Digital Tour – Vivid View: The Art and Science of Paint Analysis

Baseboard in Dining Room, Bel-Mede

Image of the paint history of the dining room baseboard at Bel-Mede

Photo by Dr. Susan Buck. Courtesy of James and Pamela Penny

This cross-section is from a privately owned (c.1770) house in Williamsburg, Virginia, which was moved to its current location from Southampton County in 1947. The current owners embarked on an architectural investigation of the house, including paint analysis, which revealed a bold and colorful array of original paint. Optical microscopy analysis showed that the original paints survived in every room, and the paint stratigraphy was remarkably intact and beautifully colored. The original paint colors were quite distinctive, including Prussian blue-based pigment on the woodwork in the parlor and dining room, olive green paint on the woodwork in the entry hall, grain-painting on the doors, and most surprisingly, a pink exterior.

Beyond revealing the colors of a room over time, the choice and application of paint reflects the economic standing of a household as well as something of its condition of care, taste, and values. This sample from a dining room baseboard retains evidence of the room’s original blue paint, which was later covered by more practical brown paints and protective varnishes. The distinctive bluish sparkle of the cream-colored paint is a phenomenon of the pigment zinc white seen under reflected ultraviolet light. The presence of this material dates the layer to the mid-nineteenth century or later when zinc white was incorporated into architectural paints. Evidence of aging paint can be identified by the deep cracks in the layers, distortions to the surfaces, discolored varnishes, and clusters of dirt and black mold spores caught within later layers of paint. All of these findings help to tell a story about the evolution of this house and perhaps the financial condition of its early owners, who seem to have waited many decades between redecorating campaigns.

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