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"Colors of ships hulls, etc.18th century?" Topic

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rustymusket Supporting Member of TMP25 May 2016 4:56 p.m. PST

I just bought several square rigged sailing ship collectible pencil sharpeners from They are in that coppery color and i want to try painting them. I want a French squadron and a British squadron, 5 ships each, and 2 pirate/privateer ships. Would someone please tell me where I could find what the colors were for the French and British in the mid eighteenth century?

rmaker25 May 2016 7:14 p.m. PST

As far as I can tell, there were no standards, individual captains doing pretty much as they pleased. Paintings show black, yellow, green, blue, and red hulls, with the gun strakes painted various colors as well, or even not picked out at all. That said, black would be predominant due to cost.

Shagnasty Supporting Member of TMP25 May 2016 7:50 p.m. PST

I have read that varnished hulls high-lighted with various colours was common in that era. The French favored blue in the early part and the British often were mentioned in red and yellow.

Personal logo War Artisan Sponsoring Member of TMP26 May 2016 1:22 a.m. PST

In the mid eighteenth century the hulls of the ships of all the major European naval powers were very similar. As has been mentioned, there were no national schemes, the nationalities of warships at sea being primarily displayed by their ensigns and to a lesser degree by the decorations on the transom, which were not, however, clearly visible from any great distance.

The practice of painting the hulls black with different colored strakes over the gunports did not become widespread until the very last decade of the 18th century, and national schemes did not appear until the early 19th. Up until then, pretty much every naval vessel had a hull of varnished wood, the actual color being determined by the type of wood, the quality of the varnish, and the length of time the ship had been at sea. In most cases, this was a medium-to-dark brown, often reddish-brown, occasionally yellowish. Strakes along the sides of the hull were universally painted black, wider ones below the line of the gunports and narrower ones above (and sometimes between) the ports. Brighter colors (read "much more expensive colors") were reserved for the outsides of the gunwales and the decorations around the stern and quarter galleries.

The following paintings, by different artists, pretty much illustrate the point; note that the ships of both the British and French squadrons are painted in very much the same way, with the ensigns being the only way to distinguish them from any distance.




KniazSuvorov26 May 2016 6:21 a.m. PST

Adding to what Shagnasty mentioned:

The Bourbon navies (France, Spain, possibly Naples/Sicily as well) liked to use a bright blue as an accent colour--something similar to "Royal Blue" or "Ultramarine Blue" in the modern wargamer's palette.

Google pics of the French replica frigate l'Hermione to see what this looks like at full scale; it's very distinctive, and a lot more colourful than most age-of-sail liveries!

Additional geeky reference: if you're a Tintin fan, the Licorne/Unicorn of Francois de Hadoque/Sir Francis Haddock was also painted in this scheme. I think he was supposed to be a captain in the French navy.

Personal logo Yellow Admiral Supporting Member of TMP26 May 2016 7:42 a.m. PST

FWIW, I've always taken the reddish hues in that middle picture (British Fleet Entering Havana in 1762) to be a result of the sun being low to the horizon. I don't think Dominic Serres was trying to depict a fleet of red ships, but rather a lighting condition in the tropics. If you look at the picture at higher resolution, you'll see what I mean.

- Ix

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP26 May 2016 8:13 a.m. PST

A link to the home page for l'Hermione:

Note the Wikipedia page has some very good and different photos.

While not disputing the basic point that official national distinctions in painting were later than the mid-eighteenth, as a wargamer, I wouldn't hesitate to give all my French ships that blue accept color, and to follow Shagnasty's suggestion of a red or yellow accent for the British.

But I'm like that. None of my Continentals are wearing red coats, and my ACW Confederates and Union can be told apart even in the early battles. Even my medieval are usually wearing livery. They're MY troops after all, and if I want to be fussier than the historical commanders, I can be.
And you know at my age I have a hard time seeing the field signs and hearing the field words.

rustymusket Supporting Member of TMP26 May 2016 5:11 p.m. PST

Thank you all for the info and links. Robert, thank you for "I Gotta Be Me" attitude. My ACW figs are obvious but I get in moods about historical versus not so much. I will have to think on it and then paint as appears best. Keeping them all generic would allow me to vary the ships on each side a little more, but as I am getting older also, it might just confuse my table.

dantheman Supporting Member of TMP28 May 2016 10:53 a.m. PST

War Artisan is correct in his summary. The best reference available is "Old Ships Figureheads And Sterns". The title is deceiving. The book is actually about the appearance of ships in their entirety. Though and old book, it's research is excellent, and worth having, if you are into naval modeling.

Careful about blue. Its use was limited in all navies as it was a very expensive paint color.

If you want variety use flags. They add color and how they are used is a story onto itself.

rustymusket Supporting Member of TMP28 May 2016 5:53 p.m. PST

Thank you, dantheman. I was not planning on getting too involved in the age of sale, but it is beginning to sound intriguing.

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