The History of Paint

Colour has fascinated culture throughout history, every age and every region has produced dyes and pigment depending on the available resources. Colour has been with us for more than 20,000 years. Evidence survives in early cave paintings and the ancient Chinese are considered to have brought its manufacture and use to a state of perfection tens of thousands of years ago.

Colour was widely used by the ancient Egyptians and was considered to have magical and healing properties and around this time, 1500 BC, paint making as an art became quite widely established in Crete and Greece with the Egyptians passing their skills to the Romans. It was between 600 BC-AD 400 that the Greeks and Romans then introduced varnishes. For the Aztec Indians red dye was considered more valuable than gold and both the Indians and Chinese practiced Colour Healing. The earliest surviving medical text, the Yellow Emperor’s Nei Ching, records colour diagnoses.

When King Tutankhamen's tomb was opened in 1924, artefacts including models of boats, people, and furniture found inside the burial chamber had been painted with milk paint.
Because the original formula for milk paint was so simple to make and use, it was for thousands of years a major form of decoration throughout the world. Over time, and in various places, different recipes, including milk protein (casein), lime, and pigments were tried, producing varying results in durability. Many of these coatings also provided weatherproofing, while others disintegrated, leaving only a permanent stain on the painted surface. The variations included adding substances such as olive oil, linseed oil, eggs, animal glue, or waxes. Over the centuries, better recipes were found that could produce a durable coating, which could last indefinitely. The colors on the walls painted at Egypt’s Temple of Dendara, even though exposed to the open air for centuries, are as vivid today as they must have been 2000 years ago.


The first revolution in the make-up of paint came with the Flemish artists in the fifteenth century. The Greeks and Romans had some earlier success with adding olive oil to their paint mixture, but had difficulty with it drying properly. The first use of a good oil- based paint has been accredited to the Flemish artist, Jan van Eyck, around 1410. While not the first to use oil paint, he was believed to be the first to establish a stable varnish as a pigment binder. His innovations produced an art that set the standard for a long time to come.
Jan van Eyck's varnish was improved upon later in the fifteenth century by such Italian masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Tintoretto, and Antonello da Messina. In the early seventeenth century, the recipe was improved again by Rubens while studying in Italy. He used warm walnut oil and also copied da Messina in using lead oxide in his pigments.

Commercial Paint

Over the next 200 to 300 years, the old water-based milk paint, as well as the newer oil paint remained relatively unchanged. Artists mixed their own paints, as did house painters and furniture makers. Recipes for oil paints were closely guarded secrets. Milk paint continued to be made the way it had been for thousands of years before.
In Colonial America, as earlier in Europe, itinerant painters roamed the countryside, carrying pigments with them, which could be mixed with a farmer's or householder's own milk and lime. Often, the itinerant painter would be a tinker or farrier, or have some trade in addition to his knowledge of paint. Practically every household had their own cow or goat, and each community had its own lime pit. Even though there exist many examples of early American furniture that was painted with some form of oil paint, the look associated most widely with the country homes and furniture of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries is that of the soft velvety, rich colors of milk paint.
This scene doesn't change much until after the Civil War. In 1868, the first patent was given for the metal paint can with its tightly fitting top. With this development came the commercial oil paint industry. For the first time, paint could be manufactured in great mass, packaged in the new patented cans and shipped to stores throughout the country.
But this kind of operation does not lend itself to the use of milk paint. Made from natural milk protein, it will spoil just like whole milk. Therefore, from the very beginning of the commercial oil paint industry, up until 1935, the only paint sold commercially was oil-based paint, to which was added lead, mildewcides, and other poisonous additives. Other types of casein paints were developed that could not be considered milk paint. Casein was mixed with fomaldehyde, with ammonia, or with borax, to create much different types of paint recipes. Around 1935, a new water-based casein (milk protein) paint was developed with the use of synthetic rubber and styrene. This was called Kem-Tone, the first latex paint, which met with great commercial success.

The Green Revolution

After World War II, chemists working for major paint manufacturers began developing new formulas for paints. Along with these developments came a burgeoning awareness among American consumers that many of these developments posed a growing health problem. The lead and mercury in the paint was highly toxic, as were the many solvents (now called VOCs and HAPs), mildewcides, germicides, and numerous other additives.

While heritage building and art restorers have maintained the use of traditional, natural paints, in order to maintain the integrity of the colours and textures, now the general public are involved in a global revolution as they seek to reclaim a more natural way of being and living, in harmony with the environment, breathing freely . . . .

The Natural Paint Company have been a part of that global revolution since 1990.

Viva la revolution!