A Brief History of Professional Painting

I am not completely sure what it takes to become a “Professional Painter” in the U.S., other than a business license and a sign that says you are a professional painter. Not that I don’t hold the highest respect for professionals in the painting industry. I did a great deal of painting in the Navy, and as a home owner and DIY enthusiast, I have more than a little appreciation of the work involved in painting on a large scale.

The modern paint industry has made paints and painting relatively easy. It is simple, if labor intensive, to achieve great results with your project. However this hasn’t always been the case.

The specialized skills of painting led to the formation of the Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers in London in 1502. Not that painting was difficult for the members, but there were enough trade secrets that the guild felt the need to band together to protect their secrets. They also sought protection from Parliament in order to keep members of other trades (especially plasterers) from painting and taking away their business.

The Painters Guild, like any other guild, was controlled by the Master Craftsmen who were full members of the Guild. The Master Craftsmen were also responsible for the training of apprentices and regulating the activities and fees charged by Journeymen. Apprentices were kept as members of the Master Craftsmen’s household, providing cheap labor while learning the painting trade. After seven years they could be released as Journeymen to follow the trade on their own, but were not full members of the guild until they were accepted as Master Craftsmen.

In preindustrial times, you couldn’t just go and buy paints. Part of the Apprentice’s training would be the preparation of paints and primers. Primers are still not well understood by non-painters. The paint that is used for the final coat will not always adhere to the surface being covered, so a primer is applied that will allow the covering paint to stick. The pigments used in paints were often a closely held secret (although it is assumed that the secrets would have been traded amongst Guild members) but would have been made using available natural materials. These would have included various clays and mineral products and other natural dyes.

In those days the painter also had to construct his own tools. There was no place to buy a paintbrush, so they had to be made from available materials; wooden handles, natural bristles, and sometimes wire or cord to attach them to the handles.

In many European countries during the early modern period, the painter’s guild was called the Guild of Saint Luke. Saint Luke, whom legend holds painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary, is the patron saint of artists and painters.

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