The History of Painting

Figure 1 Painting in London in the 1700s
Sourced by Jim Baker
Throughout recorded history, humans have had the desire to decorate their living space. As long ago
as 38,000 B.C., people used paint made from soot, earth, and animal fat to adorn the walls of their
caves. In ancient Egyptian society, painters mixed ground glass or semiprecious stones, lead, earth, or
animal blood with oil or fat.
In modern times, we don’t think twice about painting the interior or exterior of a house. In the days of
the American colonies, however, such an act opened a person up to serious social disapproval. The
Pilgrims, in accordance with their puritanical belief system, thought a colorful home expressed vanity
and an excess of happiness. This idea wasn’t just bandied about; it was made law. A preacher in the
Charlestown colony painted the inside of his house in 1630 and was subsequently accused of
sacrilege, an actual crime in colonial society.
Between the 1600s and 1800s, most house paint used either oil or water as a base. Some colors
worked better in oil, while water suited others better. Cost and durability were also part of the wateror-oil equation. Painters tended to use water-based paints on ceilings and plaster walls; oil paint was
best for decorating joinery.
Painters of the time mixed pigment and oil, often with a mortar and pestle, to create a stiff paste – a
method we still use today. The point of grinding pigment was to disperse it as fully as possible in oil.
This was done by hand until the 1700s, which exposed many painters to white-lead powder and
afflicted them with lead poisoning. Lead paint was popular mainly because it was durable; the stuff
could retain color for centuries.
In the 18th century, England was a hive of paint innovation. Marshall Smith invented a “Machine or
Engine for the Grinding of Colours” in 1718, and while we don’t know what it looked like or how it
worked, the device sparked a countrywide interest in grinding pigment more efficiently. In 1741, the
paint-making company Emerton and Manby boasted in an ad that it ground colors in “Horse-Mills,”
which allowed the business to sell its product at unusually low prices.
By the beginning of the 1800s, steam powered most paint mills. Around this time, white pigment
made with nontoxic zinc oxide – a viable alternative to poisonous lead – was invented in Europe
Making paint in large quantities was easier than ever, especially given the increased use of linseed oil
as an inexpensive binder. In 1866, Sherwin-Williams, which would become one of the largest global
paint makers, opened for business. The company invented ready-to-use paint, releasing its first
product, raw umber in oil, in 1873. Several years later, cofounder Henry Sherwin came up with a resealable tin can. Not to be outdone, another paint-industry giant, Benjamin Moore, began selling its
wares in 1883. In 1907, the company hired its first chemist and started a research department. Among
Benjamin Moore’s many innovations, its computerized color-matching system, introduced in 1982,
remains the most influential and impressive.
Not until the mid-20th century did house paint undergo another significant development. During
World War II, linseed oil became scarce. In response to this shortage, chemists mixed alcohols and
acids to make alkyds (artificial resins). These synthetics were cheap to make, lasted a long time, and
excelled at holding color. They quickly replaced oil as a paint base.
In the late 1200s, English house painters formed guilds to standardize their craft and acted as a protector of their
trade secrets. These secrets were their paint mixing and application skills which they kept to themselves to
obtain an economic advantage over competitors or outsiders and to protect their way of making a living. These
guilds eventually formed into two groups, the Painters Company and the Stainers Company. They were
associations of artisans or merchants, who were skilled manual workers and would control the practice of their
craft in a particular town. They were organized in a manner something between a trade union, a cartel and a
secret society.
The two guilds eventually merged with the consent of the Lord Mayor of the City of London in 1502,
forming the Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers. In 1599, the guild asked Parliament for
protection, which was eventually passed in a bill in 1606 and was granted the trade protection from
outside competition such as plasterers. The Act legislated for a seven year apprenticeship and also
barred plasterers from painting, unless apprenticed to a painter, with the penalty for such painting
being a fine of £5.
To become an apprentice, the parents or guardians would agree with a Guild's Master craftsman the
conditions for an apprenticeship which would bind the minor for 5–9 years. They would pay a
premium to the craftsman and the contract would be recorded in an indenture. The apprentice was
bound to the master and lived with him as a member of the household, receiving most or all
compensation in the form of food and lodging.
Enforcement of this Act by the Painter-Stainers Company was sought up until the early 19th century,
with master painters gathering irregularly to decide the fees that a journeyman could charge. A
journeyman was someone who had completed an apprenticeship and was fully educated in a trade or
craft, but not yet a master. To become a master, a journeyman had to submit a master work piece to a
guild for evaluation and be admitted to the guild as a master.
The Painter-Stainers Company also instigated an early version of a job centre in 1769, advertising in
the London newspapers a "house of call" system to advertise for journeymen and also for journeymen
to advertise for work. The guild's power in setting the fee a journeyman could charge was eventually
overturned by law in 1827 and superseded by trade unions, with the Operative United Painters' Union
forming sometime around 1831.
In 1894 a national association formed, recreating itself in 1918 as the National Federation of Master
Painters and Decorators of England and Wales. The name was once again changed to the British
Decorators Association before merging in 2002, with the Painting & Decorating Federation to form
the Painting & Decorating Association.
Painting in Australia
JH Osborne, painter and signwriter of Gulgong, also supplied decorative wallpaper. It seems he
painted faux marble headstones as well. Osborne's bark-clad establishment was located at 2 Medley
Street, at the sparsely populated northern end of town, which explains the conspicuous display of his
sign-writing skill.
I was very fortunate to be shown a book published in 1904 and would like to share with you an extract
of the Preface.
It is called;
A practical manual of
The trade of a House Painter is too often supposed to consist of manual processes only, and it is
thought by many, that a young man has only to follow others in order to become a competent
This idea, not only in relation to House Painting but other trades also, had, during many years, been
accepted in this country; but happily a great change has taken place, and it is now universally
admitted, that every effort should be made to give technical instruction to our artisans, to teach them
the principles on which their practice has been based, to interest their minds in the higher branches of
their trades, and to show them that the more the mind comprehends the requirements, the better will
the hand execute the work.
These objects have been bourne steadily in view in the manual now placed before House Painters,
Grainers, and Sign Painters, and the earnest hope is entertained, that the instruction given in their
different departments, the lessons in practical Art, together with the general information pervading
the book, will be found both useful and interesting.
My sincere thanks to James Christoforou for bringing this book to my attention.
Figure 2 Painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge 1947. Photo Courtesy NSW Transport
Taubmans TimeLine
George Henry Taubman, a Sydney sign writer, finally got tired of the poor range of paint available in
Australia and 1897 he established himself as a paint supplier/importer. Two years later, still
unsatisfied he began manufacturing his own paint.
Brothers George & Nathaniel Taubman started ‘Taubmans Pty Ltd’ in Sydney and the company grew
quickly across Australia & New Zealand.
Taubmans were pioneers of ready mixed paint in Australia. Taubmans interior enamel, Revelite was
based on the revolutionary new synthetic alkyd resins and it proved to be the forerunner of paint
technology. Revelite was easy to use, durable and available in a wide range of colours, taking paint
into the interior decoration domain.
Taubmans opened it’s the head office and manufacturing plant in Villawood NSW which is still being
used today. With a new exterior product, Butex, Taubmans led the development of durable enamels,
based on alkyd resins and titanium dioxide. Taubmans soon after developed water based alkyd
emulsions which were to revolutionise painting.
Taubmans launches look books with Maggie Tabberer, a renowned Australian fashion and publishing
In 2009 Taubmans launched Endure, engineered with Nanoguard® technology, for superior
performance in interior and exterior applications. This continued its legacy of advancing technology by
offering the only interior and exterior paint in Australia with a 15 year guarantee*.
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