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Something Completely Different, Part Two: Mid-1800s Watercolor Techniques

This article is the second I’ve devoted to mid-19th century watercolor. Like my earlier article, this one is meant to help reenactors interested in interpreting this medium for the public at Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, or elsewhere. In the first article, I outlined the typical tools of a watercolorist, based on catalogs and instruction books of the period. This article provides an overview of the steps and techniques for painting landscapes outlined in those same instruction books.

Caption: James Madison Alden’s finished watercolor of the Cascade Mountains,1860s, in the National Archives. He based the painting on field studies he made during the Northern Boundary Survey, 1857-1862. See this rest of his survey watercolors here:


Studies or Finished Work?


The steps outlined in the mid-century instruction books are for creating “finished” watercolors, not for quick studies done in the field.


Throughout the late 18th and 19th century, many professional artists used watercolor when away from their studio. Whether traveling on their own or as part of military or government expeditions, artists found watercolor an easy medium to travel with and a quick way to capture the sights they saw along the way. Their studies are generally loose and suggestive. Most are small (5x7-ish). Here is one of Paul Kane’s several 1840s studies of Mount St. Helens:


When the artist returned to the studio, these watercolors formed the basis for oil paintings. The work on canvas was based on many studies, mixing elements. That is one reason some paintings of “the West” combine Indigenous people (or objects) from different tribes. The paintings are carefully composed, and the artist often added drama. The goal was not to faithfully reproduce what they had seen, but rather to create works of art the public would admire, and clients would buy.


There were some artists who returned to their studio and used the watercolor studies to create more formal, finished watercolors. The instructions in the mid-century manuals, written for amateurs, describe the process for this type of watercolor. The look of these finished pieces reflects the extended time put into them. The entire surface is covered with paint. There are multiple layers, with drying time between layers. They are usually on bigger paper than the field studies — 8x10 or larger.  


Intriguingly, many of the mid-century finished watercolors of the Pacific Northwest formed the basis for another art form – lithographs. This print process, discovered at the end of the 1700s, increased in popularity through the 1800s. Prints were sold individually or used to illustrate books. Black and white lithographs were sometimes hand-tinted with watercolors. After mid-century, chromolithographs were made by using multiple stones, each laying down a different color. Both professional artists and amateurs (whose primary career was not art) took this path, employing professional lithographers to reproduce their work.

Here is John Mix Stanley’s watercolor of Mount Rainier:

Here is the lithograph based on the watercolor, published in the railroad survey for the northern route:


A favorite mid-century PNW watercolor of mine is a self-portrait by Edwin Porcher. He was a British naval captain stationed in Victoria in the 1860s. I love his depiction of his cabin with his watercolor set on the table beside him. One biographer speculated that Porcher created this watercolor in preparation for printing a book. Porcher had published before.  


Henry Warre, who visited Fort Nisqually as a spy in the 1840s, spend part of the next decade in the Crimea as a lieutenant-colonel in the British Army. He published books about both expeditions, illustrated with lithographs based on his watercolors. One of his lithographs from his time in the Crimea shows him in his hut, the wall plastered with his drawings and watercolors and his art supplies on the table in front of him. The original watercolor for this hand-tinted lithograph does not survive.


Process and Techniques


Below are the painting steps and techniques described in mid-century manuals. As mentioned above, the books were published to help the amateur create “finished” watercolors (and to sell paints), not as a guide for field studies. There are differences across the manuals, but they all include what I have outlined below. I am synthesizing and simplifying several lengthy manuals, so go to the sources for more depth. There are a couple of key differences between these 19th century techniques and the “modern” methods I was taught. Unlike today, artists left no part of the surface unpainted, and they did not use wet-on-wet as a technique (they do use gradients, but only for washes). They built the painting in many layers, with lots of drying time between each layer. That’s a method still used today. Since I am an impatient painter, I typically have more than one painting going at a time so I can work on one while the other dries.


 The Base Coat(s)


  1. Pencil drawing

  2. First wash: Do a light wash across the entire surface, with one of the following. Tilt the paper as it dries so the more intense color floats toward the bottom of your painting. One manual described this step as a means to infuse sunlight over the entire surface of the painting.

    1. Yellow ochre

    2. Yellow ochre and brown madder (orange)

    3. For sunset/sunrise tones: Indian yellow and crimson lake or rose madder (pink)

  3. Dry

  4. Blot: Wet the entire surface, lay chamois across it and blot.  On textured paper, you get a nice lift off from the high points.

  5. Second wash: Do a light wash across the entire surface, with one of the following. Like before, tilt the paper but this time so that the more intense color floats to the top of the painting.

    1. Cobalt

    2. Cobalt and rose madder (violet skies)

  6. Dry

  7. Blot

  8. Dry

Some mid-century manuals do only one wash, a gradient of cobalt blue above the horizon line to yellow ochre below. I really like the effect of the layers, but your choice!

Create the Elements

9. Rough out with “local color” — the color of the things themselves.

(see below for color recommendations)

10. Dry

11. Add shadows (also called shades)

12. Dry

13. Repeat as needed, adding details


Example: After base coats and blocking out sky and foreground. Clouds, mountain, and road are “blank” — base coat only showing through.

Create Highlights 


14.  Create highlights by “taking out”: removing paint to expose underlayers or white paper.

There are two favored methods for taking out. I found these processes extremely hard on the paper. Good quality cotton rag paper can handle it, but lower quality pulp paper will tear and disintegrate.

a.       First method: Wet the spot with water, let it sit, then blot with chamois, sponge, or handkerchief to remove the paint.

b.       Second method:  Scrape or pick the surface with a sharp knife (I use a pocketknife blade). Make sure the paint is very dry before attempting.

15. Dry

16.  Overpaint the highlights. For example, yellow ochre or gamboge on a cloud or tree for highlight.


Example: Nearly completed, after multiple layers and “taking out” in the clouds and distant grass for highlights.

Color recommendations


Below are recommendations for local colors and shade colors, per the manuals.[1] The paint used will affect how well some of the color combinations work. There were some synthetic colors available in the 1850s, but most paints were still made from natural pigments. There are more synthetics today, which is a good thing as many of the natural pigments they replaced were either toxic, “fugitive” (subject to fading), or very expensive. However, attributes of the modern synthetics vary. So, your indigo and gamboge might not combine to make the lovely green they made in the 1850s — both were made from natural pigments then, now both are synthetic. Yes, you can still find paints made from all-natural pigments, but not for every color (e.g. not the toxic ones). I have been satisfied with Winsor and Newton’s synthetics. I have had success with other brands too. You will need to experiment.



Note: when putting down first layer of local sky color, leave clouds blank so underpainting shows through. Darker colors work as shades/shadows on the clouds.


Cobalt or indigo (blue skies, indigo is slightly purple)

Yellow Ochre and Rose Madder (orange skies)

Cobalt and Light Red or Venetian Red (light purple)

Indigo and Light Red (darker skies/clouds-purply)

Cobalt or Indigo and Lamp Black (stormy skies-grey)




Green hills

Yellow Ochre

Yellow Ochre and Rose Madder

Cadmium (Yellow) and Rose Madder


Distant mountains (violets)

               Cobalt and Rose Madder


Nearer mountains /shades (dark purples)

               Cobalt and Light Red

               Cobalt, Indigo, and Rose Madder




Light/yellow green – for distant

Indigo and Yellow Ochre or Indian Yellow

(with Burnt Sienna, Rose Madder, or Venetian Red for autumn orange)


Middle distance

Indigo, Burnt Sienna, and Gamboge (or Indian Yellow)

Olive Green and Indigo


Shades/gray greens:


Indigo and Burnt Sienna

Cobalt and Light Red

Olive Green and Sepia or Vandyke Brown


Other foliage:

Indigo, Burnt Sienna, and Gamboge (or Indian yellow)

Gamboge and

Indigo or Cobalt (grass green)

Sepia (broken green)

Vandyke Brown (warm tones, fall color)

Cobalt and Emerald Green (glossy leaves)


Earthy bits (roads, banks, wood buildings, etc)


Yellow Ochre and

Light Red

Burnt Sienna and touch of Cobalt

Vandyke Brown



Mid-Century Instruction Books

These are the manuals I used to create the above summary. These and more 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.

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. 

[1] Instruction books published by paint manufacturers tend to name only colors that they produce, so you do find different colors and combinations mentioned in different books. I favor the Winsor and Newton colors, mostly because they are still manufacturing paint today.



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