“I shall want colours and paper for drawing”: Artists’ Materials

Diverse objects were set in motion by the Gwillims across the Atlantic and Indian oceans. As with many colonial travellers from the earlier ‘Age of Exploration’ and in the years since, Elizabeth and Mary came across compelling, new-to-them items in India and shipped them back to England so that those at home could share in their intrigue. English relatives reciprocated by sending over whatever necessities and luxuries the Gwillims could not procure in Madras. From 1801 to 1808, just some of the items traversing the waves were beads, snuff, palampores (Indian hand-painted textiles made expressly for export), ostrich feathers (for adorning the sisters’ hats), leather gloves, a cockatoo (“It speaks a few words in three languages,” Elizabeth told Hetty, “but probably the sailors may make it more interesting”), ribbons, pearl necklaces, sweet meats, apricots (“Strawberries and apricots are the only fruit I wish for,” wrote Elizabeth), argus pheasant feathers (named for the hundreds of ‘eyes’ seemingly dotting the bird’s plumes), sleeve buttons made of carnelian, and a pickled cocoa nut blossom (“Tis a most beautiful thing when fresh,” attested Mary). 

Consistently within the Symonds’ shipments to Elizabeth and Mary were painting materials, predominantly paper, brushes, pencils, and paints. In their letters, the sisters took care to thank Hetty for the deliveries (“Upon your nice paper and with one of your nice pens,” Elizabeth wrote in 1805, “let me thank you for your nice care of all our things and still nicer packing of them”); submit new requests for supplies (“I shall want colours and paper for drawing,” stated Elizabeth in 1802); and opine on certain parcels, not always positively: “Betsy thinks it was very stingy to send only 12 sheets of the thick paper,” Mary wrote in 1805, “so you can be so good as to double that quantity.”

As was the case with sending letters––where the sisters might have hurried to write an otherwise unplanned missive upon hearing that a ship would soon be leaving for England––the sending and receiving of supplies occurred in accordance with the whims of overseas shipping. Packages were subject to the conditions and crises of marine voyages: some arrived at their destinations marked with the indelible stain of the sea (“In the ships the leather heats and all our gloves were sticking together… In short they were almost all greatly injured,” explained Elizabeth in 1802), while some didn’t arrive at all––in 1806, Mary told Hetty, “The box of paints also which you have repeatedly mentioned we have never received, but as the Indian ships have been so unlucky lately we conclude that those things and doubtless many letters have been lost.” The frequent sending of supplies also reflects the unpredictability of their voyage: in 1803, Mary advised Hetty to “send us a small packet in the particular charge of some person, which is better than sending great quantities at once––for if it is lost, it not so much value.”

But although that one ill-fated “box of paints” was and remains irrecoverable, the sisters’ detailed correspondence allows us to imaginatively reconstruct their palettes.

Paint boxes

That paint box likely resembled the other watercolour boxes available at the time. For instance, this paint box from W J Reeves & Woodyer, dated to 1820 and held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, is a well-equipped exemplar, with a top tray for paints and a drawer for supplies: 

Watercolour box, containing watercolours in cakes, quill-pens, graphite, brushes, etc.,
manufactured by W J Reeves and Woodyer, 80 Holborn Bridge, London, ca. 1820, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Paintboxes were developed to allow for the easy transport of watercolours outdoors. By the mid-eighteenth century, plein air painting had become popular amongst British artists, and the portable, luminous medium of watercolour came into favour alongside. Initially, artists constructed their own carrying cases for their materials, but, eventually, “artists’ colourmen” (providers of art supplies, like Reeves) began to sell ready-made boxes. Extravagant editions might be made of mahogany, lined with embossed leather and articulated with brass; they could include crystal water glasses as well as palettes of marble and china. Given the Gwillims’ and Symonds’ affluence as well as their connections to such artistic personages as George Samuel, the paint box sent by Hetty to the sisters in Madras may well have been quite intricate.

Watercolour cakes

As can be seen in the V&A paint box, the cases held little wooden trays designed to accommodate rectangular blocks of watercolour: these were the solid colour-cake watercolours that had first been developed in 1766 and sold, improved by the addition of honey, in 1780 by Thomas and William Reeves (who later became the firm of Reeves & Woodyer). Popular for their efficiency and affordability, watercolour cakes eliminated the need to prepare one’s own paints––formerly, artists had been required to grind their own pigments and combine those with a solution of natural gum and water. Despite these technological advancements, though, some artists continued to prepare their own paints by hand.

Even the ready-made Reeves watercolour cakes, however, required some work on the part of the artist before they could be painted with––they still needed to be ground with water. From the sisters’ correspondence, we know that Mary and Elizabeth (and their sister Hetty) were familiar with Reeves watercolour cakes and the associated technique. In an 1803 letter, Elizabeth references the process to explain to Hetty how to craft a perfume from nuts she has sent her: “With the attar [an essential oil], you will find some nuts, like gingerbread nuts, which I know you were fond of in former days. They are the natives’ perfumes. You must take one of these nuts, and grind it on a plate with rose water just as you would Reeves’s colours with common water.”

Which watercolours populated the wooden trays and palettes of Elizabeth and Mary’s paint boxes? Fortunately, the sisters’ letters allow us to reconstruct their array of pigments. In enclosing detailed lists of their desired colours, the sisters allowed us a glimpse into their material worlds and so into the construction of their visual ones. 

These are for the body colouring: From Mary Symonds to her sister, Henrietta “Hetty” Symonds James, November 1806.

Lists––like the one in the excerpt above, taken from an 1806 letter of Mary’s––enumerate the paints the sisters hoped to acquire from England. Over the years, the sisters requested: Indigo, Lake, Umber, Vandyke Brown, Payne’s grey, Smith’s grey, Prussian blue, Indian yellow, Reeves’s Carmine, “Gaul stone,” Light red, Burnt Umber, Ochre, Smalt, and “all sorts of dark browns.”

These colours are included in the slideshow below, with Brown ochre and Sepia added in as possible examples of the “all sorts of dark browns” that Hetty may have sent to the sisters in Madras. While Payne’s grey was a common enough pigment (named after English watercolourist William Payne, who used it for his backgrounds; interestingly, Elizabeth’s 1805 letter may be the earliest known use of the term “Payne’s grey”), the pigment of “Smith’s grey” remains elusive. Elizabeth mentions it as an alternative to Payne’s grey, however, so a shade similar to Payne’s grey is included below. Also, when Mary wrote “gaul stone,” she clearly meant “gallstone.” This term refers primarily to the common watercolour wetting agent, also known as “ox gall,” made of fluid from a bovine liver. But Mary refers to “gaul stone” as a “colour” and as something that can be purchased in “cakes”––this means she’s thinking not of the wetting agent but of the pigment known as gallstone, which was a deep-toned yellow.

The sisters did make some attempts at sourcing their pigments locally. In 1802, Elizabeth wrote to Hetty: “I have searched and enquired in all places for the Indian yellow, but there is no such a thing to be heard of and I cannot think it is of the substance [George Samuel] imagines it to be. I should rather suppose it to be some preparation of turmeric, which is the paint the natives use on their persons.” Although Elizabeth doesn’t elaborate on the “substance” of which George Samuel imagined Indian yellow to be composed, a few recipes for the pigment have been offered throughout the years. The earliest known reference to Indian yellow comes from the private journal of Roger Dewhurst in the 1780s; in a letter, his friend informs him that the pigment is derived from the urine of an animal possibly fed on turmeric. An 1839 translation of M. Mérimée’s The Art of Painting in Oil claimed that a “learned naturalist,” traveling in India, discovered the colour to be an extract of the shrub Memecylon tinctorium; from the scent, however, he guessed that cows’ urine was employed in gathering this extract. Numerous later sources propose that the colour itself––not unlike the above-mentioned yellow pigment, gallstone––was derived from cow urine, thought to be made particularly rich in hue in India due to the animals’ special diet of mango leaves. Recent studies suggest that Indian yellow, similarly to gallstone, was indeed sourced from urine.

Comparing the above palette to one of Elizabeth’s paintings of birds, the common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), we can see the reliance on greys, browns, yellows, and reds (the rocks alone likely contain shades from all four of these groups):

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill Library, CA RBD Gwillim-1-001.

Also present in traces are shades of green, forming the foliage. The landscapes comprised by the Madras Album (South Asia Collection), meanwhile, are abundant in greenery. Mary and Elizabeth’s extant letters do not include any requests for green pigments, so it may be the case that they came upon their greens in another fashion: perhaps green pigments were readily available in Madras, or perhaps the sisters produced their own greens by mixing other paints––gamboge, raw sienna and yellow ochre could be mixed with indigo or Prussian blue to produce a full spectrum of greens.


In 1802, Mary wrote optimistically, “I have got some charming brushes and white paint from China.” Shortly after, however, she amended that statement; in 1803, she asked Hetty for “a few brushes,” as “we cannot get any brushes here that are usable. George Samuel thought we should find the China brushes and colours useful, and therefore we sent for some, but they are quite useless.” The shortage continued: in 1805, Elizabeth told Hetty to send “above all brushes, and sky brushes and varnishing brushes, good broad ones to wash over sketches… we cannot use the China brushes.” Frequently, the sisters request “brushes of all sizes.”

Just as Elizabeth and Mary were able to obtain readymade watercolours in cakes, so did they––like other artists of the period––purchase pre-made brushes, too. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as in centuries before, paint brushes (often referred to as “pencils”––e.g., “camel’s hair pencils”) were made by affixing hairs from an animal’s tail to quills. As per R. D. Harley’s investigation of artists’ brushes, the quills were typically taken from waterfowl, as those birds’ quills were both water-resistant and thick enough to support bristles. Swan, goose and duck quills had been used as mounts for brushes since the seventeenth century. Later, the smaller ‘lark’ and ‘crow’ sizes were introduced, but the quills used for these smaller brushes were still drawn from waterfowl: the different bird species indicated the brushes’ smaller size rather than the avian source of the quills. The hairs topping these quills were also animal in origin; usually, they were taken from the tails of weasels (synonymous with stoat and ermine) or squirrels. Sable brushes, made using the fur of the Siberian weasel (or “kolinsky”), are the most prized today. The 1815 Circle of the Mechanical Arts also claimed that sable brushes were made with the most care and offered a unique springy quality. Some uncertainty existed, however; John Payne’s 1798 The Art of Painting in Miniature suggested not only that sable brushes were made of squirrel fur, like other brushes, but that the useful stiffness of sable brushes was often too temporary to justify their high price. Regardless of a brush’s composition, of utmost importance was that its bristles were evenly arranged, with, per Payne, “none shooting out on either side.”

Mary and Elizabeth’s requests for “brushes of all sizes” indicate that the sisters, as was recommended, used a variety of brushes in producing their watercolours. Elizabeth specifies that the “varnishing brushes” she desires are “good broad ones to wash over sketches” (varnish was used to preserve pigments against fading); “sky brushes,” too, were likely quite broad, as it was often recommended in watercolour manuals, such as the 1824 The Mirror of Literature, that skies be washed in with larger brushes. “Washing-in,” as per Payne, was one of the main techniques used for the application of paint when working with watercolours: employed for backgrounds, shadows, and the skin and hair of figures, it was done by “filling your pencil moderately with colour, and giving a broad stroke rather faintly.” Clouds could then be added in with smaller brushes. Richard Brown’s 1815 painting manual also suggests that the simultaneous use of two different brushes, each used for a different colour, could be helpful when illustrating such buildings as “old cottages, &c. which are much diversified by weather-stains.” We can imagine Elizabeth and Mary picking up a variety of ‘pencils’ in turn for the production of a scene such as this one:

Buildings attached to a Pagoda Entrance to a Hindoo Temple, Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.6.


Elizabeth and Mary’s letters disclose that paper was constantly in demand. “I shall want colours and paper for drawing,” wrote Elizabeth in 1802; “I hope you have sent me plenty of paper; I drew a great deal last year,” she wrote in 1805; slightly later, she requested “writing paper and all paper by all opportunities,” as there was “very very little left.” In 1806, Mary asked Hetty for “drawing paper of every description and size”; in 1805, she desired paper “such as will suit for slighter drawings; that thick sort is only proper for very high finishing.” In 1806, Mary also offered a glimpse into how paper was distributed in the Gwillim household:

You will be so good as to omit no opportunity of sending drawing paper of all sorts, for Betsy has acquired such a facility in drawing the birds and is so anxious to go on with her collection that I can scarcely be allowed a bit of good paper to practice on least the stock should be exhausted before a fresh supply comes to hand.

Mary Symonds to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, January 28, 1806

Quantity was clearly an issue, but quality, too, was of central importance to artists’ paper (in 1805, Mary wrote: “I am trying to buy a little [paper], but it is wretched stuff that is brought out to sell in general and [it is] all snatched up immediately”). The nature of watercolour as a medium necessitates that its support exhibit a number of attributes. As Marjorie Cohn writes, a watercolour wash is a “colloidal dispersion,” meaning that very small particles (the pigments) are suspended in a liquid (water). The particles remain evenly dispersed within the liquid due to surface tension and their Brownian motion, “the purely mechanical reaction of the innumerable collisions between all the particles [both water molecules and pigments] in the system” (16). The watercolour wash needs to remain liquid (i.e., fully wet) long enough for the particles to evenly disperse. As such, the ideal support––the paper––should be flat, smooth, uniformly absorptive across its surface, and not too absorptive. Because transparent watercolours make use of the tone of the paper for the highlights of the image (we can see this executed quite effectively in the pupils of Elizabeth’s birds), the paper should also be white (or otherwise very light). These qualities were comprehensively achieved when the English James Whatman developed “wove” watercolour paper in the 1780s. Earlier styles of paper, known as “laid,” had fine lines impressed upon them by the screen on which paper pulp was made into a sheet. Whatman replaced the screen with a finely woven wire cloth, which left no impression on the finished paper. Whatman’s innovation was met with great enthusiasm by watercolour painters; Thomas Gainsborough once received laid instead of wove paper and reacted with passion:

[I] could cry my Eyes out to see those furrows.

Thomas Gainsborough, quoted in Cohn, Wash and Gouache, 16.

The vast majority of Elizabeth and Mary’s paintings are done on wove paper. Only two of Elizabeth’s 121 bird paintings are done on laid paper. The image on the left below is a detail view from Elizabeth’s Brahminy kite, showing wove paper; on the right, we can see the laid paper of her White-necked or woolly-necked stork:

Left: detail of Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University,
CA RBD Gwillim-1-002.
Right: detail of Woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill Library,
CA RBD Gwillim-1-003.

Of the 76 watercolours attributed to Elizabeth and Mary in the Madras Album, seven are on laid paper. These seven paintings have also been tentatively attributed to Mary specifically; one example is included below, with the texture most clearly visible in the top right quarter of the painting. As mentioned, Mary disclosed that her paper shortage was due in part to Elizabeth’s prolific painting (“I can scarcely be allowed a bit of good paper to practice on…”). The slightly greater prominence of laid paper in the Madras Album, amongst what are likely Mary’s works, might indicate that Mary sometimes resorted to painting on laid paper when Elizabeth had used up all the sheets of wove.

Madras scene, Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.33.

Whatman’s papers were soon considered to be the best for watercolourists not solely on the basis of their smooth texture (shortly after Whatman’s innovation was released, other paper manufacturers adopted the technique, too) but also due to their “hard-sized surface.” Sizing was the process by which a paper was treated to minimize its absorbency; left unsized, paper absorbs water too quickly for pigments to uniformly disperse, and the colours are said to “sink” (an “irremediable misfortune,” per Rudolph Ackermann). Indeed, Elizabeth commented on the importance of sizing. In 1803, she bemoaned the state of some paper Hetty had sent to her: “The damp has taken the size out, and it all runs sadly.” French watercolour manuals, notably, were likely also suspicious of the effects of overseas travel on sized paper. They advised against purchasing Whatman’s paper, which, although partly a nationalistic sentiment, was based on the concern––corroborated by Elizabeth––that paper imported from England would “remain for several weeks in the depths of the ships’ holds.”

In an 1805 letter, Elizabeth mentioned a number of paper types; she, fortunately, had finally received “Bristol paper” (and had proceeded to paint over thirty birds upon it), but Mary was still in need of “landscape paper, Newman’s Cartridge paper, and some good other drawing paper.” Bristol paper was popular for pen drawing and made by pasting multiple sheets of paper together; it may have doubled as the “pasteboard” with which Mary made her three-dimensional models. Cartridge paper was (and, like Bristol board, still is) another kind of good-quality thick paper, often used for drawing; “Newman” is likely the artists’ supplier James Newman.


In many of Mary and Elizabeth’s paintings, the underdrawing is visible beneath or alongside the watercolour. In Elizabeth’s unfinished painting of a Paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi), the faint outlines of her planned design are just visible:

Detail of Indian Paradise-flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi), Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill Library,
CA RBD Gwillim-1-118.

Watercolourists typically laid out their design in outline prior to filling it in with paint. This could be done with a few mediums: portrait miniaturists often used graphite, while artists working in gouache occasionally opted for charcoal (graphite could repel water and decrease the opacity of gouache). Artists’ manuals usually recommended graphite of medium hardness (today’s no. 2); any harder and the pencil’s point would scrape valleys into the paper, while softer graphite was too prone to smudging. It was sometimes recommended that a preliminary sketch be rendered in charcoal and then traced over in graphite, after which the charcoal could be dusted off. Erasing underdrawings in graphite was difficult, though––India rubber could excessively scrape and thus harm the paper’s surface, and stale bread (sometimes recommended in manuals) could leave paper greasy. Soft leather, taken from gloves, was sometimes used in the early nineteenth century. Usually, however, artists allowed their underdrawings to remain.

Mary requested pencils (used for drawing and writing) in bulk: in 1806, she wrote to Hetty for “four or five dozen of black lead pencils.”

Four or five dozen of black lead pencils and as many brushes of all sizes: From Mary Symonds to her sister, “Hetty” Symonds James, January 28, 1806.

For further reading, two helpful sources on artists’ materials:
Cohn, Marjorie B. Wash and Gouache : A Study of the Development of the Materials of Watercolor. Cambridge: Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Fogg Art Museum, 1977.
Hardie, Martin. Watercolour painting in Britain: Volume 1: The eighteenth century. London: Batsford, 1967.


By Hana Nikčević