Demystifying the Paint Investigation


After Vatican II and the reconstruction of the liturgy, many parishes applied these changes further, resulting in architectural and artistic alterations and modifications to churches. In many churches, statues were removed, walls were painted white or grey, even high altars were chopped to fit the modern mode of the time. However, trends fade and the intricacy of tradition and history become classic once again. In order to understand a paint analysis one must first understand the intricacies of an architectural building. In a Gothic church for example, decoration would have supported the ribs at the vaulted ceiling and provided a unified sense of looking Heavenward.

Many of our ecclesiastical projects begin with the question, “What once was?” which leads to the process of discovering what lies beneath, through a paint analysis. The Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford, CT is an excellent example of a church that was painted over in the 1970s and decided to peel away the monotony to reveal rich colors, symbolism and elaborate stencil design. At the Basilica we conducted a paint study which consists of a four step process:


There are four components to an historic paint study. These components provide the basis for defining the design elements, color scheme, and skills required for conservation, restoration, or elements to create new designs that are consistent with the intent of the original architect or designer.

  1. Archival Research & Information

  2. On-site Paint Exposures

  3. Laboratory Analysis

  4. Compilation & Interpretation of Findings

Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford, CT: Before


Working closely with the Building Committee, we collect and evaluate all documentation and historical references and research the church’s history through photos and archives available. This provides a better understanding in the history of the building, if there were multiple paint schemes over the years or if there were artwork or murals. Archival research also helps identify important locations to explore during the next step of the investigation - paint exposures.


Exposures is an archaeological dig through decorative history. An exposure is created when paint layers are removed to reveal the original or targeted period of decoration. Exposures are done throughout the church or buildings architectural features such as the ceiling, above wainscoting, arches, etc. in order to develop a cohesive understanding of the original.


During an on-site investigation, sample are taken for cross-section microscopy analysis. Under microscopy view, the paint stratigraphy of each sample can be seen and each layer of paint, or overpaint, can be seen. In some instances, even dirt can be seen between the layers of paint.

The paint stratigraphy helps us identify the significant color campaign and provide a color match. We are able to identify gold leaf vs other metallic leafs and glazes. We are also able to identify faux finishes such as faux bois and faux marbres.

Here are to samples of cross-section microscopy taken from two different substrates. The sample on the left was taken from a plaster wall while the sample on the right was taken at a window surround.


With archival research, on-site investigations, and laboratory analysis, a compilation of our research is prepared and presented to the pastor, building committee, and/or parish.

From photos of the church we are able to get a cohesive idea of what the original decoration and paintings looked like, through the onsite paint analysis we are able to connect the photos to these “windows” into the original decoration, and by analyzing the samples we match and mix paint colors to the original.

Now that there is a basic understanding of how the church might have looked, the pastor and the building committee can visually understand that the decorative painting revealed is typical of the Gothic churches, unlike white walls. In the case of the Basilica, the walls were heavily decorated with numerous patterns and stencil designs throughout the church. Different symbolism in the church’s original design communicates imagery of the Gospel Writers, motifs honoring Christ and Mary and a strong masculine color palette for the church’s patron, St. John the Evangelist.

With the information compiled from the paint analysis at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist, the designs were recreated and the colors were matched to the original designs uncovered. The photo above shows the interior today, an incredible church, properly decorated to support the architecture but it all began with curiosity and a little investigation to see what was and what could be. Read & See More about the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist.

Basilica of St. John the Evangelist

The decorative arts must grow out of and compliment the architecture. That being said the designs within a church should reflect the time it was built, take into consideration the present age in which it is being decorated, and look towards the future to create a design that will stand the test of time. Ecclesiastical decoration should possess the most perfect proportion and harmony as to reflect the perfection of the Divine. With the information collected, there are numerous design possibilities: reinstating the original or developing a new paint campaign based on the original however, we must remember that the design must simultaneously acknowledge the history of the parish, support the architecture, illustrate the Liturgy and endure for generations to come.