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Joe100

War of 1812 Sail Color

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Greetings!

 

I’m currently working on USS Wasp (1814) and I was wondering if the sails could have been any other color than the typical linen creamy white/tan? I’ve seen ships with reddish brown sails and I like the look. Of course I don’t want to do anything wildly out of historic context but for variety, it might be interesting.

 

I’ve spent about 2 days reading and searching here and I just can’t find anything on the subject.

 

Best regards,

 

Joe 

 

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The color of canvas will depend on the age and environmental conditions the fabric has been exposed to. New, it would be a pale buff. It might darken over time, bleach or, if stored in damp conditions, even show signs of mold.

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Thank you for the response, but maybe I should clarify a bit:

 

Im asking if a color such as this would be possible:

 

44CA995B-E405-418E-887B-643ED51915AC.thumb.jpeg.3681af84abc927f311687fa3b612a7ee.jpeg

Of course this is a much more modern ship but my question is whether this would have been possible. I’m just looking for a little variety for my next project.

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Barking or Tan Barking of sails produces the color you see in the photo.  It was done in order to give more longevity to the sails, but it was generally deemed to be too expensive to do on larger vessels with a lot of canvas.

 

Regards,

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Posted (edited)

It might depend on the needs of the Commission wether to treat sails against mold and sun. Regardless, there would be mismatched patches and reinforcing scattered around all sails treated or not. Treating sails with pine tar, paraffin and coal oil would require a place to do it and a method to heat the mix so it would be thin enough to penetrate fully and cure. I live in a windy part of the nation and when surveying spent hours in it, moving or standing at an instrument. Bought a Drover Coat for my wife that was lined and myself one that was not. They are like wearing a canvas tent, but stop the wind and shead water well, also they are heavy. Don't wear them much today although I did this spring for a few days, they are about 25 years old now, have retreated them once and expect them to be good for another 25 years . Suspect treated sails would display what these canvas coats displayed, heavy, stiff and tough.

 

 

Edited by jud

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Indeed, 'tanning' sails was only a practice on small(er) fishing boats that rarely had the opportunity to dry their sails properly, because they were worked every day. The process involved soaking them in a solution made from bark and then smearing them with a mixture of red ochre (hence the 'rust' colour) and tallow or oil. This made the sails rathre stiff and messy to handle. They would not furl very nicely and indeed furly will to some extent damage the 'tanning'.

 

In some parts of Europe, notably around the Mediterranean, it was also practice to paint the sails of smaller craft with all sorts of designs of apotropaic character, wishing good luck to the vessel, or as a signature of the owner.

 

It seems to have become fashionable among some modern 'tall-ships' to sport coloured sails, but this was not common in the 19th century.

 

Not sure, whether at this time they had already cotton sails in the USA, but from some point in time on US American ships tended to whiter sails than their European colleagues, that had sails made from hemp.

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The Dutch also imported catechu from the Indies for this process.

They used quite a lot of it, as not only sails, but also rope and fishing nets were treated this way.

I have never seen ochre used in all presentations I saw on this process: the cooking of the nets ans sails in the bark-solution results in a reddish brown colour.

 

Jan

 

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Jan, I believe there is, for instance, somewhere in the Zuiderzeemuseum an explanation of this process. Boiling the sails in the solution is but one step, but smearing them with a tallow-ochre mixture makes them water-repellent and covers them against UV-radiation. See also: https://books.google.fr/books?id=XvgDAAAAQAAJ

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Well, I wouldn't necessesarily trust painting - artistic license and ideas about colouration. Artists are not interested normally in the 'true' colour of things, but in how they appear under given conditions of weather and light. Ship portrays, usually painted by semi-trained or self-taught 'commercial artist' may be a bit more reliable, because those commissioning these paintings where not so much interested in artistic rendering, but rather in a representation of how they see their ship. Then they may have also preferred an idealised appearance, while in reality ships and sails may have looked more tatty and ragbag.

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I agree with wefalck; those 'ship portraits' were probably idealized a bit - instead of PhotoShop they were ArtistShopped!

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Another consideration for naval vessels would have been 'visibility' - from a purely tactical point of view why colour sails so that you are more easily spotted against the horizon?  At least flax sails tended to be of less contrast against clouds etc.

 

cheers

 

Pat

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Posted (edited)

In the exhibit in the Zuiderzee-museum, they told us that the tanning of the sails is more important for the small working craft: out in all weather, regularly lowering sails (during fishing, loading/unloading), not much time to dry the sails. (same holds for the fishing nets). Sail-rot was less of a problem for the 'long-distance sailers, so the disadvantage of dirty work, and stiffer sails did not balance the advantages (longer sail-life).

But: just a tourist guis telling us something. Don't know what his level of expertise was..).

(and painting /tallowing the sails was not part of the exhibit. In Dutch texts sometimes a reference is made to Iron Sulfate, that was added to the tanning mixture, as a pigment to get a nicer shade of red).

 

Jan

Edited by amateur

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At the shipyard outside the actual museum there is a little building, where they show the tanning process. Somewhere I have a picture, but I didn't put it onto my Web-site.

 

I you look into the above reference book on sail-making from 1843, it talks in detail about the process and that greasing sails was expressedly forbidden in the Royal Navy.

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Mention was made in the official court of enquiry of HM Brig Reindeer's (few) surviving officers, about the identity of the approaching ship prior to the battle, and Lt. Chambers recalled that he had correctly identified her as an American corvette, because of the white streak along her hull, and from the excess parlor, or whiteness of her sails.

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Posted (edited)
On 6/21/2019 at 2:23 PM, wefalck said:

Well, I wouldn't necessesarily trust painting - artistic license and ideas about colouration. Artists are not interested normally in the 'true' colour of things, but in how they appear under given conditions of weather and light. Ship portrays, usually painted by semi-trained or self-taught 'commercial artist' may be a bit more reliable, because those commissioning these paintings where not so much interested in artistic rendering, but rather in a representation of how they see their ship. Then they may have also preferred an idealised appearance, while in reality ships and sails may have looked more tatty and ragbag.

I understand why a painting would not be a primary source..  However, I have often seen them referenced here for other details, including colors, for other parts of a ship.  Why not sails?

 

P.S.

 

I notice in James' review of the cutter Alert kit:

 

Quote

The decoration that adorns the upper sides and stern is optional, as it is unlikely that the original vessel, when in service, would have had such decoration. This is inspired by the two paintings of the vessel by Joseph Marshall, which formed part of the George III collection of ship model paintings. It is possible the decoration would have been painted on during launch day, or if a prominent (Royal) figure visited to review the fleet.

 

Edited by Gregory

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Sails are more or less white/grey, i.e. have essentially 'non-colours' in a physical sense. This means that they would attain a certain hue that depends the on the surrounding lighting, reflecting the light that falls onto them. Artists would try to represent this, if they were reasonably good artists. Beginners or 'naive' painters would tend to represent the actual body colour.

 

This applies in theory to any coloured surface. Its appearance would be different from the true body colour and it has been the objective of artists for century to represent the appearance as well as possible, rather than the true body colour. The lighter the body colour the more pronounced this effect is going to be.

 

As colour photographers (before the age of automatic electronic white balancing) knew, there are certain hours of day, where these effects are more pronounced, namely early in the morning or before sun-set, you have a warm, yellow-reddish light, while at noon everything appears to be more blueish. This atmosphere the painter may have tried to evoke by giving everything a certain tint.

 

So, from a painting you can probably deduct, whether a part say was blue, red, or yellow, but what the actual hue may have been one cannot be too sure. A blue may have been in fact something greenish blue, a red may have been actually a reddish brown, or a yellow an orange, etc.

 

And, indeed, it is know that painters have embellished the subject, say by giving the impression that decorations where gilded, while in fact they were painted in yellow ochre on the real ship, etc.

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Indeed.

 

This also holds true in scale modeling in that using absolute colors like black or white make the model appear garish. For all my work in 1/700 scale, which I don’t think I’ve shared here, I don’t even own black paint in any form. 

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