My Guess on the Color of "Olive" Paint

A National Park Service Artillery Demonstration at Petersburg around 1980

This is the paint used on artillery carriages, etc.

According to "Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War" by James C. Hazlett, Edwin Oldstead, and M. Hume Parks -

"a careful analysis of the paint formula will reveal that "olive" color is actually almost mustard with a greenish tint. Olive paint was used on the wood parts" ... "All metal parts were painted a flat black"

Bronze gun barrels were not painted, but iron or steel barrels were painted black

Here is a table from the "Ordnance Manual of the Confederacy" listing quantities of paint required to complete various projects
Kind of Carriage Lead color Olive Black

Lbs. Lbs. Lbs.
Field gun-carriage and limber with implements 6 10 .75
Caisson with limber and implements etc. 8 15 .8
Forge with limber 6 10 1
Battery-wagon with limber 7 13 .9
Casemate carriage and chassis wooden 7 14 .75
Barbette carriage and chassis wooden 6 11 1

If you want to make some paint for yourself - the formula is in reprints of the Ordnance Manuals of the time.

Olive Paint is made from the following ingredients and proportions -

Two versions of liquid olive color are listed
Olive paste 61.5see formula below
Boiled oil 29.5this is the boiled grade of linseed oil - available from a hardware store
Spirits of turpentine 5.5available from a hardware store
Dryings 3.5Mixture of copperas (iron sulphate) and litharge used in ancient process of boiling oil, with turpentine and boiled oil added
This is probably not practical to find, without boiling your own linseed oil.
I suppose a modern drying agent might do the same job or perhaps this ingredient may be unnecessary because modern "boiled" linseed oil contains drying agents.
Japan varnish 2black varnish - I haven't found a source for the original article

Olive Paste is made from-
Yellow ochre - pulverized 68a wide variety of yellow ochre pigments are available from art supply dealers
Lampblack 1.1also known as soot - check art supply dealers
Boiled oil 37this is the boiled grade of linseed oil - available from a hardware store
Spirits of turpentine 0.4available from a hardware store

Yellow ochre (French) 46a wide variety of yellow ochre pigments are available from art supply dealers
Boiled oil (raw 45) 40this is the boiled (or raw) grade of linseed oil - available from a hardware store
Litharge 5red or yellow lead oxide - A lead based crystalline powder
Lampblack 2commonly known as soot
Spirits of turpentine 5available from a hardware store
Japan varnish 2black varnish - I haven't found a source for the original article

Given this formula, it appears that yellow ochre is the major pigment in this paint.

A search on the internet reveals that yellow ochre combined with lead white and a shade of black (perhaps lampblack) to get verdaccio - a greenish khaki color. This is from - "" . Another example of yellow ochre on the web is at - "" It also states that is does not preserve well and that it is used to make flesh tones.

It would be interesting to know if any reenactors have tried reproducing this paint. I think I would omit the Litharge, which is largely lead, perhaps just adding a bit of red pigment to make up for it. The oil would be linseed oil. Japan varnish is largely oil, with a dollops of a few other ingredients including litharge, red lead, turpentine, umber, shellac and white vitriol.

So it sounds like greenish mustard is about right . Perhaps it comes out something like the background on this page which turns out to be a cross between mustard and olive on the Netscape color picker. Remember everyone's monitor renders colors differently, so you may not see what I see. If anyone has reproduced this paint from the original formula, let me know how close this guess is to what you made.

Update - 8/13/2011
As an experiment, I tried converting some modern color pictures to grayscale with Photoshop using only the blue color channel.  Wet collodion photography of the civil war era was only sensitive to blue light.   After doing this conversion I did some comparisions to original pictures found in the National Archives.  One thing that I've noticed in several original pictures is that it appears the rims of wheels are routinely coated in mud or dirt.

The limited contrast between the ironwork, which we know was painted black and the wood in the original photos, leads me to think that perhaps Olive was actually a darker color than I originally thought.    Do a comparision yourself and decide for yourself.  

Below is the picture at the top of this page converted to grayscale using only the blue color channel.  Note the high levels of contrast between the ironwork and the woodwork.

modern picture converted to grayscale

Below is another picture of a cannon in dark green that I converted in the same way.  Far less contrast between the iron and woodwork can be seen.

dark green cannon

Below are several original images as scanned by the Library of Congress from original period plates.  Not much contrast is seen between the iron and wood work.


city point (from Library of Congress)

artillery wharf at city point

Below is the original color version of the second modern picture.

atop lookout mountain