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Something Completely Different: Mid-1800s Art Supplies

In addition to being an exhibit curator, I'm also an amatuer watercolorist and volunteer at Fort Nisqually Living History Museum. Sometimes, I demonstrate mid-19th century watercolor tools and techniques. This blog post originally appeared as an article in an issue of the Fort Nisqually Foundation's newsletter, Occurences.

Edmund Coleman’s self-portrait shows him painting in the wilderness of Mount Baker. The wood engraving that appeared in his article, “Mountaineering on the Pacific,” published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (Volume 39, Nov. 1869, pages 793-817.)

During the last part of the 18th century and first half of 19th century, there was an explosion in the variety and quality of materials available to watercolorists. The developments were a major factor in the rise of the use of watercolor, both by professional artists and among amateurs. The period is known as the “Golden Age of Watercolor” in England, which includes works by artists JMW Turner and John Constable. 


In North America, the new materials were a valuable tool for artists exploring the Pacific Northwest who sought to capture the landscape and people in watercolor. A small handful of these artists included Fort Nisqually in their travels and art.  There are six known sketches and watercolors of Fort Nisqually during its active HBC period, 1833-1869. In spring 2020, Fort Nisqually will open an exhibit about the artists’ lives and work.


This article summarizes the development of watercolor materials around the turn of the century. It describes what was available to traveling artists during the mid-1800s, thus providing a “supply list” for reenactors interested in interpreting this mid-18th century media for the public at Fort Nisqually.



Artists exploring the Pacific Northwest in the mid-19th century would have had access to hard watercolor cakes and to moist watercolor pans. The latter are just like the ones we grew up with — pats of color that can be moistened with a wet brush.


Up until the mid-18th century, artists had to prepare their own pigment powders by grinding mineral or organic material into powders, then mixing them with the medium of choice. For watercolor, that would be gum arabic, sugar, and water. By the mid-18th century, “colormen” where offering already ground pigment powders, which the artist could mix when they needed them.


Then, about 1780, one company of the colormen, Reeves and Sons, invented a way to produce a small cake of prepared watercolor. These cakes were dry and hard, and the artist turned them to paint by dipping them in water and rubbing them on a porcelain dish or in a shell. Other merchants followed this example.


In 1832, another company of colormen, Winsor & Newton’s, invented the moist watercolor, which came in small porcelain “pans.” The artist only needed a wet brush to draw color from the moist cake. Fifteen years later, Winsor & Newton was selling these moist prepared watercolors in tubes. The harder cakes continued to be offered alongside the moist watercolors through the end of the century.

By 1850, there were dozens of colors available, in both cakes and pans, many of them relatively new, and more being added all the time. Prices varied. A review of the colors commonly sold in smaller paint boxes in the 1850s (up to ten colors) and recommended in watercolor painting manuals of 1840s and 50s reveals a basic palette of:

●      Browns: Vandyke brown, burnt sienna

●      Blues: indigo, cobalt

●      Yellows: yellow ochre, gamboge

●      Reds: light red, crimson lake (or rose madder)

Other oft-mentioned colors include raw sienna, madder brown, Prussian blue, Indian yellow, vermillion, Indian red, venetian red, and olive green. Chinese white, an opaque zinc oxide produced by Winsor & Newton, was introduced in 1832 and quickly became an essential part of artists’ color box.


Hard watercolor cakes were often embossed with the makers name or logo.

Moist watercolors were available in small porcelain “pans” wrapped in tin foil, and later also sold in tubes.

 Moist watercolors available from Winsor and Newton, available in pans and tubes, 1850.


Paint boxes and Tools


Paint tools and storage proliferated through the rest of the century.


By the early 18th century, colormen were offering watercolor paint boxes of wood and japanned tin to hold watercolor cakes. The larger and fancier of the mahogany wood versions came complete with dishes for rubbing out the hard cakes, water cups, and places for brushes and other tools. When moist watercolor pans came along, they were designed to fit within the compartments that had been made for hard cakes.


Many of the fancy wood boxes survive in excellent condition — which is probably a sign of their popularity among amateur artists who used them only occasionally. The japanned tin versions were popular with professional and traveling artists, as they were smaller and easier to transport. A few belonging to famous artists — such as Winslow Homer — survive.


The tins and wooden boxes were offered throughout the 19th century (and if you think about it, through to today). As the century progressed, traveling cases that provided space for the tin boxes and additional tools proliferated. Some artists created their own cases. When stocking their paint boxes or cases, whether store-bought or homemade, instruction books of the era suggested the artist include, in addition to paints and brushes:

●      Pencils.

●      Penknife, for sharpening pencils and “taking out” colors.

●      Emory paper, for sharpening pencils.

●      India rubber eraser.

●      Water dish.

●      Ceramic tiles or palettes for rubbing out and mixing colors.

●      Scrapers, sponges, chamois, and/or silk cloth for “taking out” colors.

●      Sticks of India ink, for ink washes.


 Watercolor tin and wood boxes offered by Winsor and Newton, 1850s

This leather sketching case, 1867, came with block of paper, a sketchbook, japanned water bottle and cups, leather rolling case of brushes (sable and camel), pencils, penknife, Indian rubber, and space for a japanned tin of moist colors. Queen Victoria’s watercolor satchel, made especially for her, included pencils, Indian rubber eraser, Chinese white, water bottle with two cups, and a japanned tin set of moist watercolors with small mixing cups. See it here:

Examples of water bottle with cups, 1882 illustration.



Papers & Drawing Boards


Traveling artists could purchase sturdy watercolor papers suitable for popular techniques, and they had a variety of options for stretching and transporting them. A lot of what was available then is still in use today.


In the mid-18th century, James Whatman invented a process for making “wove” paper. The process created a much more even surface than the common laid paper. Thick, wove paper quickly gained popularity with watercolorists because it was extremely sturdy and perfect for multiple layers of watercolor paint and the popular technique of “taking out” — creating highlights by removing paint by wetting and rubbing or picking off dry paint with a knife. By the mid-1800s, the wove paper was available in three different textures: hot press (smoothest), cold press (AKA not pressed), and rough. Paper sheets were sold in various sizes ranging from 20”x15” up to 52”x31.” The artist cut the sheets to get smaller sizes. The watercolors completed as artists while traveling through the Pacific Northwest tend to be small – a lot of them close to 5”x7”. This may reflect a desire to keep cost down or make traveling easier, or both.


Watercolor paper needed to be stretched before painting to prevent it from warping while working it. Artists were taught to thoroughly wet the paper and then pin or glue the edges to a drawing board. After it dried, it would stay relatively flat through the painting process. By the 1820s, suppliers offered boards made of wood (softwood or mahogany) with clamps or frames, which tightly held the paper and eliminated the need for pinning or gluing. A similar device, made of japanned tin frame and leather, was also available at mid-century. It had a pocket for containing completed sketches and additional paper.


By the 1840s, paper was also available in solid blocks. A stack of sheets was glued together around the edges, forming a solid block. When the artist finished a work, a knife run around the edges separated the sheet from the block. Blocks were sold in smaller sizes than loose sheets. In 1850, Winsor and Newton sold white paper blocks in sizes from 7”x5” up to 11.5”x9.” The glued edge of the block helped to hold the paper taut, eliminating the need for a drawing board for stretching. Their small size and “built-in stretcher” would have made them ideal for the traveling artist.


Front and back view of framed drawing board offered by George Rowney & Company, 1870.

An 1850 manual describes how the wood boards worked, “The best kind of drawing-boards, however, are made with a frame and a moveable panel, upon which the paper is simply put wet, and then forced into the frame, where it is confined by wedges at the back.” (Enfield 1820)

A tin and leather “sketching folio” from Winsor and Newton, 1850

A solid block in a cover offered by Winsor and Newton, 1859




Mid-century artists could purchase camel and sable brushes with handles of quill or metal-ferruled wood.


Brushes with a metal ferrule, which holds the bristles together and attaches them to a wood handle, were available by the end of the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the 1830s or 40s that they are widely marketed. Quill handled brushes, which used thread or wire to hold the bristles, were still offered alongside the metal-ferruled brushes through the end of the century.


By the 1850s, camel brushes (actually squirrel) were being superseded by red and brown sable. Camel was still available, but mostly advised for general wetting and broad washing. Today the term “sable brush” refers to brushes made from any member of the weasel family, typically martens. Also available at midcentury were a few brushes of “Siberian hair,” which may refer to what is known today as Kolinksy sable, made from the fur of a mink species native to Siberia (also in the weasel family),  and often considered the best of the natural brushes for watercolor.


Quill and metal-ferruled wood brushes, 1850


Other equipment for the traveling artist


As art instruction in the 19th century increasingly emphasized the importance of sketching and painting outdoors, suppliers offered a variety of equipment to assist the artist. In the 1850s, artists could purchase sketching stools, umbrellas, and even tents.


Sketching umbrella, 1900. These are offered in earlier catalogs, though not illustrated. The manufacture offered a “smaller size (suitable for ladies) …”


 Offered by Winsor and Newton, 1859.

Selected Sources

Most of the information and images included in this essay are from period instruction books. Just like today, art supply manufacturers saw the advantage in publishing instruction books. Their catalogs are often found in the back of the books. Many of these books are available online through archiving sites such as Google Books and Hathi Trust.


Chapman, J.G. 1847. American Drawing Book: A Manual for the Amatuer, and a Basis of Study for the Professional Artist. New York: J.S. Redfield.

Cohn, Marjorie, and Rachel Rosenfield. 1977. Wash and Gouache: A Study in the Development of the Materials of Watercolor. Cambridge, Mass.: Center for Conservation and Technical Studies.

Enfield, William. 1820. Young Artist's Assistant. London: Thomas Tegg.

Field, George. 1835. Chromatography; A Treatise on Colours and Pigments, and of Their Powers In Painting. London: Charles Tilt.

Fielding, Theodore Henry. 1844. Ackermann's Manual of Colours. London: Ackermann and Co. .

Penley, Aaron. 1850. A System Of Water-Colour Painting. London: Winsor and Newton.

Rowbotham, Thomas Leeson, and Thomas Charles Leeson Rowbotham. 1850. The Art of Landscape Painting In Water Colours. London: Winsor and Newton.



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