Architectural paint analyst Natasha Loeblich traces the histories of structures from such as the Revolutionary War-era buildings at Colonial Williamsburg, by studying what’s on their walls. I spoke to her about her work and the field.
What exactly is architectural paint analysis?
Well, basically it’s just looking at the paints on the building and trying to figure out the original color. And a lot of people want to know not just the original color, but also what the building’s been painted over history. And then in those paints you’re trying to find specifically the pigments that are coloring the paints, but also what the binder was—so for example if it was an oil paint, or if it was a lime wash, or a distemper or something like that.
And is the main goal to be as accurate is possible in terms of historic preservation? What are clients typically seeking to get from the process?
There are all different kinds of paint analysts, I guess because it’s a new field. A lot of us meet every three years to have a big international conference because we’re trying to set standards for the field about what is acceptable practice and what you should be doing. A lot of people just want to know what color their historic house was originally, and so someone will come to their house and just scrape on the wall and see the original color. The kind of work I do is more expensive and more time-consuming, and so it’s usually funded more by organizations or museums. And in that case they might not necessarily always be wanting to repaint the structure, but they just want to know the history. So for example James Madison’s house or Thomas Jefferson’s house, they want to know how it was the whole time he was living there—did he change the colors in a room, why did he change the colors, did he use expensive pigments or cheap pigments—because those might tell you about his financial status at the time, or fashion trends going on. So there’s really a whole range of how it’s interpreted. At Colonial Williamsburg, it is more they want to know what was on a building for history’s sake, but in the end they’re trying to interpret these buildings for the public, so they actually do want to paint them the way they looked in the revolutionary period in Williamsburg.
How did you get into the field?
I did architectural history as a masters at UVA and was really interested in that, but I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my degree. And then I got a side job working in art conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and got really interested in art conservation, because it has a research side and a science side and an art side. You get to work hands-on with the art objects, which I thought was wonderful. And then I found out about one of the big programs doing this kind of new, more scientific approach to architectural paint analysis, which is the Winterthur / University of Delaware program. What they’re trying to do is approach architectural paint as if it were paint on an easel painting—look at it more scientifically, take samples; if you’re going to put it under a microscope use certain analytical techniques like scanning electron microscopy to identify the pigment. So we’re trying to take a more thoughtful, scientific approach, I guess, to architectural paint analysis now.
Can you describe a project or two that you’ve worked on?
There’s been a few really neat ones. A lot of them weren’t necessarily surprises. There was one I worked on in Newport, Rhode Island, where all the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts were, and they thought that one room might have been covered with platinum foil on the walls, instead of, you know, (laughs) less expensive gold or silver foil. So we did an analysis using a portable X-ray fluorescence machine and were able to prove that the foil on the walls was actually platinum.
And then at Colonial Williamsburg, there have been a lot of projects where we thought we know what colors the buildings might have been based on documents. For example there’s the St. George Tucker house, where there’s an unbelievable surviving paint contract from 1789 where the painter and the owner are specifying which colors are going to be applied to the building. These things hardly ever survive, so that was amazing. So we wanted to really see if we could find traces of those original paints, and we did, actually, find them on the roof, which was kind of an unbelievable survival. So I guess at Williamsburg I’m always amazed at what does survive on these buildings after 300 years, especially on the exteriors—you would think that there would be nothing left there.
What does a typical day for you involve?
Unfortunately it’s a lot of report writing, pouring over the data. The fun part is when you go to the structure and really get to look around. At Williamsburg I always work with the architectural historians there, because they know so much about the building and they’ve studied it, and they know which walls are the original walls and which walls aren’t. And then we find where we think we’re likely to find the original paint still surviving. And then we take really small samples with a scalpel—samples just a few millimeters across—and store them in plastic bags. Then we come back to the lab and I cast those in a polyester resin cube and then grind through the cube so that you’re getting a polished surface that’s kind of like a slice of a cake, so that you’re seeing a cross-section, all the layers lined up. And then I look at that with a microscope in visible light and ultraviolet light to try to see what the binders and pigments are. And then we also take scrapings of the paint which would be used for pigment analysis. And we might apply biological flourochrome stains, which are developed from biology for identifying different components in the binder. For example, you can stain for oils or protein or carbohydrates or zinc. And then we take millions and millions of pictures of the samples, and then we write up huge reports where we try to be really scientific and follow conservation practice: if you can sample an art object or a building, you document where you sampled them, you document what you found, and you show as many images as you can to make up for the slight damage you’ve done to the building.
Are there any buildings that it would be your dream to work on?
I work with a woman who’s kind of my mentor. She was my professor at University of Delaware—her name’s Susan Buck, she’s a PhD. She has had some really unbelievable projects that she’s gotten me involved in too. For example, we’ve both gone over and worked on the Forbidden City in Beijing. We’ve worked at Montpelier, James Madison’s house; Monticello; places like that. Even things at Williamsburg—I’m sort of a fan of Thomas Jefferson, so, knowing that you’re finding paints on buildings that Thomas Jefferson stayed in that he would have seen on the walls when he was at Williamsburg—I think that’s kind of a big kick.
Interview conducted, condensed & edited by Sarah Wesseler