The History and Evolution Of Paint (Colors, Durability, Types)

Humans have always been creative and painting is one of the earliest forms we expressed our creativity. The history of paints dates as far back as the cavemen that used primitive objects and wax to draw and paint on the walls of their caves.

Since then, paints have evolved and are still evolving. Today, we have several types, colors, and forms of it.

In this post, we’ll look at the history and evolution of paint over the years and we’ll look at the best types of paints to use for different projects today. Let’s dive in

Early History

The early history of painting as a form can be traced to the archaeological findings in the Blombos cave. Archeologists found the world’s oldest drawings and engravings in this cave, some of which are over 100,000 years old.

In 201l, archeologists found toolkits that cavemen who dwelled in the caves used to grind pigment. They ground organic matter and minerals like charcoal and iron oxide together to produce what could be referred to as paint. This is the earliest documentation of humans making and using a paint-like substance.

Several decades later in ancient Egypt, the Dendera walls were painted using mineral substances like lead and the first recorded case of an additive in the paint. Scientists discovered that the Egyptians mixed a sticky substance, usually Gum Arabic (a tree extract) with their paint to make it bond better to the walls.

The Dendera walls that were painted 2000 years ago still retain their appearance even after decades of exposure to the elements. Asides from the Egyptian civilization, several other cultures also have their history of mixing and making them.

This period also saw the practice of adding organic substances like beeswax, milk, and egg yolk into the paint to give it special attributes. Buddhists used poppy seed oils and walnut oils to create oil paintings on their cliffs around 1300 years ago.

A few decades later and people started hiring experienced artists for interior walls of their homes. These artists were not many, so affording them was a practice for the elites.

The artist would show up with his assistants and a load of equipment including grinders, stones, and slabs. They also brought ingredients for the paint like fish oils, pigments, clay, tree nuts, bugs, leaves, and minerals like lead. The artist decided on what to grind and mix in the pots. A pestle and mortar were used to crush ingredients.

Painting buildings became a popular practice since then, especially in Europe, and more people dove into the practice. In 1718, an Englishman, Marshall Smith invented a Machine used for grinding and mixing colors.

However, it was not until the industrial revolution in the 18th century that they became officially recognized as a part of many economies. From the 1750s to the early 19th century, paint mills increased in number in Europe.

These factories used steam-powered mills to mix and grind ingredients and zinc oxide was now used as an alternative to lead. Painting buildings was now the norm and in 1866, Sherwin-Williams opened as a commercial paint maker and they invented paints that could be used straight from the container.

Contemporary History

The end of the 19th century saw the emergence of major paint factories like Sherwin-Williams and Benjamin Moore. These companies spent massive amounts of money researching chemicals that could be used to improve the features of their product. One such investment is the computer-based color-matching system developed by Benjamin Moor in 1982.

The mid-20th century also ushered in a new era in paints. Most of the paints produced during this period were made for residential uses and homeowners could choose from different colors or schemes. Sherwin-Williams became popular for its “Home Decorator” series.

Since then, paints have evolved. There are now several factories, each with its brand of paint type. There are also special types that are designed for certain materials. We have metallic paints for metal and steel surfaces, aluminum paint, wood stain, masonry paint, and many others.

Asides from the paint, you also get the desired finish. You can choose from flat/matte finish to high-gloss finish.  You can also use sealers on your finish to protect them. There are tons of paint types, colors, and finishes.

Chemical Composition

The chemical composition of paints is similar – All paints have 4 main parts; the pigment (color), the binder (to attach the pigments to the surface), the solvent (or carrier), and additives. The four parts work together in the paint.

The solvent keeps the paint in its liquid state so it is easy to apply. Without it, the paint will solidify in its container. The solvent can be water or oil and is commonly referred to as the base. So, you have water-based and oil-based paints.

The paint pigment like coal tar is suspended in the solvent and they give the finish its color. The binder ensures your paint sticks to the surface. It also holds the other parts together and ensures uniform flow and consistency.

The additives are chemicals and organic compounds that are used to give the paint special attributes. For instance, exterior paints have UV-blocking additives and silicone compounds to protect the finish from UV rays and heat.

Before the 19th century, paints had different formulas. Traditionally, paints were 90% organic but today, the formula of most paints is at least 70% synthetic or man-made.

Before the 19th century, artists used organic compounds like egg yolk and milk as binder additives. The pigments were often crushed from decomposed matter and fossils. Leaves, nuts, bug extract, tree oils, and minerals were used as additives. The mixture is then dissolved in water or oil.

On the flip side, the paints had special attributes. They lasted for years and retained their vivid colors. Since they had a large volume of organic matter, there is less weathering effect on the finish.

The industrial revolution in the 19th century saw massive changes in the composition of paints. Zinc oxide was now used instead of lead to get the paint pigments. Linseed oil was a popular binding additive and solvent. It is inexpensive and doesn’t have a rancid odor.

Final Words

In summary, the history and evolution of paints date as far back as anyone can remember. Humans have always used different objects to decorate and protect surfaces.

Its form today can as well change in the coming years, so it’s safe to say paints are still evolving. Before picking one to use, consider the surface to be painted and the features you’ll need from the finish.


Tony Adams

Tony Adams

Woodworker, Interior and Exterior Painter, Flooring Specialist

Tony is a professional painter and an author of DIY Geeks. Tony has completed over 1,000 painting projects for his clients. It's safe to say he knows what he Is talking about.

Eral Kadrija

Eral Kadrija

Lead Editor, Home Renovator

Eral has a passion for home renovation and repair. Over the years, he has bought, renovated, and sold 7 old homes. Using his experience from different DIY projects he created DIY Geeks.

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