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The history of color: from cave paintings to painting the modern house

The earliest documentation of the use of paint for wall decoration is from 17,000-40,000 years ago, for which an emulsion was used that contained a pigment mixed with a liquid medium. Today's paints voluntarily stopped using lead until 1979 when it became a mandatory standard

Exterior painted houses on the island of Santorini, Greece.
Exterior painted houses on the island of Santorini, Greece.

Modern paints have countless compounds and special mixtures of materials, but how exactly did we get these products? Well, painting the walls has quite a history of tens of thousands of years, and from the time of ancient man to the present day, the techniques and tools we use to paint walls have changed from end to end.

Painting walls in the distant past

Although we have all heard of cave paintings, the artists of the distant past began to decorate their surroundings long before the invention of paint, by engravings on the walls. The earliest documentation of the use of paint for wall decoration is from 17,000-40,000 years ago, for which an emulsion was used that contained a pigment mixed with a liquid medium. Early man had to decide between options such as gray soot or reddish earth, and sometimes these materials had to be mixed with another liquid material, such as oil or blood. 

The ancient man left behind graphic descriptions that represent his life, by drawing animals and tools he used for hunting, such as spears for example. A little later, early man began to decorate the caves with more abstract paintings, for example by creating handprints on the walls. 

Let's go a little further in time and reach the time of the Egyptian Empire, where up until about 2,000 years ago, bright colors were used that have stood the test of time and look now almost as they once did. This is in contrast to the colors we use today for painting apartments, which are unable to last thousands of years without completely peeling off. The Egyptians created 6 colors by mixing oil or fat with lead, earth, animal blood, ground glass or gems, with their palette consisting of shades of white, red, yellow, green, black and blue.

The paintings of the ancient Egyptians presented their culture and history along with the furniture and living spaces of the pharaohs and members of the upper class. The most beautiful and impressive paintings were made inside tombs. 

The beginning of the profession "colors"

In general, the people who were in charge of painting and painting the walls throughout history were artists, while the profession "professional painter" emerged in the world only in the 13th century, but some researchers speculate that the occupation as a painter began even before that. Since Johann Gutenberg only invented modern printing in the mid-15th century, there isn't much written historical record that describes flat painting in the early days of the profession.

What is known is that during the 14th century the house colors in England began to join together in guilds - associations of professionals engaged in the same field, whose purpose is to protect their common interests and ensure rules of ethics between them. This is actually what made the "colored" profession respectable, and this is how the members of the guild came together to agree on certain standards related to this profession. 

Over time the painters organized themselves into two groups: "Painter's Company" and "Stainer's Company". After several hundred years, the two merged into one company called the "Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers", and the techniques used by the company's employees to mix colors and apply them to the walls were kept secret to protect their source of income. 

The development of color technology

During the European colonization of America, the pioneers avoided painting their houses. They considered it an immodest and ostentatious act, and in 1630 the residents of Charleston even convicted a priest of blasphemy simply because he decorated his house with paint. But despite the resistance of the pioneers, Painting an apartment continued to be a required service. Oil and water became the base in which a variety of materials were mixed to create colors, such as lead, ground shells, oxidized iron or copper, coffee beans, rice, eggs, fruits or vegetables. 

The paint manufacturers made their products even though they were illegal, and many houses were decorated with murals depicting skies, rock formations or landscapes - both on the walls and on the ceiling. The tools used by the painters in this period were very similar to the brushes that painters use today, when they connected wooden handles to different types of hair. The modern brushes are made of synthetic fibers, but their purpose is the same - to apply a layer of paint of a certain thickness by brushing it on the wall. Nevertheless, today's colors are much easier to apply than the thick colors of the past.

In 1718, Marshall Smith invented a "paint grinding machine", which ignited an innovation race to create the best way to grind materials that could be used as pigments. Until the middle of the 19th century, painters began to use linseed oil as a cheap binder that helped protect wood during painting, and in 1866 the first company that created ready-to-use paint appeared - "Sherwin-Williams", which still exists today and supplies paint to more than 120 countries. Henry Sherwin, one of the company's founders, then developed paint cans that customers could reseal.

In 1883, a competition that continues to this day began between the Sherwin-Williams company and the Benjamin Moore company, when the latter began to put greater emphasis on chemical processes to improve the mixing and production processes of the paint. Moreover, in 1982 it was the first company to design a computerized color matching system, which is still used today. 

Painting the house in modern times

Already before the Second World War, the dyers began to look for substitutes for chemical ingredients used to produce paint, in order to make it safer to use. In fact, in the 50s, the painters slowly began to stop the use of lead for house painting, and did so voluntarily, since the health damages of this substance were known to all. Common house paints contained very little if any lead, and it wasn't until 1978 that the CPSC legally banned the use of lead in paint. 

Today you will hardly see an apartment or house that is not painted inside and out, whether in soft pastel colors, a simple and monochromatic white color or decorative colors in various configurations. It seems that since time immemorial man has loved to surround himself in his home with colors, and today's technology and techniques allow us to do this in a way that in the past could only be dreamed of.

The article is promoted content courtesy of Tatvale Lee company - experts in apartment painting.