With the advent of spring, many of us are thinking about sprucing up our surroundings. Often that includes paint, an ancient way of sealing wood and making it last longer. Ships, of course, are no exception and – aside from varnish – there is hardly anything more important to a wooden ship than good, old fashioned, oil based paint.
Ancient ships were frequently painted rather fancifully with the Sea People, Egyptians, Greeks and Chinese favoring large human eyes on either side of the prow. The Vikings liked dragons at the head of their longboats and these were usually painted to look as realistic as possible. During the Medieval period cogs and cinque ports ships were usually painted either deep green or ochre because these pigments were easy to come by in nature. Some time during the Restoration era in Britain, more brilliant colors came into favor. Ships painted scarlet red, purple and sky blue were not uncommon. Patterns began to emerge during the 18th century. Nelson famously favored black and white checkered gunnels with a black or blue hull and the mania for “chequering” took off in the Royal Navy, continuing well into the 19th century. Pirates, it goes without saying, generally used what they had on hand. The worst of the worst would forego painting all together, and simply move to a newly captured prize when their current ship began to rot.
The colors that were popular in the Great Age of Sail are much harder to come by now, but you can obtain the elements needed in modern oil based paints and mix them yourself. Here are a few recommendations from Chambers’ Encyclopedia of 1882:
Cream: white lead, chrome yellow, and Venetian red
Drab: white lead, burnt umber, four or five drops of Venetian red
Fawn: white lead and burnt sienna
French gray: white lead, Prussian blue, two or three drops of vermilion
Imitation gold: white lead, chrome yellow and burnt sienna
Purple: white lead, Prussian blue and vermillion
Carnation pink: white lead tinted with Venetian red
Violet: white lead, Prussian blue, vermillion and two drops of black
White lead, incidentally, was the favored color for decks and other trimmings. Another good point to keep in mind is that most ship’s hulls would receive no fewer than six coats of paint along with varnish. Remember, as the old salts say, save the surface and you save all.
Header: Painting the Flagship Royal Navy c 1905 via pbenyon1