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Paint, Pigment and Provenance

By October 12, 2017October 2nd, 2019Flooring and Finishes, Design, Knowledge & Tips

Absolute have been learning more about paint…  We were fascinated to discover that how it is (and was historically) manufactured actually influences the colour palette.  Here’s an overview of our findings, and comments on various brands we love.

History of pigment/ paint

All paint is a mixture of:

  1. Pigment – produces the colour.
  2. Binder – ensures the pigment is evenly distributed throughout the paint. It also influences the durability and finish of the paint – matt/ eggshell, etc.
  3. Solvent/ Diluent – improves viscosity, making it easier to apply.

(Plus various additives to improve performance)

Historically, paint quality and colour were limited by the natural ingredients available:

 Blue, red and purple were difficult to obtain, being derived from:

  • Cochineal insects (red)
  • Lapis Lazuli mineral grounded into powder (blue)

As such, colour was a marker of status – blues for soldiers, red for high priests and purple for royalty.

 Lighter or earthy colours were widely available (and less expensive) such as:

  • Hematite – cinnamon red
  • Iron oxide – ochre/ yellow)
  • Lead Chromate – yellow
  • Eskolaite – green

Large/ less important spaces were historically painted in light, creamy colours to reduce costs for the paint and pigment.

Paint today

Today, fossil fuel-derived ingredients are used to create the huge range of colours and finishes which we benefit from as designers and consumers.

However, the potential health issues of these ingredients are well known – as long ago as 1982 WHO (World Health Organisation) noted decorators had a 40% higher chance of contracting lung cancer, due to carcinogens in paints.

Even now, modern solvents and binders used in common paints are ‘live’ (and therefore ‘give off’ fumes) for 5 years after application.  Originally, binders were all plant-based therefore once oxidised (dried) they were inert.

Internationally, governments have taken steps to limit VOCs in paint – prompting suppliers to switch to water-based alternatives.   There are downsides to water-based paints:

Oil paint is not itself ‘bad’ – linseed oil is used to make a natural, breathable paint which works very well on wood.  However, most oil-based paints take up to 2 days to dry.  To decrease this, artificial driers are added, contributing to higher VOC levels.

Other important considerations:

  • Many modern paints contain up to 12% microbeads, an environmental pollutant.
  • Dyes (not pigments) are powder-based – the base powder used is white so these colours are likely to fade.
  • Pigments are ‘pure’ colours so longer-lasting colours will be achieved using paints mixed with pigment.
  • Paints using ‘natural’ materials are less widely used, so the cost is currently higher – this may change with the market…
  • Age of the building being painted – walls in older houses may need to ‘breathe’ to ensure water is not trapped, causing damp. Lime- based paints typically work best, whereas modern acrylics have SD levels well over what is advised.
  • Lifecycle of the paint- the energy and resources used to produce the paint, transport of the product and any leftover paint should be considered as part of its eco Eicó paints for example are produced in Iceland using geothermal and hydropower energy.

We see a design industry trend towards sustainable materials and healthy interiors.  This should lead to ‘eco’ paints being more widely available, which may lead to more stringent regulation for the paint industry.

Colours today

Many suppliers are keen to replicate historic colours as a basis for their palettes-

  • Farrow and Ball worked with the National Trust to create a range of colours based on colours found in their properties. We love the F&B palette, although the historical accuracy is speculative – paint colours change with time as the pigments age and there is a limited socio-economic range in National Trust properties.  Additionally ‘metamerism’ (colours reflecting differently in different lights) will also play a part in the historical accuracy of the colours.
  • Edward Bulmer has produced his own palette based on using ingredients which were historically available. This method assumes people historically would have mixed and experimented with pigments and colours to create a range of colours, just as has been done to produce this range.
  • Other suppliers such as Little Greene have produced similar ‘historical’ palettes based on English Heritage properties and Dulux’s Heritage Range is loosely based on the F&B pallet.

Our current favourites

Across section of bold colours:

  • Edward Bulmer- natural paint
    • Azurite
    • Lavender
    • Lead colour
  • Farrow and Ball
    • Strong white 2001- the most versatile colour and a strong APM fave!!
    • Oval Room Blue 85
    • Babouche 223
  • Little Greene
    • Ultra Blue 264
    • Livid 263
  • Dulux Heritage
    • Brushed Gold
    • Red Sand
  • Eicó Paints- natural paint
    • k23 Avocado
    • q16 Nickel

Top Tip

When choosing colours, consider the location and check how the paint looks in situ.  We always recommend painting sample patches before choosing, as colours/ finishes can look very different in different areas/ lights.

Further reading-

Extremely useful-

Oil vs water?!-




Alternative brand (I’ve enquired for a colour pallet)

Lime paints-

Traditional paint-

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