their computer-based color-matching system introduced in 1982 revolutionized the industry and continues to be the standard today.
And the rest – history! Paint continues to develop and become better and better, with more colors, fewer toxins, and a whole lot of possibility. Lead, once the primary element for pigments, became known as a toxin and slowly eliminated, banned from consumer paint in 1978. Recycled paint has grown leaps and bounds from the muted, muddy colors available at its conception to the vivid and varied shades available today. First produced in the early 1990s, leftover paint was sorted into five groupings, to produce that many colors after being refreshed with a few new solvents and, in some cases, a little bit of new paint to even it out. We’re excited to be on the forefront of recycled paint, with our fifteen colors and impeccable blends that offer superior coverage and adhesion.
It’s interesting to examine the trajectory of paint and to consider the big changes – the shift from natural pigments, ground carefully by hand, to the mass production of chemical compounds, and the eventual desire to find a more sustainable option. As incredible and indispensable the industrial revolution was, the reliance it created on toxic substances was a free-fall that has done a lot of harm to our planet. The resurgence of interest in the older ways, such as the milling of pigment to create hand-blended paints, shows us that we are realizing that the costs associated with the easier, better methods are too high.
If you’re interested in the original pigments that created different paint colors – not just for walls, but for paintings and murals throughout the centuries, check out The Secret Lives of Color – we’ll be featuring some insights from this gorgeous book in the coming weeks!
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