Milk Paint: A Short History

From "Painter's and Colourman's Guide" 3rd ed. 1830 by P. F. Tingry

From “Painter’s and Colourman’s Guide” 3rd ed. 1830 by P. F. Tingry

In “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” one appendix is devoted to milk paint. As Chris notes there are plenty of milk paint recipes from the 1800s and provides a reference from 1836, “The Painter’s, Guilder’s and Varnisher’s Manuel…” by Henry Carey Baird. I thought 1836 was rather a late date. And I wondered if there was a recipe that was accepted as a standard and when the recipe came into use in America.

In 1774, an updated edition of “L’Art du Peinture, Doreur, Vernisseur” by Watin was published. This book took an orderly approach to the painting arts compared to the many ragtag publications that covered trade secrets that ranged from royal cake recipes to how to do your laundry.

About 20 years later, Antoine-Alexis Cadet de Vaux, a French chemist (and friend to Ben Franklin), was experimenting with the distemper recipes in Watin’s book. He published his findings in “Feuille de Cultivateur” around 1793. This was followed by “Memoire sur la peinture au lait” published in 1800 or 1801 (depending on which month it was in the French Republic Calendar at the time of publication). Cadet de Vaux noted that his previous recipe was published at a time of public misfortune (the Revolution) and a time of shortages. Although distemper paint was inexpensive the cost and shortages of linseed oil led him to use milk instead.


In “Memoire,” Cadet de Vaux describes the advantages of milk paint compared to distemper: milk paint was cheaper, the recipe was not heated, it dried fast, did not smell of size or oil and when rubbed with a coarse cloth the paint did not come off. The recipe consisted of skimmed milk, fresh slaked lime, oil of caraway, linseed or nut oil and Spanish white. He explains that the “skimmed milk has lost its butyraceous part, but retains its cheesy part.” The cheesy part acts as a kind of glue and gives the mixture an elasticity.

Cadet de Vaux also provides a milk paint recipe for exterior work. In 1801, “Memoire” was translated and published in London in “The Repertory of Arts and Manufacters,” and you can read the recipe and the butyraceous remark here.

Cadet de Vaux’s recipe was repeated in “The Painter’s and Varnisher’s Guide…” by P. F. Tingry (a Swiss chemist) in 1804. Many more editions of painting and varnishing manuals with various titles and translations followed. Cadet de Vaux’s recipe appears to be the standard.

Somewhere around 1803-1808, milk paint recipes appeared in articles and almanacs in New York and New England and for the most part were from the English translation of Cadet de Vaux’s “Memoire.”


Now I get to write my favorite command in Franglish, “Fetchez la vache!”

Suzanne Ellison

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31 Responses to Milk Paint: A Short History

  1. Rachael Boyd says:

    can you tell me different for milk paint and chalk paint and its place in history?

    • saucyindexer says:

      The casein from milk was a binder in paint and its use goes back thousands of years. When oil-based paints were developed in the 15th century casein fell out of favor for use in art but was likely still used in other applications because it was cheap. Experimentation with milk paint recipes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was an effort to formalize a cheap alternative to oil-based paints. White chalk and gypsum were used for whitewashing which has also been around for centuries. Finely ground white chalk was also added to distemper, sometimes called a soft distemper. I can’t tell you how the old recipes for milk and chalk paints might compare to the products that are marketed under those labels in today’s market.

      • charlie says:

        I thought Annie Sloane invented chalk paint?

      • ehisey says:

        Annie patent a paint she calls “Chalk Paint”. Various paints have been called chalk paint that server different purpose over the years. When I first heard about Annie’s gimmick, I could not figure out what the big deal was over a paint that made things work like a chalk board. At one point “chalk board paint” was just called “chalk paint” also.


    FIVE ON-LINE 19TH CENTURY TITLES ON DECORATIVE PAINTING & VIDEOS,Arthur+Seymour&printsec=frontcover&source=bl&ots=gf1SxRRxML&sig=4RucPHThNGwyI9w7q8oUgAGwK7A&hl=en&ei=7A9JSuPeBJSetweGxaHaBg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2 Paint & Varnish [Google books] Arthur Seymour Jennings [ also wrote Modern Painter and Decorator The Painter, Varnisher & Guilder’s Companion Baird, Henry Carey (Google books) Nathaniel Whittock – The Decorative Painters’ and Glaziers’ Guide, 1828 [full PDF] Also available in print on demand from Nabu Public Domain Reprints – useful in this format. Higgins Paint Manual from the Smithsonian Library Practical Graining by William E. Wall, Philadelphia, 1891 with 47 colored illustrations. BBC video on circus sign painting

    TWO SITES WITH 18TH CENTURY PAINT FORMULATIONS Raadvad (Rådvad) Center, Denmark has 20 recipes of home made historic formulations Parks Canada – Louisbourg 18th Century Paints & Whitewash

    FALU RED or Röd Farg (SWEDISH BARN RED) The paint consists of water, rye flour, linseed oil and tailings from the copper mines of Falun which contain silicates iron oxides, copper compounds and zinc. The current recipe was finalized in the 1920s. Aging Falu red will flake off, but restoration is easy since only brushing off of the loose flakes is required before repainting. http://www.en.wikipedia.org

    • saucyindexer says:

      Thanks, Richard. You gave me a couple I haven’t seen before….in other words, homework! (o.O)

    • kingarthur900 says:

      Richard, Thanks for posting these links. I’ve been looking for a good period source on grain painting, and the William Wall book is exactly what I was searching for.

      • While we are painting the town “worldwide” here is a Swedish restoration supply company that is probably the best in Europe… known as the Gysinge Centrum För Byggnadsvard . They have an amazing on-line catalog with raw pigments, oils, etc and many many traditional restoration products we seem to have forgotten about. I’ve used them for years. Their 300 page plus printed catalogue (in Swedish) has 1/4th devoted to products and the rest is “how to.” Well worth having and using Google Translate as needed.

        The Getty collection is outstanding. The 18th century is all available if you take the time to poke and find it. I’ve a 165 page list of websites from around the world about restoration and conservation … just write and I’ll email it free of charge… .
        Best to all – Richard O. Byrne

  3. Sean Yates says:

    Run Awaaaay!
    Run Awaaaaaay!

  4. Tim Raleigh says:

    Just when I was wondering when we would get another post by Saucy Indexer, we get this very informative post. Thanks.

  5. “le cadeau! Le cadeau!” “huh?” “a gift! A gift!” “oh!”
    French soldiers who don’t know French. Comic genius.

    Also, interesting stuff!

  6. Hello All,

    Thanks for this post!!!

    I am curious…does the group reading here think workshops covering the basics of “natural traditional finishes” have legs??

    I grew up make many of these with family members from egg and milk to flax oil and Yakisugi – 焼き杉…

  7. kaisaerpren says:

    so this is the oldest written record for a milk based paint?

    • saucyindexer says:

      No, there are recipes using milk or milk products that are much older. Cadet de Vaux, Tingry and others were examining the chemical properties of various paints and starting to standardize measurements.There were also many problems with paints emitting noxious fumes, not drying properly, the expense of materials, etc.

    • saucyindexer says:

      Thanks, Ryan. The Getty in particular has a large digital collection for painting and finishing. Their collection includes a German translation of Cadet de Vaux’s “Memoire.”

      • Ryan Mooney says:

        Yeah, another acquaintance somewhat recently informed me that they had quietly digitized their entire collection and made it available online.

        You can well imagine my glee 🙂

  8. prrk47002 says:

    One question. Which breed of cow makes the best paint?

  9. potomacker says:

    I am scratching my head trying to understand the use of ‘distemper’ as applied to paints.

    • saucyindexer says:

      I looked this up just for you. From the original Latin distemper means to mingle/mix thoroughly…as you would the components of a paint. Distemper, the disease in animals, came from a much later use meaning upset, deranged and illness.

      • Sean Yates says:

        If you don’t like distemper
        we got datemper over der…

      • potomacker says:

        Yeah, that’s sorat what I concluded, too, but then why is there also a tempera paint, clearly from the same Latin root meaning to mix up? Were both terms used interchangeably at one time and what, if any, is the meaningful distinction between a distemper and a tempera paint?
        I defer to your expertise in this etymological affair.

      • saucyindexer says:

        Think of distemper as the general term for a paint using an animal or vegetable glue as a binder. One of the binders could be egg. Somewhere along the line tempera was the name for paint using only egg as the binder. Another quality of egg tempera is it has to be painted on a hard surface. Of course, if you look up tempera you will find it can have many types of binders (that’s just to confuse us).

  10. I believe, or as I have found in following traditional recipes, “Tempras” originate in the Middle East, where they are still blended in the ancient methods. These modalities as would be found in the Nile Valley outward…all are based strictly on egg yolk as the primary binding agent. I believe this is still where the oldest examples (7000 years) exist. There are augmented forms, that may have additives from flax oil and sinew glues to plant resins. One additive example is fermented cactus juice which provides a water-soluble long-chain carbohydrate that acts as the binding agent to increase the further adhesion.

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