When a house in Colonial Williamsburg is repainted, who picks the hues? It may come as a surprise but the house itself does! If it is an original building with original painted material, then the historic evidence should be there. It is my job to find those nooks and crannies that contain early paints, and analyze that evidence in the Materials Analysis Laboratory.
We’re interested in learning not just about color, but pigment and binding media composition, as well. Collaboration is always key for Colonial Williamsburg, and all architectural paint research projects are carried out with the help of the Archaeological and Architectural Research Department and the Department of Architectural Preservation.
The Benjamin Waller House is an example of a paint research project that has resulted in a recent color change. This house is located at the east end of the Historic Area, at the corner of Francis and Waller streets. Up until last week, it was painted white with dark green shutters and dark brown doors. These colors were “discovered” during the 1951-53 restoration of the house, using rudimentary “scrape tests.” (This is an outdated technique that often missed key paint layers. It has been superseded by modern cross-section microscopy). An exact date for the construction is not known, but CW architectural historians believe the earliest section of the house is the east end, which was probably built around 1749-50. Multiple structural improvements and enlargements were made throughout the next few decades, including a rear wing and cellar entrance that were added sometime before 1782, when it was drawn on the Frenchman’s Map.
When the northeast cellar entrance was constructed in the late 18th century, this structure “captured” some original exterior painted weatherboards. These painted weatherboards are like a time capsule, protecting the exterior paint colors that date from 1749-50 to before 1782. Thirty years of paint colors, protected from the elements! This is a gold mine for architectural paint analysts like myself.
In 2008, the weatherboards were analyzed by Natasha Loeblich, CW’s architectural paint analyst at the time, using microscopic techniques almost identical to those currently in our lab. Using cross-section microscopy (described in a previous blog post), Natasha discovered three paints on the weatherboards: a red-brown paint (1), a yellow-brown paint (2), and a gray paint (3).
Using Natasha’s report, we determined that the color of the house during the Revolutionary period (1770s) was most likely the more recent gray paint. Analysis determined that this paint was made with pigments common to the 18th century such as lead white, soot black, and chalk (usually added as a paint extender).
But what of the rest of the house? What colors were contemporary with the gray weatherboards in the late 18th century? As luck would have it, it recently came to light that the north front door is original, so I ran over to collect several samples to hopefully gain insight about the trim colors. Sure enough, cross-section microscopy determined that there were original paint layers on the door! Most importantly, the third generation was black. This would align with the gray on the weatherboards.
I analyzed the pigments with our polarizing light microscope to determine that the black paint was a mixture of mostly a carbon-based black (like soot black), a little lead white, and some chalk. You’ll note that these pigments are very similar to what was found in the contemporary gray paint!
In my lab, I used the colorimeter/microscope to measure the original gray and black paints in the samples Natasha and I had collected. CW’s colorimeter provides numerical values in what is called the CIE L*a*b* colorspace; L* values are for black to white, a* values for red to green, and b* values for blue to yellow. These numbers can be used to calculate the closest commercial match for replication.
The black paint was measured as L* (23.72), a* (+1.26) , b*(+3.19). The closest commercial match to this paint color was Benjamin Moore/Williamsburg #680 “Mopboard Black”.
The gray paint had to be matched by eye, because dirt particles embedded in the paint made it impossible for the colorimeter to accurately measure the color. The closest commercial match for this paint was Benjamin Moore/Williamsburg #700 “Slate.”
Interestingly, this gray and black paint scheme is consistent with other Williamsburg neighbors, notably the William Finnie House a few doors down, and the Robert Carter House on Palace Green. Like it or not, gray and black house paint schemes appear to have been fashionable in Revolutionary-era Williamsburg.
As you can see, modern methods of analysis get us ever closer to presenting the historic area as it appeared in the American Revolution, but the social, economic, and maybe even political stories behind these paint schemes are certainly the subject of further study!
Blogger: Kirsten Moffitt
Kirsten received her M.S. from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, where she specialized in the conservation and analysis of painted surfaces. As Colonial Williamsburg’s Materials Analyst and Associate Conservator, Kirsten analyzes all types of collection materials including metals, ceramics, textiles, furniture and house paints in the Foundation’s newly established Materials Analysis Laboratory. She loves that her job is a combination of art history, chemistry, and forensics. Kirsten truly loves watching paint dry, and her analytical work was a big contribution to Benjamin Moore’s Williamsburg Collection line.
Kirsten loves reading, traveling, and walking her black lab, Ebbie, around the Historic Area.