The Reeves brothers are credited with the invention of watercolor cakes. Since the introduction of watercolor cakes over 200 years ago, manufactured watercolor paint has changed how artists work. Artists no longer must laboriously grind pigment in gum water to make paint and tirelessly rub hard cakes to get color.
The Reeves brothers are credited with the invention of watercolor cakes.
Not only did a series of innovations in the nineteenth century improve watercolor painting materials, but thanks to modern chemistry, the variety, saturation, and permanence of artists’ pigments available today are more significant than ever.
Artists’ paint manufacturers buy minimal amounts of pigments to prepare watercolor paint. Consequently, the art materials industry is far too small to leverage global pigment manufacture. With rare exceptions, all modern watercolor paints utilize pigments manufactured for printing inks, automotive and architectural paints, and as colorants in ceramics, plastics, and cosmetics.
Rublev Colours is an exception. Why are Rublev Colours different from other manufactured watercolor paints? One reason is that we use genuine natural and historical pigments like those used by watercolorists of past centuries. Most of these pigments are not found in other brands today.
Rublev Colours Watercolors are made in small batches using gum arabic, honey, and sugar, the essential ingredients used in watercolors of past centuries (see below). There are no additives to alter the characteristics of each color. Rublev Colours Watercolors do not contain fillers to extend colors, dispersants to disperse and granulate pigments, and brighteners to intensify colors. Instead, each color is crafted to develop its unique character, so they behave much the same as the watercolors of past masters.
A Brief History of Modern Watercolor Paint
Watercolor painting has a long history, from manuscript illumination and ‘limning’ in the medieval and early Renaissance periods to the golden age of watercolor painting in the nineteenth century and today. However, the history of manufactured watercolor paint began in the late eighteenth century.
The Invention of Watercolor Cakes
It is believed that William and Thomas Reeves set up business as colormen near Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, as early as 1766 (Goodwin 1966), or in 1777, according to Reeves’ late nineteenth-century advertisements (Royal Society of British Artists 1889). However, from William Reeves’ claim in 1784, the partnership between the two brothers was not formed before 1780.
The brothers were awarded the Silver Palette of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (now known as the Royal Society of Arts) in April 1781 for manufacturing improved watercolor (Goodwin 1966). The improvement consisted of adding humectant to the formulation and forming the paint into cakes. Various forms of sugar and honey, a natural humectant, were used to attract and retain moisture in the cake, so wetting was easier.
A writer in Ackermann’s The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions, and Politics in 1813 credited the invention to William Reeves, who “about thirty years ago, turned his attention to the preparation of water colours, and, by his successful experiments, produced the elegant invention of forming them into cakes. Until this period, every artist was obliged to prepare his own colours.” (Anon. 1813)
The Introduction of Moist Watercolors
Winsor and Newton introduced moist watercolor cakes in the 1830s. Since the Reeves brothers’ invention, other colormen introduced their cakes and many formulations, improving upon the original cakes. One such improvement utilized the moisture-retaining properties of a recently discovered material, glycerin. In 1835, Winsor and Newton added glycerin to their formula for watercolor paint and introduced moist watercolor in pans. By the late 1830s, painting sets with little porcelain pans of watercolors were available to artists, competing with the harder-pressed cakes.
Winsor and Newton introduced moist watercolor cakes in the mid-1830s utilizing glycerin.
By 1846 Winsor and Newton modified their moist cake formula and created a paste formula for metal tubes. In 1841, the artist John Rand invented a collapsible tin tube to store artists’ oil paints. They improved upon Rand’s tube design by adding the screw cap and obtaining a patent for it in 1842. After this invention, Winsor and Newton could offer moist watercolors in tubes.
By 1846, Winsor and Newton introduced paste watercolor paint in tubes.
By 1846, Winsor and Newton introduced watercolor paint in tubes. By the middle of the nineteenth century, commercial watercolor paints were available in two primary forms, tubes or pans. Most paints sold in collapsible metal tubes were available in several standard sizes (the most common sizes today are 5 ml, 14 ml, and 37 ml tubes). Watercolor cakes were usually sold in two sizes, full pans (approximately three cubic centimeters of paint) and half pans.
Ingredients of Early Watercolor Paint
Watercolor paint consists of pigment, binder (the most common in the nineteenth century was gum arabic), and water. It is unknown when such additives as plasticizers, humectants, and preservatives were first added, but sugar and honey have been used since the beginning of watercolor paint history (Ormsby 2005). They are added to ‘impart strength and transparency,’ as reported by Clark, and to create ‘moist colours’ by acting as humectants and as plasticizers to prevent cracking (Clark 1838).
Almost all early watercolor cake recipes included candy sugar or honey, which was later replaced by glycerin. In the early nineteenth century, Ackermann marketed watercolor cakes made with honey, called ‘honey colours,’ where a significant portion of the binder—and in some cases, the sole binder—was honey (Ormsby 2002).
Preservatives in the form of essential oils have been used to preserve watercolor paints from the degradation caused by insects, bacteria, and fungi. Many of the Roberson recipes, for example, suggested ‘rubbing up’ the gums in lavender water (Ormsby 2002, pp. vii-viii), while others included the addition of rosemary water (Anon. 1843) and rose water (Goeree1674). Other preservatives were utilized, such as borax (Field 1835) along with alcohol and ammonia and, later, alum (Anon. 1843, p. 17; 37) and ammonium carbonate (Field 1850). Modern preservatives have primarily replaced these in the twentieth century.
Ox-gall was used as a wetting agent in watercolor paints to decrease surface tension, prevent pigment aggregation, and increase paint flow. For example, most Roberson recipes from the early to mid-nineteenth century included ox-gall. Ox-gall was later replaced by synthetic alternatives known as dispersants.
A comprehensive study of British watercolor cakes from the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries shows that early watercolor cake manufacturers, such as Ackermann, produced cakes using gum arabic alone. Other early watercolor cake manufacturers, such as Reeves and Roberson, occasionally added other gums, such as tragacanth, cherry, or sarcocolla, to their paints while retaining gum arabic as the primary binder. By the early twentieth century, gum arabic was again used as the primary binder. The amounts of honey or sugar added to the paints were either pigment-dependent or quality-dependent, with a significant increase in student-grade watercolors (Ormsby 2005).
In the twentieth century, watercolor paint manufacturers introduced wheat starch (U.S. Patent 816,648) and dextrin (U.S. Patent 2,594,273) into their formulations and, later in the century, such synthetic polymers as polyvinylpyrrolidone (BASF 1993) and recently Golden Artists Colors incorporated Aquasol in their QOR Watercolors. Many formulas, especially for student-grade products, replaced gum arabic entirely with starch or dextrin. Sugar and honey were partially substituted or entirely with sorbitol (U.S. Patent 2,822,281), propylene glycol, and polyethylene glycol (BASF 1993). Many of these new ingredients improved the specific properties of watercolor paints but also changed their appearance and handling qualities.
Staining is the characteristic of watercolor paint that makes it difficult to remove from the paper after it has been applied. Less staining colors can be lightened or removed almost entirely when wet or wetted, then lifted by gently stroking with a clean, wet brush and then blotted up. Staining largely depends on the paper’s composition and the particle size of the pigment. Staining is increased if the paint manufacturer uses a dispersant to reduce the paint mixing time because the dispersant acts to embed pigment particles in the paper fibers, dulling the finished color. While most brands of watercolors contain dispersants, Rublev Colours Watercolors do not contain dispersants; staining is minimized.
Granulation and Flocculation
Granulation is the appearance of visible pigment particles once the color is applied, especially when the paint is diluted and applied with a wet brush stroke. Some iron oxide pigments are noted for their property of granulation.
Flocculation is the clumping together of pigment particles, typical of some colors, such as lapis lazuli and ultramarine. Both granulation and flocculation create subtle effects as the paint dries and are considered desirable by some painters. The trend in commercial watercolors is to suppress pigment texture in favor of homogeneous washes of color. Many of the earth and mineral pigments used in Rublev Colours Watercolors are composed of larger particle sizes and naturally produce granulation effects without additives.
Rublev Colours Makes It Simple Again
Natural Pigments gives today’s artists new choices by making watercolor paint simple again. Rublev Colours Watercolors provide a new selection of colors by restoring natural and historical pigments to the artists’ palette. Without modern additives, these paints have a noticeably different consistency and appearance. These choices represent clear advantages to artists’ material retailers who must differentiate themselves in today’s competitive marketplace.
Rublev Colours Watercolors are made with the same pigments used by watercolor masters of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. The colors are genuine single-pigment paints available individually in tubes and cakes.
Simple, Historical Ingredients
Natural PIgments makes Rublev Colours Watercolors in small batches using gum arabic and sugar syrup, which were the essential ingredients in watercolors of past centuries. There are no other additives to alter the characteristics of each color. Rublev Colours Watercolors do not contain fillers to extend colors, dispersants to disperse and granulate pigments, and brighteners to intensify colors. Instead, each color is crafted to develop its unique character, so they behave much the same as the colors of past masters.
We use gum from Acacia trees and clarify it with activated charcoal to make a pale gum arabic solution. Honey and sugar syrup has been used throughout history as an ingredient in water-based paint to prevent it from drying quickly. Colors made with these ingredients do not dry quickly and are easier to dilute.
According to ASTM lightfastness standards, most Rublev Colours Watercolors are rated I or II, showing little or no change in watercolors. Those of the lightfastness III category may be sufficiently lightfast if they are provided with extra protection from UV light.
Staining is the characteristic that makes color difficult to remove from the paper after it has been applied. Less staining colors can be lightened or removed almost entirely when wet or when rewetted, lifted with a clean, wet brush, and blotted up with a paper towel. Staining largely depends on the paper and the particle size of the pigment. Staining is increased by the use of dispersants because they act to embed pigment particles in the fibers of the paper, dulling the finished color. While most brands of watercolors contain dispersants, Rublev Colours Watercolors do not; so staining is minimized.
Granulation is the appearance of visible pigment particles in the applied color, especially when the paint is diluted and applied with a wet brush. Flocculation is the clumping together of pigment particles, typical of some colors, such as lapis lazuli. Both granulation and flocculation create subtle effects as the paint dries and are considered desirable by accomplished watercolorists. The trend in commercial watercolors is to suppress pigment textures in favor of homogeneous washes of color. Many of the pigments used in Rublev Colours Watercolors are composed of large particles and naturally produce granulation effects without additives.
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Goodwin, Michael (1966) Artist and Colourman, Reeves and Sons, pp. 17.
Royal Society of British Artists (1889) Exhibit Catalog, p. ix.
Anonymous (1813) “Observations on the Rise and Progress of Painting in Water Colours,” Repository of Arts Vol. 9, pp. 91-92.
Ormsby, Bronwyn A., Joyce H. Townsend, Brian W. Singer, John R. Dean (2005) “British Watercolour Cakes from the Eighteenth to the Early Twentieth Century,” Studies in Conservation, Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 45-66.
Clark, John H. (1838) Elements of Drawing and Painting in Water Colours, William. S. Orr and Co., Edinburgh, W. and R. Chambers, London, p. 132.
Ormsby, Bronwyn A. (2002) The Materials and Techniques of William Blake’s Tempera Paintings. William Blake 1751-1827, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Northumbria University, Newcastle, pp. 211-219.
Anon. (1843) Hand Book of the Elements of Painting in Water Colours: With Practical Instructions for Mixing and Shading the Same, published by H.G. Clarke, London, p. 54.
Goeree, W. (1674) An Introduction to the General Art of Drawing, Wherein is Set Forth the Grounds and Properties, Which of this Infallible and Judicious Art are Necessary to be Known and Understood, printed for Rob. Pricke, London, p. 9.
Field, George (1835) Chromatography; or, A Treatise on Colours and Pigments, and of their Powers in Painting, Charles Tilt, London, p. 200.
Field, George (1850) Rudiments of the Painter’s Art; or a Grammar of Colouring, Applicable to Operative Painting, Decorative Architecture, and The Arts, John Weak, London, p. 128.
BASF (October 1993) Manufacture of Colored Pencils, Wax Crayons, Watercolors, Poster Paints and Artist’s Colors, BASF Technical Information.