Though the scene owes much to seventeenth-century Dutch painting, it does depict some aspects of paint-making – the trade of the artist’s colourman – carried out during Turner’s lifetime. Horse- and donkey-mills as seen in the background were used for grinding large quantities of cheap pigments such as ochres, siennas and umbers, used by decorators and artists. These feature in virtually all his oil paintings and in many earlier watercolours too.
The colourman himself is grinding a quantity of red pigment into oil, using a heavy muller. It took half a day to grind a reasonable quantity. He would have put the paint into bladders of the type seen in Turner’s tin paintbox, for purchase by artists. In fact the red pigment is simple red ochre that could have come from the donkey-mill: Turner has painted it over a bright white ground to emulate the brilliance of vermilion. He used this technique often for pure and unmixed pigments, to dazzling effect…