Drawings & Watercolours

Watercolour, graphite and ink drawing of the Entrance to Halifax Harbour and the Town of Halifax, NS, c. 1780 by Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Hicks.

The term "watercolour" refers to a type of paint made of water soluble pigments, as well as the painting made using these pigments. The first examples of watercolours can be seen in cave paintings made over 30,000 years ago.

The use of watercolours as a tool to document the world is one that flourished in the 1800s for a number of practical reasons. Chief among these reasons is that the materials needed to create a watercolour painting were easy to acquire (paper, pencils, brushes, paints and water), they were lightweight and portable, and the resulting sketches dried quickly, allowing for easy packing and transportation. Accomplished watercolour painters were actively sought (if they weren’t themselves scientists) to join archaeological and geological expeditions around the world to document new discoveries.

British military officers were normally required to purchase officer commissions. Different ranks from Ensign to Lieutenant Colonel cost anywhere from £450 to £7,000 - a substantial sum in the 1800s. As such, most officers were from the wealthier class and had a classical education before entering service, including painting.

British officers trained at Woolwich Military Academy studied topographical drawing as it was necessary to do their jobs. Royal Engineers prepared maps and elevation plans; Royal Artillerymen had to survey and note landscape features; Royal Navy officers were taught to draw coastal profiles and harbours. Each had a practical (and tactical) purpose for the military and drawing was the only method of making visual records and mapping terrain.

Watercolour landscape showing a cleared section of forest with fencing and buildings along the Annapolis River.

A Settlement on the Annapolis River, 1775 by Lt. Richard Williams. Watercolour on laid paper.

AGNS: 2005.559

Because the ability to draw accurately was so important, instructors at Woolwich (in particular, noted English water-colourist Paul Sandby) expanded beyond the basic instruction into landscape painting. The result was that many military men became accomplished amateur painters. While watercolours were loved because of their portability, they are challenging to do well. Unlike oil and acrylic paints, where the paint essentially stays where you put it, water is an active and complex partner in the painting process, changing both the absorbency and shape of the paper when it is wet and the outlines and appearance of the paint as it dries. The difficulty in watercolour painting is almost entirely in learning how to anticipate and use the behaviour of water, rather than attempting to control or dominate it.

Painting a landscape

Landscape sketching was a common activity during peace-time postings and much of the earliest publicized views of Canada came from these talented (and not-so-talented) amateur artists. Halifax was a major garrison town, and so saw a large number of troops and officers over the years, many of whom chose to document what they saw of Nova Scotia in paintings, diaries, plays and poetry. Major Petley commented in 1837 on his own drawings that, "these sketches [of the Maritimes] were originally not intended for publication but merely done to while away some part of the idle hours of a soldier’s life abroad".

Watercolour landscape showing a lone building on a bare, rocky hill.

Road to Wine Harbour, c. 1870, by Frederick B. Nichols. Watercolour over graphite on wove paper.

AGNS: 2011.257

Landscape paintings are like all other works of art in that they show a selective view of reality – what we generally term “artistic license”. Within the world of art, there are fashions that dictate what elements are of particular importance at any given time. Artists were careful in what they chose to paint and the paintings generated by British military artists tended to reflect the times in which they lived. Education and training of these officers affected not only how the soldier-artists drew the landscapes of colonial outposts, but what they selected for inclusion.

Idealised landscapes were sketched using classical principals of design. Nothing in the image should make the viewer aware of anything other than charming scenes of pastoral beauty, of rural activity at a safe distance, or of town life of grace and elegance.

Frederick Nichols Watercolours

Watercolour landscape showing two miners working a hoist above a mine shaft

Oldham Gold District, Whitehead, N.E., c.1870, by Frederick B. Nichols. Watercolour on wove paper.

AGNS: 2011.264

Watercolour landscape showing a wooden building on a cleared ridge.

Road to Indian Harbor, Nova Scotia, c. 1870, by Frederick B. Nichols. Watercolour on wove paper.

AGNS: 2011.268

Watercolour landscape of an open shaft and surface building, with other buildings seen on distant hills.

Part of Wine Harbor Gold District, c. 1870, by Frederick B. Nichols. Watercolour on wove paper.

AGNS: 2011.267

Look carefully at these paintings. If you looked at them without knowing they portrayed gold mining districts in Nova Scotia c.1870, would you associate them with industrial landscapes?

Probably not. While there are some buildings in the distance and a few have identifiable shafts and men operating them, little else indicates this was an active industry. Nichols has chosen to paint a very idyllic landscape, minimising the effects the industry was having on the land. But something is very striking about these images.

Watercolour landscape showing a series of buildings in the background.

Uniacke District, Looking N.W., c.1870, by Frederick B. Nichols. Watercolour over graphite on wove paper.

AGNS: 2011.256.1

Where are all the trees?

Trees were used to build homes, ships, factories and as fuel, so the landscape during the mid-1800s was much more open than it is today. In fact, even before the gold mining industry took over these landscapes, there was very little virgin forest in Nova Scotia and today there are only a few small areas that have never been harvested.