Natural Earth Paint Through the Ages: Colonial Williamsburg

Natural Earth Paint Through the Ages: Colonial Williamsburg

Through this year's Pigments Revealed Symposium, we had the wonderful opportunity to connect with earth artists around the world. Kristen Moffitt, Materials Analyst at Colonial Williamsburg, is an art conservator who studies the paints and pigments used for architectural coatings at Williamsburg.

During her talk at the symposium, she shared her research on the natural ingredients used in Colonial Williamsburg. We're sharing some of her findings here!

We preface this article by acknowledging the Native Peoples of the Chesapeake Region, the original inhabitants and historical custodians of the land on which Colonial Williamsburg was built, and pay our respects to tribal members past and present. The history of colonialism in this country is a problematic one, and our land acknowledgement is only one step toward honoring the tribes and lives that were impacted by its legacy. 

In the 18th century, Williamsburg was the center of political, religious, economic, and social life in Virginia. As the town expanded, natural pigments played a major role in the finishes used on buildings and objects in the region.  Using microscopes and historical documents, Kristen uncovered the fascinating stories hiding behind Colonial Williamsburg's layers upon layers of paint. 

Science and technology allowed her to study the chemical makeup and intricate details of the paint layers, and history helped her cross-check her findings with the painting materials reported in print advertisements to be readily available at that time. Here's what she found in the paint:

  • Ochres (both yellow and red)
  • Carbon-based blacks
  • Natural chalks
  • Limewashes (made from calcining oyster shells)
  • Tars (made from burning pine)
  • Other earth pigments

As it turns out, all these pigments and more were used to yield richly colored coatings on architecture in the area.

In case you're curious, the original paint recipes from the colonial era are no longer used in the restoration of buildings in Colonial Williamsburg, as many of them contained lead and therefore are expensive to make and a health hazard to visitors. However, safe and non-toxic earth pigments like red and yellow ochres are still available on the market today!

Interested in learning more about Natural Earth Paint history? Visit our History page!
Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for more natural inspiration.