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Colors on ships


VonHoldinghausen
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Hello!

 

I have for rather a long time been thinking about the colors of ships (their carvings mainly) from

the 17th century. As I live in Sweden I have seen the Wasa (Wasan/Wasen etc.) at lest 50 times and

been following her since discovery.

   When I see later models and representations of her (pictures/paintings) I cant help but think that

she is unusually colorful. Or is she maybe not? Tests have resulted in the colors she is shown in today,

and there arent many other vessels preserved from that time, which means that she is rather special.

   The only thing we have (almost) is paintings of other vessels. To me they show almost always ships

in FAR less colourful outfits.

   My question here is if maybe many other ships should be represented with far more color than

they are (models, paintings etc.)? Or was this maybe a typical Swedish manner of painting them?

   I would not guess so..

 

Cheers

Edited by VonHoldinghausen
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It is my understanding the the Vasa of 1627-8 was intended as a flagship and a prestige vessel. I think you would be safe to assume that both the carvings and the painting were more elaborate than most ships. She was designed from the start to impress.

Edited by michaelpsutton2
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Many people underestimate the part that economics and politics played. I suspect some of the preliminary models were as ornate as possible to raise interest in the project and the prestige of the shipwright. Once the ship was approved, funded, built and in service the navies would then maintain them using the cheapest, plainest paints that could be found on the planet. Many time purchasing from corrupt suppliers who supplied sub par product.

Edited by michaelpsutton2
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I agree with Michael. 

 

Plus I've read several times that the carvings on a lot of 17th and 18th century ships were sometimes covered with gold leaf or otherwise painted gold.  The Sovereign of the Seas, which I understand was undefeated in battle, was called "The Golden Devil" by the Dutch who apparently she beat fairly often because of the ornate gold coloured carvings.  Remember also that ship was very advanced for her time and broke the budget and made Charles I very unpopular, another point supporting Michael!

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These carvings that were painted, using cheap paints as Michael pointed out. What was put into these paints to stand up to the harshness of the seas winds etc. Being cheap I could imagine lots and lots of repainting going on. How did they preserve the color way back in the 17th and 18th century being an exterior paint?

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  • 2 weeks later...

Our aesthetics are still dominated by the 18th century classicistic scholars and the re-discovery of medieval and earlier art in the early 19th century. At that time much of the original paint on buildings and other artefacts had crumbled away and faded. Hence, we tend to expect either the 'pure' material (wood, marble, other stone), rather than a colourful paint-scheme. Modern archeological techniques, however, have revealed many traces of paint that allow us to reconstruct paint-schemes and painting techniques. As a result, one must assume that many ships and buildings over history were painted in rather garish colours.

 

There is no comprehensive study on colours and paints used in decorating and preserving ships. It is quite certain, however, that the dominant pigments were mineral ones because they were cheap and stable. Many plant-derived pigments, particularly reds, are not permanent, i.e. they will fade when exposed to sunlight. Yellows, brick-reds and browns are all iron(hydr)oxides that are derived from natural ochre that has been heated to varying degrees and they are relatively cheap. Blues and greens can be derived from cobalt- or copper-containing minerals or synthesised from salts of these metals. They are more expensive. White, being derived from chalk or lime is cheap too. This gives you the main palette and other colours can be produced by mixing pigments.

 

As we all know, due to the long-wave light absorption by the water vapour in the air, colours appear to become more blue and paler the more distant you are from the painted object. In order to sufficiently impress across the typical viewing distance of several hundred meters you have to use a more garish paint scheme. Of course, if you reproduce this on a model that is being viewed from a short distance, it may not be very pleasing aesthetically to the modern beholder. Even modern replicas, such as the UTRECHT statenjacht or the frigate HERMIONE are not really pleasing to the eye that has been trained by museum models and old paintings.

 

Old paintings are another problem. Often the varnish on them tones down the original colour scheme. I have been shocked, when I discovered the original bright colouring in some paintings that I have known before their varnish was stripped off and they were cleaned.

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  • 2 weeks later...

 

   My question here is if maybe many other ships should be represented with far more color than

they are (models, paintings etc.)? Or was this maybe a typical Swedish manner of painting them?

   I would not guess so..

 

Cheers

I heard she was painted in a north german style with polychrome sculptures. The red was a traditional swedish navy color. The ship that can be seen in the back of the painting of queen Kristina (Gustav Adolfs daughter) looks pretty close to Vasa in its color, even if it has few details added. 

 

post-3739-0-35100600-1413227632_thumb.jpg

 

I agree with the above comment that Vasa colors would have looked different in full size, especially if looked upon from distance.

 

 

/Matti

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The only other "real" chunk of carving from the 17th century is the coat fo arms from the Royal Charles of 1655. She was captured by the Dutch in 1667 and broken up in the 1670's. The coat of arms from her stern now hangs in the Rijks museum. It is multi-colored but faded And I cannot tell how bright the colors once may have been

post-2745-0-96573200-1413293219_thumb.jpg

Edited by michaelpsutton2
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Thank you all for your great thoughts on this.

   My main thought was that ships like Sovereign of The Seas (about the same era?)

very often is depicted (even modelled) with some kind of "base" colour (green?) surounding the carvings,

and the carvings themselves just plain gold or "goldish". It was this plain gold on the

carvings I was wondering/thinking about..

   Thanks all!

 

Sorry my not soo perfect english..

Edited by VonHoldinghausen
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  • 1 year later...
... i came across a statement all American ships were painted white along the sides and all British ship were painted yellow. did the French have a color?

Any time you see 'all ships' or 'always' be careful.  One US Navy ship was painted green on the inside bulwarks, Constitution.  Were others painted similarly?  Probably.  Were others painted differently?  Probably.  She also had different paint schemes on the outside in her career.

Common colors for the outside or at least port bands were white, yellow and red.  Common colors for the inside bulwarks were probably lighter blacks (grays) greens, blues and of course whites.  It seems certain that some port lids were painted red, especially those with lions' heads.  The less expensive pigments were probably more common, iron oxides for reds and browns and yellows, Prussian Blue, a chemically derived pigment available from the first quarter of the 1700s for blues and greens (mixed with yellow oxides).  Some of the oxide reds apparently could be fairly bright.  Gold color, as opposed to gold leaf, was done with yellow oxides and whites.  Blacks were bone black and lamp black, carbon from burning bone and the soot from lamps.

All of those pigments are permanent, so you got good value for money; the weak link would have been the medium, probably fish oil.  I don't know if linseed oil would have been too expensive for the quantities needed.

The more limited the use, probably the more expensive the color could be.  The carvings done in appropriate colors, 'proper' as it is called in heraldry, see the coat-of-arms pic above, against a solid background color were perhaps most colorful, as also the scrollwork and other limited decoration of late 1700s ships.  Obviously, the larger and more prestigious ships had more both of carvings and garish colors, for that read expensive.

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One must not forget that Royal Ships of the 17th century were not only powerful machines of war, they were first of all a display of force of the respective kingdoms. Nor do this happens just to our human race, it is the same with other species: take for example the lions, where the dominant lion has an almost superfluous mane which can be seen from miles away, yet loses it when loses supremacy among his group! The same goes for or the bright colours of birds' feathers, which are used to attract females but also as a display of power... the more powerful the male, the brighter the colours!

 

Moreover, colours in 17th century ships were not only used to make ships more pleasant/attractive and a bold declaration of power. The main reason was practical: to protect the wood against the rough elements. I have also wondered at first why they would put a lot of gold leaf on something which is basically a machine to kill? The plain answer is that gold leaf is one of the most effective ways to protect wood against elements and this was learn from a long time ago. One must not forget that Egyptian pharaohs had their wooden furniture and coffins covered in gold leaf at first for practical reasons! Unlike other known materials like iron or copper, gold does not decay with time therefore covering things in gold on the long term comes out cheaper than covering it in other decaying materials which would mean in several years you have to strip down the protection and renew. Of course covering all the ship in gold leaf would cost a fortune therefore they had to make a balance of costs and added in also other materials. 

 

One more point is that bright colours were seen only when the paint was new. It might therefore be correct for a model of the unfortunate Wasa to have bright colours since she is one of the few ships known to have capsized only after 20 minutes of navigation. But for most of the 17th century ships it may be taken as certain that their paints were faded off after several weeks of navigation on rough seas. Therefore it is again a matter of choice from the modeller, how you would to display your model? be it in bright colours just as recently taken out of the building yard, or battered after several weeks of navigation on heavy seas? The choice is known also in other modelling branches: some prefer to run their locomotives and railway stock as brand new, others take their time and talent to make them look weathered! 

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in Northern Europe they loved colours during that period.

Try to google for pictures of church interiors (pulpits, Organ cases).

You'll be surprised.

 

17139_Basedow_Kirche_Orgel.jpg

I don't see why the important ships of that period would not be painted according to the same taste and style. (picture linked form wikipedia, church in Basedow (Northern Germany)

 

With respect to the Dutch 'working ships': the main preservative was Stockholm tar. Hull. rigging, anything. Some paint was used, but a very restricted number of colours. And gold leaf was just too much: I don't know of any ships completely covered in gold. Some highlights perhaps (the lions crown, heraldy, but certainly not the 'ordinary' carving.) Even on their models the Dutch used gold sparingly.

 

 

Jan

Edited by amateur
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Chapter 11, of NRG's epic "Ship Modelers Shop Notes", edited by Merritt Edson, deals with contemporary painting and finishing of ships. One of the articles, written by Howard Chapelle, is a collection of contemporary American newspaper accounts from the 1760's of small, un-named, abandoned merchant vessels, brigs and schooners, found floating awash at sea, that describes them to their readers, for identification purposes. They were sometimes brightly painted with red or blue portions of their hulls. This chapter deserves a re-read.

Edited by uss frolick
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It may, perchance, be worth a visit to the Mariner's Mirror  for some information on past practice.  For example, we have a collection of eye witness sketches and detailed descriptions of the vessels at the Battle of the Nile available here: Paul, L. 1914. An Artist’s Notes at the Battle of the Nile. The Mariner’s Mirror 4, no. 8: 266–273. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00253359.1914.10654827.

 

We may also glean a bit of information from the Carpenter's notes concerning supplies &c. for the Victory discussed by one of the eminent marine historians (a former curator for the Victory) available here:  Goodwin, P.G. 2013. The Application and Scheme of Paintworks in British Men-of-War in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries. The Mariner’s Mirror 99, no. 3: 287–300. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00253359.2013.815993.

 

Here are a couple of tidbits from the latter:

 

The Victory’s carpenter on 18 August 1805 recorded:

 

‘To whitewashing the Tiers, Wings Cock-pits Store-roomes (sic) Lower & Middle Decks – Lime 12 Bushels Glue 12 Pounds’.

 

Acting on this information a request was submitted to the VATC to change the internal colour along the ship’s side of those gun decks from buff yellow to white.

 

It appears that the original reasons for paying up the Victory’s internal sides with whitewash were as follows:

 

1 To brighten up and improve light levels to the interior of the gun decks where the majority of the seamen and marines lived
2 To kill off potential bacteria (a natural property of whitewash) for much the same purpose as the common land practice at that time of whitewashing back yards and outhouses etc. of houses.
3 Whitewash, being a cheap commodity could be applied regularly.

Research revealed that the glue was fish glue, which acted as a binding agent. The whitewash mix would have comprised slaked lime and sea salt, boiled with water, added to which was the fish glue.

 

The carpenter’s entry dated 14 September reads:

 

To painting the ships side after caulking, the Gunroom and Officers Apartments under the Awning and Quarter deck Waist &c. after Refitting

 

and the paint and materials consumed for the above entry listed in the margin are given as:

Yellow – 350 lbs; Black – 150 lbs; White – 450 lbs.; Oil – 47 gallons; Brushes – 20 in No.

 

It should be noted that the oil referred to is linseed oil, which is commonly used in paint as a binding and adhesive agent.

 

These are the relevant stores supplied to Victory at Portsmouth on 31 August 1805:
1. White – 120 lb
2. Yellow – 34 lb
3. Black Varnish – 66 gallons
4. Glue – 12 lb
5. Lime – 8 bushels
6. Whitewash brushes – 6

 

Then on 2 September 1805:
1. Yellow – 350 lb
2. Black – 150 lb
3. White – 150 lb
4. Oil. – 47 gallons
5. White – 66 lb
6. Black – 13 lb
7. Yellow – 78 lb
8. Verdigris (sic) – 5 lb
9. Prussian Blue – 1 lb

 

Then on 6 September 1805:
1. White – 86 lb
2. Yellow – 234 lb
3. Oil. – 2 1/2 gallons
4. Black Varnish – 66 gallons. lb.32

Note that no red is listed.

 

Now, I freely concede that the information which I have offered is limited both in time and space (time - late 18th early 19th century, and space - Royal Navy.  Sort of a warp in the space-time continuum reflective of the gravity of the Nelson era, eh?).  HOWEVER - Goodwin brings in more perspective on earlier period (mainly, again, British navy, although there is a bit on the French). 

 

Practice in the US is likewise available, though for a bit more work.  I recommend, for example, the information on stores in Smith, P.C.F. 1974. The Frigate Essex Papers: Building the Salem Frigate, 1798-1799. Salem [Mass.]: Peabody Museum of Salem.

 

 

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Most interesting, Wayne, as you note, that there is no red pigment listed.

'Verdigris' is a pigment name, though as an artists' color it is not very saturated and is fugitive with exposure to light.  It is green.  The Prussian Blue listed just after is a strong, permanent blue-green pigment that will stand much mixing with other colors and white.  It becomes, with white, a sky blue or robin's egg blue, just as a guide.  With white and yellow ochre it would become green, but not very bright, because the yellow is dull.

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