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Historic Preservation - Technical Procedures
Guidelines For Identifying Historic Paint Colors
Preservation Notebook Series - Gsa
Guidelines For Identifying Historic Paint Colors
GUIDELINES FOR IDENTIFYING HISTORIC PAINT COLORS
A. This procedure includes guidance on when to specify the
use of historic paint colors, how to identify historic
paint colors and how to contract for paint analysis. It
documents items required of the conservator performing
the work, it outlines a methodology for analyzing the
paint, and it provides recommendations on how to prepare
a complete and thorough paint analysis report.
B. Accurate identification of historic paint colors is an
important part of the General Services Administration's
restoration program. The original architects of GSA's
historic buildings selected paints and finishes that
would express their designs in the best possible manner.
Paint colors and textures were intentionally chosen to
articulate the architectural elements within each space
and to convey the relative importance of different spaces
within the building.
A. American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), 100
Barr Drive, West Conshohocken, PA 19428, (610) 832-9585
or FAX (610) 832-9555.
A. Substantially complete (95%) and completed paint analysis
reports will be submitted to the Regional Historic
Preservation Officers for review and comment prior to
completion of the contract.
1.04 QUALITY ASSURANCE
1. Sampling: The conservator taking the samples must
have a knowledge of paint sampling techniques
sufficient to identify locations where complete
stratigraphies are likely to exist, and where
original paint colors are least likely to have
degraded. Verification of this knowledge may be
requested at the time of negotiation.
2. Laboratory Analysis/Interpretation of Samples: This
must be done by a conservator trained in the
laboratory analysis of architectural paints on
buildings of similar complexity of those being
studied for GSA.
B. Field Samples:
1. Sampling Locations: In spaces designated for
sampling, all original paint/stain colors and clear
finishes must be identified. Take samples from
areas that have been subjected to the least
possible exposure. Indicate sample locations on
floor plans and/or elevations of the space sampled.
Take a sufficient number of samples to ensure:
a. an accurate accounting of all of the finish
layers on each sampled surface.
b. that "like" elements in the same area or type
of space in the building have the same number
and sequence of layers.
2. Sampling Technique: For each surface to be sampled,
reveal each paint layer using a surgical scalpel or
craft knife with a curved blade. Expose 1/4"-1/2"
square inch of each layer.
3. Matching: Using a daylight equivalent 3200 or 3400
Kelvin light source, match the first significant
paint layers and original stain colors to the
Munsell or Plochere System of Color Notation,
according to Section 5.2 and 5.3 of ASTM DI535-68.
4. Original Clear Finishes: Solvent test to identify
the type of finish (shellac, varnish, lacquer).
Note the finish type in seriation charts and report
5. Decorative Finishes:
a. Should graining, marbling, or other decorative
finishes exist at any layer, expose a
sufficient area of each layer to reveal the
pattern or technique and photograph the
exposed area. Note the type of decorative
treatment (graining, marbling, stenciling) on
the seriation charts and code the base coat.
b. Notify the Contracting Officer of frescoes or
other decorative finishes discovered during
the course of this contract and note in the
report. The Conservator will not be held
responsible for the documentation of fresco
painting under this scope of services.
A. The Conservator must supply all required color books,
lights, analytical materials, and color chips, as well as
provide the necessary scaffolding, swing stages,
electrical modifications, or removal of materials
adjacent to the fabric to complete the inspection.
3.01 ERECTION, INSTALLATION, APPLICATION
A. When to Specify the Use of Historic Colors: In painting
contracts involving historic properties, specify the use
of historic colors for the following locations:
1. All exterior painted surfaces.
2. Lobbies, entrance vestibules, corridors,
auditoriums, libraries and other public spaces.
3. Other significant spaces identified in the
building's Historic Structure Report (HSR), Chapter
9 "Inventory of Significant Spaces and Features.
"When no HSR is available for a building, consult
the Regional Historic Preservation Officer (RHPO)
for a space's historic significance.
B. Locating Historic Paint Color Information: The building's
historic paint colors are provided in Chapter 5 "Paint
Analysis", of the HSR. When no HSR is available for a
building, or when the HSR does not provide colors for the
space in question, contract for paint analysis to
identify the historic colors.
C. Historic Paint Color Identification:
1. Paint analysis uses laboratory techniques developed
for the field of art conservation to identify and
document original paint colors and components. An
ultra-violet light microscope is used in the
laboratory to identify pigment and binding media.
2. Paint color documentation involves cutting through
existing paint layers, examining paint
stratigraphies under magnification, and matching
the first (i.e. original) layers to a standard
color system. Standard color systems allow precise
documentation of original colors, using alpha
numeric codes which describe the color attributes
of hue (pigmentation), chroma (color intensity),
and value (lightness/darkness). Each alpha numeric
code corresponds to a unique color card which can
be matched to any modern paint.
D. Computer Color Matching: Computer color matching
machines, available at most major supply centers,
eliminate the subjectivity of visual matching and error
which occurs when paint colors are matched under
different lighting conditions than those present in the
historic building, a phenomenon called "metamerism".
E. Documentation for Paint Analysis: The conservator must
perform all services and provide all materials and
equipment necessary to complete the study and prepare the
1. Provide paint sampling, analysis, and a written
report of findings and repainting recommendations
for each location required. The following report
format is recommended:
a. Introduction: State the purpose of the paint
analysis, recognize the sample locations, and
explain the "period of significance" for paint
restoration. Provide the following:
2) Building name, number, and location.
3) Areas subject to analysis.
4) Examination dates and analysis names.
5) Research methods.
b. Paint Seriation Charts:
1) Present paint seriation charts (color-
finish history) graphically in columnar
charts. Head each column with the name
of the substrate, primer, first finish
later, second finish layer, and so on,
with the present paint layer shown last,
at the bottom of the column.
2) Align paint chronologies of different
elements so that the paint scheme for any
period can be read across a single
3) For materials originally left unpainted,
name the substrate at the top of the
column, as for other elements, and
indicate "(unpainted)" in the line
corresponding to the original finish
layers. Provide a Munsell or Plochere
code for the color of the substrate.
c. Observation/Findings: Describe paint evidence
in clear, physical terms, e.g., "first layer
primer", "first finish layer", rather than
"first significant layer", or other terms
ambiguous as to the position of the layer in
d. Conclusion: Explain in general terms how the
paint analysis findings relate to the overall
design of the space. State clearly what is
known and what is not known from the paint
analysis. Do not abbreviate or restate the
e. Recommendations: Provide recommended
1) Provide a narrative and a list of
recommended finishes, by location,
including common color names for paints
and stains, Munsell or Plochere color
codes, gloss levels, and clear finish
a) Recommended Colors and Finishes
List: List elements vertically by
location (e.g. "First Floor Main
Lobby: Ceiling: Rosette, Coffer,
Fret Molding, Fret Background", etc.
On horizontal axis, correlate each
architectural element (listed in the
left column to the recommended
paint/stain color name, finish
(gloss level, texture, vehicle for
clear coatings), and standard
Munsell Plochere color code (listed
in the right columns).
b) Decorative Finishes: Break original
multicoat decorative finishes (eg.
Glazed paints), graining out by
component layers and describe the
overall intent, or common name of
the decorative treatment. Note the
type of decorative treatment in the
c) If the list does not provide
adequate space, name the components,
or layers of the decorative system
in a separate section. For example,
"mahogany graining" may be broken
down into a ground paint layer
followed by one or more glazes; a
gold leaf finish might include a
yellow bole, gold leaf, and a
lacquer; and antiqued imitation gold
leaf finish might include a "Dutch
metal" leaf made of ground copper
and zinc followed by several
textured glazes. Key the ground or
base of each decorative system to
the Munsell or Plochere system.
2) Narrative: Explain the paint
recommendations within the larger
restoration context. Unless unusual
historic considerations dictate
otherwise, paint restoration must return
the building to its original appearance,
i.e., as designed by the original
architect. Justify the recommended color
scheme. Emphasize that colors, both
natural and applied, were part of the
original architect's design.
3) Period of Significance: In rare cases,
the "period of significance" for
restoration may not be that of the
earliest paint scheme. The Conservator
must provide strong justification, based
on scholarly restoration principles, for
restoration paint schemes using colors
other than the original colors identified
by the paint analysis. Such exceptions
are most likely to occur when the
building has experienced significant
alteration over time, and when the
alterations have acquired significance in
their own right. Check with the Regional
Historic Preservation Officer prior to
starting analysis to determine if such
direction is already recognized.
4) Recommended colors for materials
originally left unpainted: Match the
substrate to the Munsell or Plochere
system. Describe the material's primary
natural color names. Recommend whether
or not stripping to restore the natural
finish is advisable. For example,
stripping may not be advisable if the
surface has been patched with dissimilar
materials or the substrate is
deteriorated or extremely porous.
5) Recommended colors for features lacking
original paint: The recommendations for
repainting must address gaps in the
physical paint evidence. Provide
recommended colors for all of the painted
surfaces in the space. Draw analogies,
if possible, between elements with known
original paint colors (or clear finishes)
and non-original or stripped elements for
which physical paint evidence is
6) When paint evidence is unavailable, or an
element is not original, prescribe
restoration colors/finishes using the
following types of evidence, in order of
a) Physical paint evidence from the
same area of the building.
b) Physical paint evidence from
another, similar area of the
c) Historical documentation on the
building, such as the architects'
original specifications or
d) Physical paint evidence from studies
of other buildings of the same
period, style, and type, preferable
in the same region.
e) Scholarly research (primary or
secondary, cite sources) on
architectural paint styles and
practices of the period.
Appropriate primary sources include
paint research on other buildings,
period tastebooks, period paint
manuals, manufacturer's paint
palettes of the period, letters,
diaries, paintings, etc.
2. Provide the government with a detailed listing of
the number of samples required to identify all
colors at these locations and the cost to provide
sampling and analysis. Also provide a narrative
that documents the following:
a. The actual methods used, including all tools
b. Paint analysis findings, describing original
color schemes for each location.
c. Any special comments on paint techniques or
d. Recommendations for repainting.
3. Do not sample elements which visual inspection
indicates are not original.
4. Prepare paint chronology charts for all paint
layers on the sampled surface. Match the first
finish paint layer to the Munsell or Plochere
standard color notation system; identify other
colors by common color names.
a. Record all paint layers on standardized paint
seriation charts, using common color names.
Show common color names and color codes for
first significant layers. Should a color fall
between two such codes, list both codes,
separated by a dash (e.g., 5Y9/1-5Y9/2).
b. Record each layer of each different portion of
the building fabric in corresponding layering
sequence, so that the overall color scheme of
each period of the building's history can be
5. Provide 3"x5" color chips (1 set) for the earliest
or most significant (if predetermined not to be the
original finish layer) color scheme, as a matching
guide for repainting. If there are two periods of
significance, provide color chips for both periods.
6. Provide graphic illustration of color scheme: Show
the location of each color or paint technique on
drawings, floor plans, diagrams, or photographs.
If original or subsequent drawings of the building
exist, the Government will provide them. For
complex polychrome surfaces, illustrate the
recommended paint scheme on a section (profile)
sketch, with broken lines marking where breaks
between colors occur.
7. Identify original finish systems for clear finished
wood elements. Match original stain colors to the
Munsell or Plochere systems. Solvent test to
identify the type of finish (shellac, varnish,
END OF SECTION