Layers of paint reveal hidden histories

Investigating and uncovering hidden details of historic places is what AHS does best, and it’s what many of our clients engage us to do. Our role is to help celebrate a building’s previous uses and conserve its heritage significance while integrating the building or place into a contemporary context and development.

Our skilled and experienced team offers a multi-disciplinary approach to heritage architecture projects which can include heritage master planning, heritage impact statements, landscape heritage assessments or adaptive re-use and conservation advice.

Managing Director Ben Gall and Senior Consultant Julia Pritchard ensure all areas of significant fabric are sampled within the Cairns Court House.

There is an increasing demand for Historic Paint Analyses within our suite of services, which seeks to determine the original or earliest colour scheme of a building or feature. This knowledge adds to our clients’ understanding of a building’s previous functions, informs their decisions about preservation, and provides direction and answers to questions about painting and future colour choices.

In a Historic Paint Analysis, the earliest detectable layer is usually the most important in the process. However, this is not always a simple task, as our team has come across buildings that were stripped and re-painted over time, or perhaps the structure originally had a limewash finish which often weathers away and can be very hard to sample. Our team has the experience and technical skill to recognise when the earliest layer isn’t necessarily the original layer, and therefore which paint layers are best to guide new colour schemes for a historic place.

The Abbott Street Coat of Arms at the Cairns Court House prior to being repainted. Photo taken during paint scrape sampling by AHS 2020.

A painstaking process

When commencing a paint analysis project the first step is to ensure we have a thorough understanding of the building’s history and significance. This allows us to target specific rooms and features that we know to be original or early fabric, giving us the best chance of determining the earliest colour scheme.

We aim for a cross-sample of two or three paint samples from different locations within each architectural feature as this allows for a cross-analysis of the paint layers and colours. The amount of samples required depends on the size of the building and the number of significant elements – at our Cairns Court House project we spent two days collecting more than 80 samples from inside the building.

Samples are collected using scalpels and specimen bags with each location being logged and photographed. This process is similar for all surfaces with plaster and wood usually being the easiest to sample. Stone and brick surfaces can be more challenging and often result in flakier samples.

At a recent project in Collingwood, VIC, our samples showed paint layers and render layers mixed together, confirming that the building had been re-rendered or patch-repaired in places. The render is more porous and often has sand granules and silica clast mixed. This is the sort of detail that can be identified under microscopic analysis. The thickness of a layer can also determine whether it was an undercoat or the finishing coat – important information to understand when trying to understand the stratigraphy and history of paint layers on a building.

After taking notes on site, the samples are transported to our in-house lab for microscopic analysis at 100x and 250x magnification. This reveals a huge amount of detail that isn’t visible to the naked eye. What might look to only have five or six layers, could suddenly have thirteen or more under the microscope! Each paint layer is matched to an Australian Standard colour or to a paint system that is commercially available and easy for our clients to obtain such as Dulux or Keim.

Clients see sites in a new light

At the conclusion of the process the AHS team delivers a report outlining our findings and conclusions. The microscopic evidence is presented within tables which allow our clients to understand each layer, along with labelled examples of the microscopic analysis and our interpretation of the information.

The completed Cairns Court House Coat of Arms in December 2020. The Historic Paint Analysis was able to bring the early, vibrant paint scheme back to life and reinstate the Coat of Arms as a stunning feature.

The information we gather in a Historic Paint Analysis is as rigorous as possible. We ensure that lots of background research has been conducted, not only on the site itself, but on comparative sites, as well as investigating historical photographs and cross checking the colours we see with what is typical for a building’s time period. For example, if we are investigating a Victorian era building, we know that Brunswick Green and Indian Red were common during this period. This sort of information helps us to paint a picture of a building’s historical context, as well as assists in understanding the multiple paint layers.

Many of our recent projects at sites across the country have benefitted from historic paint analysis reporting including at Collingwood, Brisbane, Rockhampton, and Cairns. At AHS, we love the challenge of a Historic Paint Analysis, and encourage all owners of heritage places to undertake an investigation when seeking to change the colours of a building or feature, to ensure that these sites remain as historically accurate as possible.

Contact us

To discover how we may be able to assist on your next project, contact us today here via our website or phone (07) 3221 0000. You can also connect with us on Linkedin.

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