Cream or Yellow?

Many of you have watched and wondered about the Armoury’s changing color scheme over recent weeks.  In mid- February, painters applied a coat of yellow paint (below) to the building’s exterior.  Less than a month later, that color was painted over with cream (above).  Call it research in action, but for the record (and as you will soon see), the final paint color on the Armoury is cream.  Because this blog provides a forum for complete transparency about our design and building decisions, we thought we’d explain the process of reaching our color choice.

Both paint analysis and documentary research on domestic buildings indicate that lead white, the pigment used to make white/cream paint in the 18th-century, was in short supply during the Revolution.  It was lack of pigment production in the American colonies that led to the shortage.  White lead was particularly time-consuming to produce.  Lead bars were hung over vats of vinegar, or other acidic liquids, for approximately three months.  As the lead corroded, it created lead carbonate (white lead) which had to be scraped off, washed, processed, and then ground into oil for making paint.

Yellow paint was applied to the Armoury’s east (shown here) and north sides in February

Understanding that white lead was in short supply in 1778, researchers initially selected the Armoury’s paint color from the only two color ranges that did not require lead pigment: red/brown and yellow.  The choice was made for yellow.  Colonial Williamsburg’s painters began applying the paint to the north and east sides of the Armoury…. and then new evidence surfaced.

It appears that while the private sector had difficulty obtaining white lead, the state government had a supply of the pigment, and specified its use in repair and construction orders for a number of public buildings.  As the Armoury was built with state funds, this was the most relevant information we have to determine the exterior color of the building.  In an effort to make the Armoury as accurate as possible, the decision was made to use white/cream.

While it may not be the color selected for the Armoury, yellow ochre has been documented in Williamsburg during the 18th-century.  Using the pigment yellow ochre, a wide range of yellows can be produced.  Today the Blue Bell Tavern, Moir House, Moir Shop, and Bryan House are all painted shades of yellow.  Paint analysis of original pieces of the Coffeehouse showed that the exterior and interior paint was a mixture of yellow ochre and white lead, giving us the tan color you see today.  Even the Robert Carter House, an original gentry house adjacent to the Governor’s Palace, was painted yellow at one point in the 18th century.

Why such a limited color range for our predecessors?  The colors that are almost always used on exteriors are white/cream, red/brown, yellow, and gray.  These earth pigments are more stable than other pigments, which allows them to hold their color.  Heavier and more durable, earth pigments also provide better protection for the building.  In the last quarter of the 18th century, if you wanted to paint something blue, you would likely use the pigment Prussian blue to make your paint.  On the interior of your house where the paint was protected, the blue color would remain unchanged for some years.  If you decided you wanted to paint the exterior of your house with this color, the exposure to light and other harsh conditions would change the color to a green and eventually gray.  Color choice was a matter of practicality as well as taste and limited availability.

Contributed by Matthew Webster, Director of Historic Architectural Resources. 


  1. Christine Hansley says

    Hi Meredith,

    I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply a tarnished reputation. I know you folks always do it right. I knew from previous blogs that the chances were very slim, because of the slop, of finding anything that would create a major dig.

    So, where are you heading for the next dig?? Will you be able to get a webcam near the site, or will you be able to post pictures?

    Thanks again for all you do.
    Have a good day.

  2. Jim W says


    Glad to hear about the breaking in of the forges possibly starting next week since we will be there for the Good Spirits conference and the Goodwin meeting. Looking forward to seeing all the progress up close and personal.

  3. Christine Hansley says

    Good morning Meredith,

    Thanks for the update. I’ll have to watch on the 31st of March.

    I know you and the dig crew were hoping for a zero return on the Visitor Center dig. Glad to hear your hopes were fulfilled. That path as always been a little intimidating at night when walking back from an evening program. If it is intimidating for us modern folks, you have to wonder how the colonists felt about walking with just a lantern which creating shadows. Although walking in almost darkness added to the feel of being back in the 18th century, I’m glad there will be some kind of lighting on the path. Low path markers or overhead? Hoping for low so the ambience isn’t totally destroyed.

    Have a great weekend,

    • Meredith Poole says

      Hi Chris,
      It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that we HOPED for a zero return on the testing that we did near the Visitor Center! We have good reputation and I’d hate for it to be tarnished!
      We begin each excavation with open eyes and minds…. hoping to recognize the significance of whatever evidence presents itself. There is nothing more exciting than stumbling across unanticipated archaeological information! But (as you say) we did not anticipate finding anything during this survey, given the terrain (which was sloped) and a study of historical maps.

      I believe you’ll get your wish with regard to the type of light for the path…low as opposed to overhead!

  4. Christine Hansley says

    Good evening Armoury crew,
    Thanks for the lesson on colonial paints and pigments. I learn something new almost every day from the blogs.

    Has a date and time been set to fire the forges? I’d like to be able to see that happen on the webcam?? Maybe, please? Sorry for the begging. I live in the Chicago area and can’t get there often. Webcams have been a great way to be there.

    Also, has the crew started the dig by the Visitors Center yet??? Any chance of getting some photos posted if and when????

    It was 80 in Chicago today. About 35 degrees above normal. No, I have not put the winter coat away yet. We’ve had a foot of snow as late as the 1st of April.

    Thanks again for all you do. Have a great Spring,

    • Meredith Poole says

      Good evening, Chris,
      Glad you’re enjoying the blogs, and are finding them enlightening!

      There has been no hard date set for the firing of the forges. In fact, according to the blacksmiths, there will be a gradual “breaking-in” period starting sometime late next week (if progress continues at the current pace). When I checked this afternoon the second (of 4) bellows was being mounted on the ceiling, so the outlook is promising. I will post pictures of the Armoury interior late this week.

      What I CAN tell you is that the official opening of the Armoury-complex-to-date (ie the Armoury and kitchen) will be on Saturday, March 31 with some special events planned for the hours between 11 and 1. We will be certain to position the webcam so that you and all of our friends from afar have a front row seat.

      The archaeology crew started–and completed— the dig near the Visitor Center in a single, uneventful day. As is usual protocol, we began by digging a series of test holes…holes that produced nothing…no artifacts to suggest human activity in the vicinity. Assured that nothing would be disturbed, the go-ahead has been given, and lights may now be installed along the path from the Visitor Center…with no potential harm to archaeological resources!

      We shared your heat-wave today. This does not bode well for mid-August! Thanks for your encouragement…and keep watching!

  5. Matt says

    Yes we did use linseed oil paint. It is extremely durable and has the potential to last 25 years with maintenance. Most people will also be surprised to know that it goes five times further than modern paint. It will take less than four gallons to paint the entire Armoury.

    You are correct that we could not use lead white as a pigment, so the white we use is titanium white. Titanium white is a very bright white, and is often called the “perfect white”, so we had to add a little yellow ochre to make it look correct. Most people don’t know that lead was also used as a drying agent for the oil. We overcome this problem by using boiled linseed oil and modern driers.
    Thanks for your question!

    • says

      One note about the linseed oil base paints. We’ve been using it for about the last 10 years on the buidling at the museum that I volunteer at (Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum. And it is everything Matt stated. Including the “proper maintenance” part! Weve discovered that if it is not cleaning on a bi-yearly basis, the naturally organic linseed oil tend to support the growth of black-ish mold. We discovered this after about 5 years after our first painting. The building was beginning to have a “black-ish” hue to it. We thought the paint was failing, only to find under closer examination that it washed off and determined that it was indeed mold. So linseed oil painted buildings, althought they will last for quite some time, DO need to be “properly maintanined”!

  6. ryan says

    Fascinating. And did you use linseed oil paint? Or is it modern paint in the correct color? Linseed oil paint is extremely durable and several sources have completely authentic products. Of course, getting white lead any more is difficult (boat builders use it all the time) and wouldn’t probably be allowed for your purposes.

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