Previously painted plaster fragment used to colour-match new distemper. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

Distemper paint

Paint doesn't come any more natural, practical or traditional than distemper, a beautiful interior finish for walls and ceilings. The term distemper is actually a general term for any water based paint that blends whiting (or chalk) with a weak animal based sizing, or binder, like rabbit skin glue.

A popular feature of Elizabeth Farm is the range and quality of beautiful paints on display throughout the old homestead. These include traditional and modern oil paints, kalsomines, claire colle coatings, curiously concocted drabs, french polishes, interior and exterior limewashes and ultra-flat water-based acrylics. None are more interesting than distemper.

Before the days of mass produced emulsion paints, distemper was incredibly common. It was cheap, practical and easy to make. Not only that, it 'covered well' and was beautful to work with. In colonial homes, distemper was used in servants rooms and informal spaces like the back halls, pantries and stairways along with bedrooms, dressing rooms, conservatories and other private areas. And these are the rooms at Elizabeth Farm where you'll find distemper today.

Here's a brief look at this fascinating paint and a step-by-step guide to making it yourself.

Here's a brief look at this fascinating paint and a step-by-step guide to making it yourself.

timber shelves and household items photographed against soft powdery distempered walls
Warm and chalky distemper on the walls of the butler's pantry at Elizabeth Farm creates an authentic, early 19th century atmosphere. Photo © Paolo Busato for Sydney Living Museums EF10_031

What is distemper?

Distemper is a traditional hand-made paint, that leaves a soft, velvetly, slightly uneven finish. Most of the time distemper can be applied in two coats, one straight after the other. When prepared properly, it goes on easily, dries quickly and can be washed off again with a wet rag. This makes it perfect for painting decorative plasterwork like cornices and ceiling roses where you don't want a build up of paint layers to bury the sculptural detail.

Unfortunately, distempered walls scuff and scratch easily and are difficult to keep clean. Spot cleaning will leave smears and streaks, although in the past distempers were used in low key and utilitarian areas where appearance was unimportant.

Distemper is a perfect finish in buildings where moisture is a problem. Its porosity, or in other words, its ability to breathe, allows underlying moisture to escape to the surface and away from the masonry. It's also the only paint that will sit happily on freshly plastered walls. Oil paint, by contrast, reacts dramatically with the high lime content of traditional plaster, causing the paint to go gluggy and 'saponify', which results in a soapy mess. To avoid this, new walls were left to cure for two to three years, or buffed to a smooth polish. Otherwise the surfaces were finished in distemper until the lime had settled down. 

group of young student wearing costumes listening to female teacher standing in colonial period bedroom with large bed, fireplace, painting and wallaby skin rugs in the room.
Bone coloured walls in the main bedroom of Elizabeth Farm, intended to resemble newly applied, unpainted plaster in a recently completed room, around 1830. In the past, these walls needed to cure for 2-3 years before oil paint could be applied. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

it goes on easily, dries quickly and can be washed off again with a wet rag ...

What's it made of?

The main ingredient in distemper is whiting. This is a fine white 'chalky' powder dissolved with water into a creamy paste. You can buy whiting at a hardware shop.

The 'binding' ingredient is animal skin glue, or size, which is sold in granules at art supply shops. The glue mixture is prepared separately by adding water, allowing it to absorb and then heating it gently until it becomes a liquid. The job of the glue is to hold the whiting together and help it stick. Once they are ready, the whiting and glue mixtures are stirred together into a creamy liquid.  

To colour the paint, pigments or ‘tinters’ are carefully added until the desired tone is achieved. Traditional distemper needs to be used quickly as the animal-based parts of the recipe will soon go rancid and smelly if left unused.
 

commercially sold yellow granules of dried rabbit skin glue in clear plastic wrapping
Rabbit skin glue is sold in bags of granules at art supply shops. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

distemper needs to be used quickly as the animal-based parts of the recipe will soon go rancid and smelly if left unused

Distemper, step by step

At Elizabeth Farm, the back hall, butler's pantry and plant rooms have recently been painted in a soft bluish-grey distemper, with the ceilings finished off in a plain white distemper. Our expert painters Steve Wilson and Archie Smith made the distemper themselves and carefully matched it to coloured fragments rescued from behind the timber architraves and under the floorboards.

They used a simple, traditional distemper recipe, which closely resembles one found in the 1879 tradesmens handbook The paper hanger, painter, grainer, and decorator1, held in SLM's very own Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection

Here's Steve Wilson's version of the recipe, plus a handy step-by-step visual guide to preparing the ingredients and painting with distemper. We hope you enjoy using this fascinating finish.
 

TRADITIONAL DISTEMPER INGREDIENTS

whiting - 1000 grams
water - 400 mils
animal skin glue - 50 grams
 

Method

  1. mix whiting and water, set aside
  2. follow directions on the pack to prepare glue
  3. heat glue to soupy consistency
  4. combine whiting and glue
  5. colour with tints
  6. filter through fine muslin
  7. apply distemper to wall or ceiling
  8. stand back and admire

Steve Wilson and Archie Smith made the distemper themselves and carefully matched it to coloured fragments ...

measuring glue granules
Measuring glue granules into scales. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

 

step 1

Weigh glue granules with a scale.

pouring glue granules into tin
Pouring glue granules into tin. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

Step 2

Pour glue granules into mixing tin.

adding water to glue granules
Adding water to glue granules. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

Step 3

Add water to glue granules in mixing tin.

mixing water and glue granules
Mixing water and glue granules. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

STEP 4

Stir glue granules until thoroughly soaked. Allow mixture to rest and water to be absorbed.

water soaked glue granules
Water soaked glue granules in tin. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

Step 5

Measure out glue granules with a scale.

heating glue mixture gently in double boiler
Heating rabbit skin glue mixture gently in double boiler. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

Step 6

Turn water-soaked glue granules into liquid by warming in a double boiler, ie by submerging the mixing tin in a larger container of boiling water.

Set glue mixture aside.

measuring quantity of whiting into dish on weight scales
Measuring quantity of whiting into dish on weight scales. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

Step

Measure out whiting powder with a scale.

adding water to whiting mixture
Adding water to whiting mixture. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

Step 8

Pour in water.

stirring whiting into a smooth creamy paste
Stirring whiting into a smooth creamy paste. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

Step 9

Stir to combine water and powder into a paste.

adding warm glue mixture to whiting paste
Adding warm glue mixture to whiting paste. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

STEP 10

Combine 'warm' and runny glue mixture with whiting paste. You've now got a colourless paint that will bind together and stick on a wall.

colouring mixture with a combination of oxide tints
Colouring mixture with a combination of oxide tints. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

Step 11

Play around with tints and oxides to get the desired colour. Be careful, adding tints in small quantities. There's a lot of room for trial and error here.

matching colour with sample fragment of previously painted plaster
Matching colour mix with sample of original plaster. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

Step 12

Test your colour with colour swatch or sample.

stirring tints into a smooth mixture until paint is a uniform colour
Stirring tints into a uniform colour. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums 

 

STEP 13

Continue stirring and blending tints until the paint is smooth, creamy and a uniform colour.

sifting the coloured mixture through a piece of fine muslin
Sifting the coloured mixture through a piece of fine muslin. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

Step 14

Sieve the coloured mixture by pouring it through a piece of fine muslin into another container.

wall being painted straight after the distemper is prepared
Wall being painted straight after the distemper is prepared. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

STEP 15

Start painting, working from the ceiling to the floor. Don't be afraid to move fast and enthusaistically.

Painters moving quickly from top to bottom of wall
Painters moving quickly from top to bottom of wall. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

step 16

Work consistently by laying on the paint in generous, flowing movements. Don't stop until you've completed an entire section.

freshly distempered wall
Freshly distempered wall. Photo © Christopher Shain for Sydney Living Museums

 

work complete

Step back and admire your work. Try not to 'patch in' spots or make too many changes at this stage or else you'll end up with obvious touch ups.

ABC of paint

All paints, (ancient and modern) combine three things: a hiding pigment (whiting, white lead, slaked lime), a binder (hide glue, gum arabic, milk, egg, etc) and a vehicle (mineral turps, water, milk). The hiding pigment gives the paint body and is usually mixed with colouring additives like pigments and chemical tinters. The binder holds the solution together and makes it stick to a surface and the vehicle makes it spread evenly and consistently off the brush.

Notes

  • 1. Savory, Charles H, The paper hanger, painter, grainer, and decorator's assistant, London Kent & Co 1879. p79

About the Author

smiling man seated on the back of a boat wearing cap and sunglasses with red ensign flag waving, with blue water and Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background, under blue sky.
Gary Crockett
Curator, Interpretation
Curatorial and Exhibitions
It was the dog‐eared world of Rouse Hill House, back in 1991, that inspired Gary Crockett to become a curator.
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