An artist’s tools and materials offer a different insight into their works. Unlike the ready-made tubes of colour available today, Turner used pure pigment which had to be ground up and mixed with gum arabic to make watercolour paint. His palette shows how he also mixed colours to increase the chromatic range.

Turner rarely painted outdoors, preferring to make pencil sketches on the spot. He owned an easily portable watercolour case which he could carry during his travels and use for adding colour to compositions once he had returned to his lodgings.

Turner’s Palette

The colours in Turner’s paintings show how the manufacture of pigments changed during his long career. In his early works he used both organic pigments and mineral pigments including ochres, but he began using industrial products soon after they were introduced: cobalt blue appears in his works by 1810, chrome yellow by 1815, and emerald green from the 1830s.

Turner used these pigments in both oil and watercolour. He bought them from specialist suppliers called “artists’ colourmen”, either as dry powder, or as paint stored in an animal bladder. Towards the end of his life, he used a newly-invented tube of paint.

Turner’s translated copy of Goethe’s Theory of Colours is displayed here, showing the notes he made in the margin as he studied how colour functioned in his own compositions.

Colour and Line exhibition wall display
This wall display illustrates when colours were introduced into Turner's palette


Sketchbooks were a vital part of Turner’s working methods. They were small, light and easily carried around during his travels. Turner preferred to sketch in pencil on the spot and then, if necessary, add watercolour or other media later on. He would refer back to his sketches as he developed compositions in the studio, sometimes months or even years after the event.

The selection of sketchbooks on display shows the range of information Turner recorded during his travels. You can see the different types of mark-making he used at various stages of his life.

Turner on tour

Like any tourist, Turner needed some help finding his way around a foreign country. He relied on travel guides to familiarise himself with famous places and to help plan his itinerary. In preparation for his first trip to Italy in 1819 he bought himself a copy of Reichard’s Italy, published a year earlier.

He scribbled comments in the margins of this guide book, as well as making copious notes and sketches in a small pocketbook during his journey. He even jotted down useful words and phrases in Italian.