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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada




A. Storm

May 1982

(Fortress of Louisbourg
Report H G 05)

Chapter IV


Even as late as the end of the nineteenth century, house painting was considered to be an art, and its practice involved the work of skilled craftsmen who also painted furniture, signs, and many other items. [1]

Painting required a great deal of hard work and few tools. As long as he was not engaged in manufacturing painting materials, the painter required little more than a slab and muller for grinding pigments, a palette knife, earthen pots to hold ground colors, a tin can or bottle in which to keep turpentine, a small assortment of mortars and pestles, filtering cloths, and different sized brushes. Brushes were made from the bristles that grew on the backs of hogs and wild boars. During the eighteenth century the most popular shape for paint brushes was round, much like a modern sash tool, rather than the flat configuration that is used today. Brushes were made by drilling holes in a wooden handle and forcing into the holes small bundles of bristles that had been tied together. Supposedly, old brushes were preferred because after they had been used for a time the bristles became "finer in the points" and were better suited to laying paint on "in an equable and smooth manner." Before a brush was used, it was soaked in water to swell the wooden handle, thus preventing the "hairs from falling off." Since many painters were commonly engaged in fine work such as sign painting or some other relatively elaborate form of decoration, they also had to have a number of small brushes called pencils. These small artists' brushes were available in all sizes "from the thickness of a pin to the thickness of a finger." They were made by binding fine bristles together and inserting the tied bundle into the end of a goose quill. The tube of the quill was softened in water, and as it dried it contracted and held the bristles securely in place.

Prepared paints were not developed until the second half of the nineteenth century. Instead of buying paint in cans that only had to be opened before they could be used, the painter had to make his own paints as he needed them. It was common practice for the painter to purchase the desired pigment, binder, and solvent at a supply house, mix his own paints by grinding the pigment into the binder, and thin the resulting paint to the right consistency. Paints could not be prepared and saved until they were needed because the binders would polymerize or coagulate and form a skin on top of the paint that made it unuseable. Also, painters did not know how to keep the pigment suspended in the binder, and, if the paint was not immediately used, the pigment settled out and formed a solid cake in the bottom of its container. In many cases this cake was difficult to break up and resuspend without regrinding the paint.

"When finished with painting, or on the occasion that painting is to be interrupted for sometime, the color (paint) that remains in the pot must be covered with water, which will prevent its drying and skinning over. And the pencils and brushes should be washed out in clear linseed oil, and then in warm soap suds, for if either oil or colors dries in the bristles, they will be spoiled for ever." [2]

In making paints, if the pigment were lumpy, it first had to be pounded into a coarse powder in a mortar and pestle. All pigments then were processed to break them down further into small enough particles, so that they would be imperceptible in the dried paint film. One method of obtaining the desired particle size was to grind the pigment with a muller and slab, and throughout most of the eighteenth century, pigments continued to be ground by hand with a slab and muller. This process called for hours of tedious labor. Pigments could be ground dry, but it was much safer to grind them in a liquid. Many painting materials were poisonous, and if a painter did not handle these materials carefully he was sure to contract the dreaded colica pictonum, or painter's colic.

In most paints there was at least one substance that could cause poisoning; the principal offenders were mercury, arsenic, verdigrise, and the lead pigments.

Besides the hazard of accidentally ingesting the toxic materials, handling them was extremely dangerous, as many of the poisons could get into the system by passing through the skin. By far the greatest danger to the painter lay in inhaling pigment dust. If pigments were ground in a liquid, however, the dust was prevented from rising in the air.

The material used to wet a pigment during the grinding process depended upon the type of paint being made. Oil paints were made by grinding pigments in oil. If the desired product was a water color or distemper, the pigment could often be wetted with water. Pigments intended for use in varnish vehicles could be ground either in oil, turpentine, or alcohol, although the latter did not work very well because it evaporated too rapidly.

The slab for grinding pigments was usually an eighteen to twentyfour inch square piece of thin, smooth, hard marble or granite. [3] The muller was an egg-shaped pebble stone, broken nearly in half and polished flat at the break. [4] It was usually about two or three inches in diameter with a slightly rounded edge to allow the paint to get under it. [5] The muller had to be tall enough so that it could be grasped with both hands. [6]The slab was commonly raised to the "height of the painters middle." About two spoonsful of dry pigment were then placed on the slab. After it was moistened with the proper liquid (as linseed oil), the mutter was then pushed back and forth over the wetted pigment until it was free from any roughness and about the "consistence of an ointment." [7] One method of testing the pigment for fineness was to smear the ground color on a sheet of glass and hold it up to the sun. If it were still too coarse, the individual pigment particles were readily apparent. A scraper, called an "amassette" and usually made out of horn was employed for piling and collecting the paint on the grinding slab during this process. If the pigment were finished it was scraped up off the slab with a palette knife and used. The grinding apparatus was then cleaned off with a soft cloth. Any remaining paint could be removed by rubbing the slab and muller with stale bread crumbs. [8]

TO GRIND COLORS IN OIL: Let the Grinding-Stone be placed about the height of your middle, let it stand firm and fast so that it joggle not up and down; then take a small quantity of the color you intend to grind, (two spoonfuls is enough,) for the less is ground at a time, the easier, and finer, will the color be ground.

Lay these two spoonfuls of the color in the middle of the stone, and put a little linseed oil to it, (but take care not to put too much at first) then mix it together a little with the Muller, and turn the mutter five or six times about; and if you find there be not oil enough, put a little more, and grind it till it come to the consistence of an ointment, or appears free from any sort of lumps, and smooth as the most curious sort of butter; for it grinds much better and sooner when it is stiffish, than when it is so thin as to run about the stone; and in grinding, you must often bring the color that has spread together into the middle of the stone with a piece of lantern horn.

And in Grinding hold your muller down as hard as you can, and also move it with such a slight, as to gather the color under it; and that no knots or grittiness remain, and that it is become as fine as butter itself.

When it is ground enough, cleanse it off the stone with the horn into a gallipot or pan, and lay on more color, and proceed as before, till you have ground what quantity you want.

If you grind a considerable quantity, to be used not till some time after, put it into bladders, tie it up close, and hang it up.

Those who care not for the trouble to grind the colors, may have all manner of colors ready ground at color shops.[9]


When you use colors, you must add more oil to them, but not so much as to make them so thin, that they will let the ground be seen through them, or run about; and if your color be as stiff as it ought to be, once doing will be more than twice doing with thin color.

Painters make use of a common fraud and deceit, when they agree to do work by the yard at a common price, to be colored three times over. In painting with such thin colors that at three times doing over, it is not so substantial as one time would be, if the color had a thick and substantial body.

Three times coloring with substantial and well-bodied color, will last ten times as long as that which has been so slightly colored.

The priming color indeed ought to be very thin, that it may have oil enough to penetrate into the wood, which tends much to its preservation; but the second must be thicker than the first." [10]

In addition to grinding, there was another method of preparing pigment particles "of an uniform fineness." This process, called washing, worked particularly well with pigments such as many ochres and chalks which had a "coarse and sandy nature," and which were extremely difficult to grind. The technique was quite simple and required little more than a few small tubs or buckets and a supply of water:

Take what quantity of the color you please to wash, and put it into a vessel of fair water, and stir it about till the water be all colored therewith; then, if any filth swim on the top of the water, scum it clean off, and when you think the grossest of the color is settled to the bottom, then pour off that water into a second earthen vessel that is large enough to contain the first vessel full of water four or five times; then pour more water into the first vessel, and stir the color that remains, till the water be thick; and after it is a little settled, pour that water also into the second vessel, and fill the first vessel again with water, stirring it as before: Do thus often till you find all the finest of the color drawn forth, and that none but coarse gritty stuff remains in the bottom; which when you perceive, then pour the water clear from it, and reserve the color in the bottom for use, which must be perfectly dried before you mix it with oil to work.[11]

Pigments were available in Louisbourg either dry or "ground in oil," lake pigments were in cakes and drops of many sizes or in a semi-fluid state in bladders, and some colors, (pigments) were imported ground in oil by the keg, barrel, or hundred weight. [12] Not all colors acquired from the importer were ready for grinding immediately. Some, such as lampblack, umber, and flake white (to make orange mineral), necessitated burning to rid it of greasiness or to make it dry well. [13] Others necessitated washing to rid them of their sandy or gritty nature. Among those most commonly washed by stirring in water and letting the undesired particles settle out were red lead, the bices, verditers, smalt, and Spanish brown when used for fine work.

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