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Directions for Painting Monochrome Walls

These are Rufus Porter's directions for painting monochrome walls as reprinted in The Scientific American in 1847. It is thought he painted murals for twenty-one years, 1824-1845, therefore they represent the full benefit of his expertise as they were written after he had painted his last wall. In many ways a monochrome wall would be easier to paint than a colored wall.

Chiar-oscuro, or light and shade painting on walls. This is an elegant branch of painting and can be accomplished with great facility. It consists of all the variety of landscape scenery with only one color, and the various shades between that color and white. When black alone is used for the dark shade, the several graduated shades will appear as delicate colors. But the colors more generally employed are a mixture of black with red, or (black) with chrome yellow: the former constitutes a dark plumb (sic) color, with shades of purple; the latter a dark green, with shades of green drab or stone green... in applying the ground colors, the same order is observed as in full colors.

A tint of about the same depth of shade as sky blue is applied to the upper walls and the rising clouds are made with white. The color is changed a shade darker for the land and water of all the several distances. The ground of the fifth distance may be first painted and shaded; afterwards the water and the other distances in succession. An expert artist, however will paint over the whole ground at once, and applying the shading and lightening of each distance, in season to blend the lights and shades before the ground color becomes set or solid.

Four different shades or grades of color are commonly used, which are termed the dark shade, medium shade, light shade and ground color. The light shade is used for shading the fifth distance highlands: the dark shade for the first and medium shade for the second distance. The artist will commence at one corner of the room and work to the right, painting the whole space from the horizon line to the dadoe (sic) line, to the distance of four to six feet, and immediately shade and heighten his work thus far, forming mountains, shores, islands &c., as far as the ground is put on, and then proceed with another section. Of course he must have his design matured and in his mind; and if there appears any break, or imperfect match between the sections, he has only to build a tree or bush over it. So in regard to any defect in the ground painting on any part of the walls, a ready remedy is always found, in trees, bushes or clouds.

In representing houses, trees or vessels, on the fourth distance, no darker color than the light shade is applied; but the medium shade is used on the second and third distances. All trees, rocks &c. are heightened with white. The tops of large trees, on the first distance, are commenced with dark shade on the shade side, progressed with medium shade, and finished with white.

We have seen an artist in this branch paint the entire walls of a parlor, with all the several distances, and a variety of fancy scenery, palaces, villages, mills, vessels &c. and a beautiful set of shade trees on the foreground, and finish the same complete in less than five hours. And as we have before remarked, if there were a competent supply of artists who could accommodate the public with this kind of painting, it would nearly supersede the use of paper hangings.