Watercolor Materials

Improvements in watercolor paints, brushes, and papers helped increase the popularity of watercolors in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Watercolor Paint Box
Watercolor Paint Box, English, about 1780–1800 Enlarge


Preparing watercolor paint was once a time-consuming process. In 1780 an enterprising firm introduced a dry watercolor cake that combined pigment and binder in one.

Neat, inexpensive, and portable, watercolor cakes soon became popular. "Moist colors" in pans and tubes appeared later and attracted even more painters to watercolor.

Boxes like this one were manufactured to provide amateurs—especially young ladies—with a pretty, handy home for their tools.

This box holds 24 cakes of color, each stamped with the Newman firm's trademark of feathers encircled in a crown. The verses pasted inside the lid suggest that this box's owner was a woman.


Traditional brushes were made by encasing bristles in bird quills. The introduction of the metal ferrule, the cylinder that attaches bristles to a wooden handle, allowed manufacturers to more easily make brushes of different sizes and shapes. This was important for watercolor, which requires soft-bristled, tapered brushes.

A Practical Treatise on Drawing and on Water Colour Painting, G. F. Phillips, 1839


Papermakers developed watercolor papers with different weaves and textures.

Some papermakers dipped paper in glue to make it less absorbent, giving artists more time to work with the pigment before it sank in to the paper. The harder surface also allowed artists to blot, rub, or scrape out color without destroying the sheet.


Technical manuals on watercolors were published as early as the 1600s to assist professional artists. As more and more amateur painters took up the medium in the 18th and 19th centuries, how-to books for a more general audience became popular.

This manual, A Practical Treatise on Drawing and on Water Colour Painting, was published in London in 1839. It was one of the most popular how-to books of its day.