The History of Paint



Colour has fascinated culture throughout history, every age and every region has produced dyes and pigment depending on the available resources. Colour has been with us for more than 20,000 years. Evidence survives in early cave paintings and the ancient Chinese are considered to have brought its manufacture and use to a state of perfection tens of thousands of years ago.


Colour was widely used by the ancient Egyptians and was considered to have magical and healing properties and around this time, 1500 BC, paint making as an art became quite widely established in Crete and Greece with the Egyptians passing their skills to the Romans. It was between 600 BC-AD 400 that the Greeks and Romans then introduced varnishes. For the Aztec Indians red dye was considered more valuable than gold and both the Indians and Chinese practiced Colour Healing. A 2000 year old, Chinese chronicle, The Nei/ching, records colour diagnoses.


Yet for all this it was discovered that none of the worlds civilisations has named many colours. In the 1960s two anthropologists conducted a worldwide study of colour naming. Many languages only contained two colour terms, equivalent to white (light) and black (dark). Of 98 languages studied, the highest number of basic colour terms was to be found in English - where we have eleven: black, white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, grey and brown. The other millions of colours have 'borrowed' names, based on examples of them, such as avocado, grape, peach, tan, gold, etc.


One of the earliest recorded colour discoveries was made by Plato who discovered that by mixing two colours, a third is produced, therefore changing the, 'manufacture', of colour forever.


Prior to that the earliest cave paintings were made by using iron oxides, it was the ancient Egyptians who developed other paints from pigments in the soil (yellow, orange, and red). It was the Romans who gave us purple, a pound of royal purple dye, required the crushing of four million mollusks. Cochineal red, discovered by the Aztecs, was made using the female cochineal beetle. A pound of water-soluble extract required about a million insects and it was the Spaniards who introduced the crimson colour to Europe in the 1500's. Later genuine Indian Yellow was produced from concentrated cows urine which was mixed with mud and transported to London for purifying, Sap Green from the Blackthorn berry and Sepia Brown from the dried ink sac of squid.


Paint is made up of a pigment, a binder to hold it together and appropriate thinners to make it easy to apply. 5000 years ago Blue Frit was the first synthetic pigment being produced by the Egyptians from ground down blue glass. Before the nineteenth century the word 'paint' was only applied to oil-bound types; those bound with glue were called 'distemper'.


By 1000 B.C. development of paints and varnishes based on the gum of the acacia tree (better known today as gum arabic) had been developed. At this time umbers, ocher's and blacks were readily obtainable, new colours were also discovered - the first was 'Egyptian Blue'; 'Naples Yellow' dates from around 500 BC and 'red lead' was discovered by accident in about 2500. White lead occurred naturally but demand encouraged production of manmade versions. Vitruvius describes production of white lead in the 2nd century AD.


Before the 16th century, pigment colour was largely dependant on dyestuffs which could be grown in, or were indigenous to Europe and similar temperate regions. Between 1550 and 1850 only the so-called natural dyestuffs were available but the range was greatly extended with tropical dyestuffs from Central America and India and elsewhere.


In the 17th century the Dutch greatly increased availability of white lead and lowered cost by invention of the Stack Process. All white lead paints included chalk in their undercoats, reserving purer white lead for finish coats. In1856 the first real synthetic dye, 'Mauveine', was discovered by Henry Perkins. It was then realized that a great many dyes could be made synthetically and cheaply.


It was then that Linseed Oil began being mass produced.

They also had pigment grade zinc oxide - we call it white paint.

Using cast-iron paint mills and zinc-based pigments, industrialists produced the first washable paint marketed as 'Charlton White' in the 1870's ( the first ready mixed paint was patented by one D.R. Averill of Ohio in 1867, but it never caught on).


The Sherwin-Williams company spent ten years trying to perfect the formula where fine paint particles would stay suspended in Linseed oil. In 1880 they succeeded in developing a formula that far exceeded the quality of all paints available at the time.


It was then that emulsions based on similar formulae, were produced and marketed as 'oil bound distempers'. By 1880 the new paints were readily available in tins, in a wide range of colours, and came to be exported all over the World.