How do you Paint a Canal Boat?
Narrow boat art is bright and bold, and painting a canal boat is daunting. You can’t hide it away in the attic when you’re done. It’s a giant public artwork whether you like it or not! But should we be too precious about it? We’ve all seen those shining examples: glossy coach paint, complimentary colour schemes and parallel tapered borders. Ever wondered how they paint those straight lines so perfectly?
But does a boat paint scheme have to follow this sense of order? Canal boat paint by numbers anyone? Can we break with convention? Can’t we mix it up a little, and take some risks? Let’s be creative!
Traditional Narrow Boat Painting- looking back
What does the history of canal boat painting teach us? Victorian Britain’s upper class, glanced down their screwed up noses and haughty upturned chins, at working class boating folk. Narrow boaters began to struggle against the development of progressive railways too. Trains fast become the more lucrative choice of transport for business owners, so they trade boat crew for family instead, to reduce costs. Thus, the narrow boat became a working, floating family home.
Pride in Appearance
Bargee families with their many illiterate children, took pride in their appearance. Men often dressed in smart waistcoats, long pants, flat caps or braided straw hats, white shirts with ruched arms, braces, and a cummerbund around the waist. The ladies wore long dresses with frilly pinafores and tall lace bonnets.
Victorian families were sizable. Living in cramped quarters, many of their tiny boat cabins were spotless and well presented. Brass wear polished to shine, boaters cover every object and surface with bright, contrasting, and cheerful coloured artwork. Reputation was important, to brighten their small space and rival social oppression.
German and French Folk Art is a similar style to narrow boat art. A variety of flowers, castles, churches, cottages and country houses, scenic landscapes of canals, canal bridges, distant boats and countryside hills adorned boats, inside and out. Dogs, horses, and the comic sailor head seen on packets of Player’s cigarettes, were common too.
Some scenes almost appeared Mediterranean, with blue skies, and white clouds, perhaps to cheer folk up. Barges advertised their family roots with names of birth places, vessel names, surnames, and license numbers.
Is Narrow Boat Art Difficult?
Painting is freehand and quick, with light and dexterous brush strokes that follow a simple and set pattern of marks- like commas and blotches, you then fill out. Dark colours first, the lighter shades you add on top, built up in three to four coloured layers, to give depth. Perfect lines come with practice, using painter’s masking tape. Remove it before your paint dries!
It’s rare today, to see a boater take the same confident approach to their boat painting- most play it safe- quite boring! Canal boats of old offered a canvas for hand painted creative designs- bargees passed along their unique crafts and painterly skills, and weren’t too precious to jump right in and just have a go!
Not professional painters, but just ordinary working folk doing a bit of DIY decorating, to brighten their life, and express their joy! The spirit of a boater, captured in the simple brush strokes themselves. It’s this spirit of adventure that I want to harness in painting my own boat- the boldness to take up the gauntlet when someone provokes, ‘I dare you!’
How to Paint Narrow Boat Flowers
The traditional rose flower design is a perfect example of the simple comma brush stroke technique. Measured dots mark out matching shapes or guide you around a circular or oval object. Further dots added later, guide the design of each petal.
To make a red rose- first paint a circle in the darkest shade of burgundy. Add the thickest bright red comas for petals on top, followed by thinner, short white commas on each red petal, these give the flower its outline detail. At last the stamens- tiny dashes of mustard yellow dot the centre. Many kinds of flowers illustrated barges, always using just three to four complimentary colours.
The primary colours red, blue, and yellow, contrast well- we paint boats to notice them! Perhaps easily spotting boats was for safety too. I’ve often wondered if the long lines painted at the front of narrow boats were to gauge the depth of the vessel in the water, and so the weight of the cargo on-board.
Bright designs help boaters recognise each other- I wonder if they long ago, waved or stopped to talk with other passing boats from their hometowns. Narrowboat names and colours are more memorable than the faces and names of people, who I meet on the canal today.
Boat Painters and Craftsmen- the professionals!
Some have their boats professionally spray painted, using a high gloss finish of coach paint, complete with borders and name lettering — you can spot the posh finish a mile off, reflecting the canal and all of its tow-path life. Although they stand out as smart, it varies upon the chosen colours.
Traditional contrasting blues and gold, yellow and black, green and red- are a joy. Some unappealing colour choices pass by too, like a whore with poor fashion taste, The Scarlet Harlot! – they don’t hide themselves well.
Best Paint for Canal Boats
We hand-painted our boat for the first time. Warning: the shade on the chart didn’t match the colour of paint in the tin! Damsons are deep purple, not plum, and reds soon dull to pink in the sun.
A strong, waterproof, weatherproof paint is essential. Coach paint gives the best shiny finish, but we used Two Pack Epoxy Resin which is best for blacking the hull beneath the water line. This paint is for covering demanding industrial floors that demand a durable, hard wearing, heat, cold, solvent and scratch resistant surface.
Keeping a few generous coats of base paint on a boat prevents rust, so this was our main priority. But it was quite sticky to apply by roller. Epoxy is a chemical based paint so don’t paint it on top of poor quality paints that won’t last as long. It comes with a heady strong smell, giving you a headache.
Narrow Boat Art with Character!
A dull, rough finish results, but it is satisfying to do it yourself. It’s not perfect, the brush strokes show in the sun, however, the Matt texture hides most imperfections. A mirror finish will only enhance a run.
Hand painting gives the boat much character, and numerous passing comments have complimented the deep antique rose colour (an accident) which complements the light green of the surrounding grass. The shade deepens on cloudy days. The roof is lavender white, which shows up the dirt a little where the rainwater runs down, but it cleans up well.
I’ll need to practise my narrow boat art roses before I’m brave enough to paint them on the side of our cabin. Maybe I’ll draw a Kingfisher. The choice is exciting- I want new wooden doors to design too. We can’t agree a name yet- it’s like naming a new baby!
Narrow Boat Painting Cost- How much??
£3000-£6000 is the cost to professionally paint a narrowboat boat, including the sign writing. A £100 a foot is the guide. If you do it yourself with decent quality coach paint and take your boat out of the water for a few days, £1000 should cover it. We went for the lowest budget possible, painting during dry weather, outside, on the canal.
With an orbital sanding, a quick vacuum up of dust, two layers of paint and a burst of energy, we spent a meagre £200 covering our fifty-foot cabin in two colours. It took two of us less than half a day to give one coat of paint to one side of our boat.
I don’t suppose the narrow boaters of old, traversing the Black and White Canal which carried coal and limestone, had much money or time to spend on a high shine finish; they were working boats.
The hot weather meant our Epoxy dried a little too quick, but it didn’t run. If it rains the day after painting, the water will mark the paint- as we found out with the roof, which under scrutiny has a slight mottled effect- but not unpleasant. A long dry period is essential for success.
Plenty of towpath space can be useful too, for unloading all the rooftop paraphernalia you carry around as a live-aboard. You need a suitable place to moor up, close to the bank for the whole length of the boat, and with solid ground to stand upon.
I stumbled down a hidden hole in the grass, to pull out three feet of wet leg, so take care! An unluckier fellow fell down a similar hollow and lost some teeth, as their head smashed into the stern- Ow! A mooring near a winding hole is useful for turning the boat around to paint the other side.
Canal Boat Painting Ideas Today
Pop Eye and Olive Oil, blossom trees, castles, fish, ducks, kingfishers, owls, witches, and dragonflies; anything goes today. Boat painting is a personal choice. My favourite designs are those that embrace the history, wildlife and nature surrounding canal life. Traditional coloured boats are always eye catching and cheery. But why not do something different?
The tiny inside of a cabin invites inventive ideas for saving space, doubling purpose, and showing off individuality. Folding electric bikes take up little room. Even the roof is a creative place. Some have real grass growing on top, false grass, or crates securing a vast vegetable garden. Flowers abundant- grow to match the colour of a boat.
Storage boxes of different shapes and sizes hold adjustable solar panels which pivot towards the sun. Wind generators, bikes and wheelbarrows, brushes and mops, logs and coal, and barge poles adorn live-aboard narrow boat roofs.
Some sit atop their sunroof garden- friends sharing wine and a BBQ. Boater’s spill onto tow-paths where life and chatter and colour overflows, like a bursting river following a heavy rain.
Would You Let Banksy Graffiti Your Boat?
Of course you would! Imagine how much a Banksy masterpiece is worth. But what would Banksy paint on a narrow boat? What modern day painting might he choose? Traditional or contemporary? What conventions might he break? Would he convince us that he understands a bargee’s life? I challenge you Banksy, to paint my boat.
But then, I want to be the artist, to paint and design my tiny narrow boat, inside and out. Narrow boat art is a way of life, you live it! Giving or throwing away most of my possessions, I carry little, travelling light and free. “Alas”, people say aloud, “your boat is so small,” and think to themselves- you have nothing.
Yet, I only have room for the objects I most adore. The rest is not me, and I’m glad to get rid. Blind from the midday sun, the dark spot too long in my window of view, disappears- a blessing! Now I can discern clearly, I glimpse who I really am.
I’m an artwork in the making, layers peeled back, happy mistakes, erased and re-worked, ever-changing like the flowing living canal waters I’m a part of. I’m a living, breathing, hand painted story unfolding, my finger prints brushed into the rough surface of life on a narrow boat.
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