The Color of History

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Watching paint dry turns into a fascinating journey through time, history, science and technology when the Department of Architectural Preservation gets involved. Director Matt Webster shares the story behind the changing paint colors in the Historic Area, and why the colors you’ll see on the walls are a window to the 18th century.

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Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Well, bringing the past to life in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area takes more than just imagination. It takes a lot of research and some very modern science.

When you see the paint colors on our original and reconstructed buildings, you’re looking at the result of that study. Here with us today is Matt Webster, who’s Director of the Department Architectural Preservation. Matt, thank you for being here today.

Matt Webster: You’re welcome; pleasure to be here.

Harmony: Well I’ve said your title, but tell us a little bit in street terms, in common terms, what you do here.

Matt: We do quite a lot. We actually basically look after the buildings in the Historic Area. So we work very closely with Maintenance and with Architectural Research to make sure that our buildings are protected properly, that we have proper repairs, and that we maintain the accuracy that’s necessary in the Historic Area.

Harmony: These buildings are really the backbone of the Historic Area. You wouldn’t have this walk through time if you didn’t have these buildings around you.

Matt: I would agree with that.

Harmony: And we have 88 original buildings and then scores of reconstructed buildings that are all done with painstaking accuracy and care.

Matt: Right. We do. We have 88, what we consider original buildings, and we have quite a few reconstructed buildings, but even in between we have all of these partial reconstructions. So we have a lot of buildings that incorporate original material in them that we can gain more information from. So if we want to look at how many buildings in the Historic Area actually contain original elements, we’re probably up around 200.

Harmony: Wow! That’s a whole conversation in itself, but we’re here today to talk about paint. So I wanted to think about colonial paint colors; what you’re really trying to do is give us an accurate representation all the way down to the color of the paint. So when you’re looking at what colors would have been there in the colonial period, what do you know about colonial paint, how it was made, what colors they might have had?

Matt: Well to understand really the history of colonial paint in Williamsburg, we have to go back to the very beginning and really go back to when John D. Rockefeller Jr. and W.A.R. Goodwin came up with the idea of restoring the town.

They basically brought in a group of architects, Perry, Shaw and Hepburn, in 1928 and Perry, Shaw and Hepburn brought in a woman named Susan Higginson Nash in 1929 and she’s really the first paint analyst for Colonial Williamsburg; very, very interesting woman. And she developed a method of looking for paint colors. So what they did is, they would take a razor blade and they would look for original elements in the building and scratch down, layer by layer through the paint until they got to the lowest layer and that would be the color that they would choose as the earliest paint color.

Today, what we do is we do a lot of historic research looking at what’s common in the 18th century as far as pigment availability, the things that actually color the paint. We look at, are there contracts? St. George Tucker House in Williamsburg has an excellent painting contract. We know what every color was, what the paint was made out of, you know, everything, right down to what it costs to paint.

And then we also do a lot of scientific research and that’s where things have really changed for us. Just like all technology, the science of analyzing paint is reliant on the tools that are available. So as technology moves forward, our ability to understand more about these paints advances as well. So we actually can take very, very, very small samples that you really can’t even see with your eye. We put them in, basically, a plastic cube and we cut those in half when we look at them under a microscope and we can see every layer lined up accurately.

The big difference between the early research and our research is that we can see every layer. You’re not relying on your eye to differentiate between layers of paint that you’re scratching through with a razor blade. We found through this research that we actually are missing from that early research, we’re missing multiple layers. We also are seeing color shifts. The pigments being used for paint in the 18th century aren’t always stable, so what was a vibrant blue in the 18th century, today is a green or even a gray when we see it when it’s exposed.

Harmony: So something that may have originally been interpreted as a green you now know should be represented as a much more saturated blue.

Matt: Right, right, and that’s what we call the colonial revival period. Really about the time Colonial Williamsburg is restoring the Historic Area in the 1920’s. That’s when it really comes about. Those colors that we feel are colonial, those muted tones, a lot of times really are those very, very vibrant colors; vibrant reds and yellows and blues that had just broken down over 300 years.

Harmony: Where were they getting the pigments for those vibrant colors? Were these made of sort of natural resources in the area?

Matt: Most of the pigments aren’t coming from the colonies themselves. They’re coming from England, in most cases being shipped in and sold in stores in Williamsburg. We have some great advertisements in the Virginia Gazette. In 1752, Robert Carter, here in Williamsburg, he advertises that his store, probably the largest variety of pigments that we’ve seen advertised for Prussian blue and verdigris, red and white lead, vermillion and many, many other colors; ochres. So you know you’re seeing the whites, the reds, the blues that are all available and so they’re basically being shipped in and for sale. So your colors, your color availability, is based on what’s within the market.

 

Harmony: Well what brings you here today is, there’s a wave of exterior painting happening in the Historic Area right now. What has prompted this change, these buildings you’re looking at with new eyes?

Matt: There’s a few things that have prompted this. First and foremost is preservation of our historic structures. Paint is our first line of defense. So when the paint starts to deteriorate, we actually start to get into the wood so then the wood starts to rot and then we really start to have problems. So we always want to make sure that the paint is in good shape. So that’s one of our big efforts and that’s what pushed forward the painting campaign in general.

The other thing is that we have this huge mass of information now about paint colors in the 18th century and really a new understanding. Colonial Williamsburg is really at the forefront of understanding 18th century paints and paint analysis in general with the work that we’ve done here and on the scale that we’ve done. So with this knowledge we can better, we have better informed decisions.

Harmony: What are some of the changes that you’re making? If I’m walking down Duke of Gloucester Street, what is going to look different than it used to?

Matt: Well we’re losing those Colonial Revival colors. So we’re losing those light greens; kind of the muted tones. What we’re seeing now as kind of a lot of regularity in the colors that you’ve seen in the Historic Area, and that’s because on the exteriors of buildings what we’re finding – what we found through research and its confirmed through historic documents as well &ndash is that the pigments that are used are primarily earth pigments. So they’re either rust-based, lead-based or carbon-based.

So then that also limits your color availability as well. So you’re stuck with your red browns, which are iron oxides, so rust. Your yellows, which are another form of iron oxide. Your whites, which are white washes in the purest form, but these kind of creams that you’re seeing in the Historic Area, those are representing lead white in the 18th century. Obviously we’re not using lead white to paint the buildings, but that’s the match to lead white. And the reason for these creams is that the linseed oil that’s used to make the paint yellows; it gives it a yellow tone. So you don’t, in an oil-based paint, you don’t really have a very pure white. You’re always going to have a kind of off-white color and then you have your grays as well which are formed by using carbon.

Harmony: So you’ve gone to a very, what you said, like an earth palette out there.

Matt: Right, right and you see that because it’s practical. These pigments, those pigments that I just told you about, they’re stable. So they don’t break down over time really, so you’re not going to see them shift. Their color is not going to shift. You’re going to maintain the same color that you painted on your building. They’re also big bulky pigments so they’ll help protect your house much, much better.

Pigments like Prussian blue, very, very fine, very light-sensitive so you paint your house blue and within five years you’re going to have a green house and in 10 you’re going to have a gray house and your paint’s not going to be very happy.

Same thing with a green house. If you paint your house green, the primary green pigment in the 18th century is Verdigris. Verdigris, when exposed to air oxidizes to black. So very quickly, your house would go green, brown, black. So really it’s a practical decision for the homeowner in the 18th century and that’s what you’re seeing in the Historic Area, that we’re shifting back what they had available and doing what they would have done.

Harmony: This is one of the things I love so much about Colonial Williamsburg is that whatever you’re looking at, whether it’s a costume, or a carriage or even the paint on a house, its telling you a lot and there’s volumes behind it of stories of economy and technology and practicality.

Matt: Right, right and that’s…I mean also one of the tough things about painting in the Historic Area is color always brings out an emotional response in people. So when you change the color of a building, it shocks people. So, but what we have to remember is that these colors tell a story and if we take, if we put the wrong color on a building, we’re essentially changing a chapter in the building’s story.

Harmony: It’s amazing. I hope that when guests come out here, when they’re walking down the streets of the Historic Area, that they see the story that’s being told and appreciate the representation and the accuracy that they’re seeing.

Matt, thank you for your work and thank you for being here today.

Matt: You’re welcome, thank you.  

Comments

  1. I so enjoyed the podcast on the new colors. What structures are being re-painted? The next time we come, we want to make sure we go see those structures! It would also be interesting to have a follow-up article showing a before-after. Thank you for this podcast!

    • I am glad you enjoyed the podcast! There are approximately 40 structures being painted this year and quite a few will change color. You will see the biggest difference on the north side of Duke of Gloucester Street between the Coffeehouse and the Prentis house. We will work on getting some before and after images for you to see our work.

      Thank you!

  2. I couldn’t agree with Lane Rose more! As a many, many time visitor to Colonial Williamsburg I have enjoyed looking at the structures. It would be great to see a Then and Now photo array.

  3. […] Listen to “The Color of History” podcast […]

  4. I would like to find the original Williamsburg color I first saw in the late 1950’s, any chance? I have the color chart the new ones though are nice but they just don’t fit my minds eye.

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