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History of paint

Tens of thousands of years ago, humans discovered that combining coloured earth with a sticky liquid resulted in something with creative potential. Coloured rocks, earth and minerals could be ground into powders and mixed with a binding medium such as egg or animal fat to make paint. By using paints coloured with yellow, red and black earths or clays, patterns and stories could be created on rocks and inside caves.

Around 20,000 years ago paintings were made using yellow and red earths, and whites and blacks from bone and charcoal.

Now that early people had paint, they found surfaces on which to express themselves. Astonishing early paintings of animals are preserved in the caves of Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in southern France. In addition to charcoal, a much richer black was made from a type of coal called pyrolusite. These minerals began to be transported further afield as societies grew more sophisticated.

In ancient Greece and Egypt, materials were imported from all over Europe and Asia to make paint and decorate temples.

Sand, lime, and copper ore were mixed together and heated to between 850C and 1000C to make a greenish blue pigment called Egyptian blue. A lively red was produced by mixing dangerous mercury with sulphur and roasting them together. White was made by sealing strips or coils of lead in earthenware pots with vinegar and covered by manure. Although the classical palette was still limited, the painter had more colours to play with.

In the early 15th Century, oils replaced egg as a binding medium and transformed painting.

The Flemish painter Jan van Eyck was credited with inventing oil paint, but oils were already in use before his time. His true invention entailed building up oil paint layers from fast-drying to slow-drying, and opaque to transparent. These innovations enabled painters to create more detailed work. Oil paint could be mixed more easily and applied in big strokes or layers. In the 16th Century artists also began to paint on canvases which could be larger and more easily transported.

By the end of the 19th Century almost any colour could be purchased for a relatively low price.

Throughout the 1800s, traditional methods of producing colours declined as cheaper, reliable, standardised chemical methods replaced them. Most artists and their apprentices no longer mixed their own paints but bought them ready-made from professional “colourmen”. New green pigments like emerald green, were used in wallpapers to decorate Victorian homes. However these new popular pigments often contained poisons, such as arsenic.

By the 20th Century, non-toxic paints were developed which helped artists become even more creative.

Safer alternatives were developed such as titanium white which replaced lead white. Viridian green took over from arsenic-containing emerald green. As the use of paint increased, the search for durability and a wide range of colours was led by manufacturers of industrial paints who were making glossy enamel and house paints. Artists like Picasso and Pollock started to use them for their colour range, fluidity, matte or gloss effect. They also liked their industrial look and feel.

Acrylic paint was invented in the 1940s and transformed painting, quickly replacing oil in everyday paint.

Water-based acrylic paint was cheap, held colour well, dried quickly and was water resistant when dry. For some applications, it was much more suitable than oils. Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein used them in combination with oil paints. Others such as Helen Frankenthaler and Louis Morris preferred synthetic acrylic paints for their richness of colour, and the watercolour effects they could obtain by diluting them and letting them stain the raw canvas.

The palette of paint colours continues to grow thanks to developments in science, including innovations such as iridescent and fluorescent paints.

Traditional paints – including some which are toxic – are still available, though they are mostly difficult to source, and better, cheaper, and safer alternatives now exist. Today we can choose from an almost infinite number of safe, durable, vibrant colours to express our artistic imagination – a far cry from the limited yellow, red and black earths our ancestors used on cave walls.