March 12, 2012
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.
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.