Leanne Barrett: Painting By Numbers

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Painting By Numbers

David Stuart
I always thought that painting by numbers was a commercial way to help non-artists paint.

I was wrong, totally wrong. I came to this realisation as I listened to David Stuart, former Australian Ambassador to Austria, talk about Ferdinand Lukas Bauer at the National Library of Australia on 20 October 2017.

Around the time of this talk I was mixing my own paints and unintentionally giving them numbers. I used these mixed  watercolours for my illustrations and then used the numbers to help me create hand painted copies of my own work.

Ferdinand Lukas Bauer.
Ferdinand was born in Feldsberg, Austria in 1760 and died in Vienna in 1826.

I found it intriguing how his life was touched by botany and art time and time again. Maybe this is because I find myself drawn again and again to Australian botanical watercolour artists; Dorothy English Paty  and Cheryl Hodges. It might also be the influence of  Australian writer and illustrator May Gibbs on my childhood and shadowing me and my aspirations to be a children's book author and illustrator. Or it could even be my own love of botany from 10 years of running a Landcare group and identifying native flowers on people's properties.

Ferdinand Lukas Bauer had art in his blood his father had been the court painter to the Prince of Liechtenstein, while his mother drew with pencils. And even though he became an orphan when he was young, the influence of art continued for Ferdinand and his brothers, Joseph and Franz, when they came under the care of Norbart Boccius, Prior of the Feldsberg Monastery. Boccius was a physician and botanist who taught the boys how to draw.

Then as teenagers Ferdinand and Franz went to Vienna and worked with Nikolaus von Jaquiun, Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens. Here Ferdinand learnt about plant classification. Additionally this connection introduced Ferdinand and Franz's drawings and paintings to other important and influential botanists of the time.

Due his connections, Ferdinand was invited to travel with John Sibthorp, Oxford Professor of Botany, to Greece and he contributed drawings to the book Flora Graeca. While Franz was introduced to Joseph Banks, who appointed him to the position of a botanical illustrator at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England.

It was also Joseph Banks who recommended Ferdinand to travel with Matthew Flinders as the botanical draughtsman for the 1801-1803 expedition on the Investigator.

While the Investigator circumnavigated Australia (then named New Holland) Ferdinand would explore the landscape daily with naturalist Robert Brown, collecting specimens and drawing around 3-4 sketches each day. These sketch included both plants and animals. 

Ferdinand rarely added any colour to the sketches when he created them, instead he labelled each part of his drawings with his colour code system. Ferdinand painted the final works in watercolour upon his return to England in 1805.

There is currently an exhibition at the State Library of NSW, Botanical Inspirations, that feature works by Ferdinand Lukas Bauer until 28 January 2018. 

The Ferdinand Colour Code.

Ferdinand used a colour code system to label his fieldwork sketches with numbers to indicate the colours that he would use for the final paintings at a later date. These preparatory sketches were extremely detailed and precise. His flora sketches would often show the internal and reproductive parts of the plants and each of these sections would be assigned a number to indicate the colour that would be used when applying watercolour to the paintings. Ferdinand would apply the colour code method to both his flora and fauna paintings.


Ferdinand would often create the final colour paintings once he had returned home from his travels. We know that he created his Australian sketches between 1801 and 1805 but he didn't paint the watercolour artworks until he returned to England in 1805.

It is thought that Ferdinand and his brothers first used a colour code of around 30 colours during their youth at the Feldsberg Monastery. By the time Ferdinand left Vienna he was using approximately 200 colour codes for his sketches and paintings. To see an example of a colour code see here.

Ferdinand's  intricate colour code expanded to around 1000 physical palette colour codes by 1805 and David Stuart spoke about the potential of Ferdinand having a mental palette, of shades and tones, that numbered up to 3000 codes.

It is hard to imagine how Ferdinand remembered the colour code for 1000 colours, 100 codes for red, 100 for yellow, 100 for brown and 200 codes for green.

To view at a sample of Ferdinand's works alongside some of his colour code see here.

My Numbered Colour Palette.

Around the time of the National Library talk about Ferdinand Lukas Bauer I was working on my own palette of colours for a new series of watercolour illustrations for an upcoming exhibition.

My first step for developing this palette was selecting a range of colours that I liked from some magazines.

Step two. I created my own version of these colours by mixing my watercolour paints. I then found myself numbering the colours on my sample card to help identify the paints on my palette, I had now created a colour code. Using a code meant that I did not have to remember which paint on the palette matched the paint on the paper, as the colours look very different on the palette to the paper.

The third step for me was using my colour palette to paint the original farmyard animals watercolour illustrations. Rather than create prints of these illustrations for sale for the upcoming exhibition I decided to copy each painting by hand drawing and painting each illustration  I used my colour code for each section of the illustration to make each hand painted copy look almost identical to the original.

Chicks = 3
Beaks & window frames = 15
Eyes = 5
Glass = 7
Signs = 17
Walls = 9
Shadows = 1
Hen = 2, 11 & 14

My own colour code is not as organised and methodical as Ferdinand Bauer's whose red shades are numbered 1 -100 and greens are numbered 401 - 600. While some of my colours and their shades are side by side eg. green 16 & 17, this was more of an accident rather than by design. But it worked well for me and as I am painting in a whimsical style rather than for botanical accuracy my colour code is great for me.

More links to information about Ferdinand Lukas Bauer:
Painting by Numbers 
Forgotten artist Ferdinand Bauer's natural history drawings come alive digitally
Australian Dictionary of Biography
MBR Rare Books

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