Analysing paints to identify original colours

Preserving original paint finishes or reinstating a building’s colour-scheme helps to retain and enhance the buildings historical significance and complement its architectural and decorative elements.

You can analyse paints to identify original colours in the following ways.

Understanding the colour scheme

  • carrying out a paint analysis to determine a building’s original colour scheme instead of randomly selecting from colour charts
  • checking documentary sources for information to determine what paint colours were used when the building was constructed and inspecting other buildings from the same period that have been professionally restored
  • keeping in mind that colour placement is equally important to colour selection in relating to a building’s architectural form and decorative details
  • using a later colour scheme if it best reflects a significant period of the building’s history, particularly if there have been many additions or alterations over time.

Identifying original colours

You can analyse paints to identify original colours in the following ways:

1. Finding physical evidence

Inspect the building

  • look for original paint colours and finishes during restoration work, particularly in areas where doors or windows have been temporarily removed, later partitions demolished and behind fittings such as cupboards and electrical wiring or switches
  • use strong light projected at an angle on walls to look for evidence of raised stencil patterns or dados under later layers of paint.

Seek specialist advice

  • consult a specialist with expertise in analysing early paints and finishes
  • use professional expertise especially for paint analysis of larger or complex structures or for uncovering fine details/design or work, such as stencilling, dados and other types of decoration.

Carry out paint scrapes

  • investigate and scrape different areas of a wall or architectural feature because of possible colour variation, as on mouldings and decorative elements
  • look in hard to-get-to areas such as under window sills and close to joints where the original coating may still be preserved to avoid missing a paint layer
  • avoid inhaling lead paint as it was commonly used before the 1950s.

Examine a small area of paintwork on site

  • use a sharp knife or surgical scalpel (available from chemists or art suppliers) to cut diagonally across the paint coatings to expose different layers of paint until the original layer is reached
  • scrape back or sand larger individual layers of paint to help match colours from the original layer
  • apply oil or glycerine to the paint scrape to help bring out the colour.

Examine a larger area of paintwork on site

  • remove paint layers (preferably with chemical solvents) to expose each colour down to the underlying material
  • use this method to uncover stencils.

Examine a paint sample off-site

  • carefully cut through each paint layer for a small sample of original paintwork which can be bagged and labelled for later analysis.

Record and interpret findings

  • record the location and colour of each paint scrape, starting with the base and ending with the current layer 
  • understanding how a colour fades can help you to identify its changes through sunlight exposure - for example, Brunswick green fades to a light-blue and red paint fades more quickly than most colours.

Match colours

  • check the paint scrapes against paint manufacturers’ colour charts, or use either the Australian or British standard charts or the Munsell colour system, depending on the degree of accuracy required
  • take a small sample (approx 25mm square) to a paint manufacturer to match the colour 
  • distinguish the original finishing coat from the primer or the undercoat (e.g. Victorian-era primers were usually white or cream and sometimes red lead-pigmented primers).

2. Finding documentary evidence

The types of sources and their location may support the findings of paint scrapes and give you clues about the building's colour scheme or construction period.

Types of documentary sources

  • old black and white photos of the building or similar buildings showing dark and light tones and placement of contrasting colours
  • old photos depicting people wearing a particular style of clothing
  • diaries, letters or stories providing written descriptions of buildings
  • original building specifications, drawings and sketches and early paintings
  • period publications, such as old copies of Home Beautiful and The Architectural and Building Journal of Queensland, which are available in the State Library of Queensland.

Locating documentary sources

Further reading

  • Allom Lovell Marquis-Kyle Architects, Colour schemes for historic houses: a Queensland perspective, report for Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, 1994
  • Gehrig, Keith, Research Study No 9: A guide to traditional painting techniques, The Heritage Council of New South Wales, Sydney, 1985
  • Heritage Victoria, Technical notes: Metalwork, 2001
  • NSW Heritage Office, Maintenance series 7.2: 'Paint finishes', 2004
  • National Trust of Queensland, 'Exterior painting', Conserving the Queensland house, Brisbane, 1995 (guide 7 of 12)
  • National Trust of Queensland, 'Heritage colour schemes', National Trust of Queensland Journal, Oct 1992
  • Stapleton, Ian, How to restore the Old Aussie House, Flannel Flower Press, Yeronga, Queensland, 1991.

More information on painting

For more information contact Council's Heritage Unit.

28 July 2014