My husband and I moved into a new house over a year ago. But it took us until now to begin painting. Of course we used Latex paint. It comes in about a million colors and cleans up with water. As I was washing brushes, I began reflecting upon paint. We take it so completely for granted. But its history is a lot more layered (pardon the pun) than one might think.
One of my earliest memories as a child was cleaning my father’s brushes. First, all the paint had to be removed with liberal applications of turpentine. Then the brush had to be soaked in linseed oil to keep the bristles soft. (Fun fact: Linseed oil is made from the flax seeds. The seeds are edible and was fed to livestock. Now, those of us into healthy living eat the flax seed.)
My father was a painter but not a picture painter or a house painter. He was what would be called now a Graphics Artist. He painted signs (and called himself a sign painter). When I was very little I remember him painting cartoons on the signs: little drawings of smoking horses and smiling pigs and so on. Even when I was in high school and learning what was then called computer science, he had a steady clientele who wanted painted paper signs to advertise sales and Christmas specials. But fashions change; even for signs. He went to school to learn to make neon signs and form plastic letters for plastic signs. If he couldn’t find help, all of us kids manned the block and tackle to help him raise the heavy signs to their places on the buildings. I was lucky in that I never had to go up the ladder and help my father. I was terrified of heights.
But I digress.
Oil paint was discovered during the middle ages, as anyone who knows anything about painting is aware of. But oil paint takes a long time to dry. And it is expensive so it was used in the houses only of the rich. Since white lead was a primary ingredient, lead poisoning was epidemic among painters. (Fun Fact #2: The first company to make paint that could be used directly from a tin can without preparation – previously powered paint ground with a mortar and pestle was mixed with water to make the paint – was Sherwin Williams in 1866.)
Poorer folk, and people in early America, had to use an alternative and that alternative, which is seeing something of a resurgence, was milk paint.