Art of the Early Explorers

Updated: Dec 20, 2020



Whilst the rock paintings, bark and body decorations of the Aborigines all testified to their close affinity with the land, the art of the early explorers demonstrated a need to understand and make sense of this strange new country.

The main purpose of early exploration, up until 1788 when the First Fleet arrived, was to seek trading opportunities, determine the resources of new lands (with a view to colonisation), survey and chart coastlines and undertake and record scientific research.


M Thevenot, Hollandia Nova detecta 1644  Terre Australe decouuerte lan 1644, Australian National Library

Sometimes professional artists were engaged, but on most occasions naval officers were trained in drawing and cartography and to develop their powers of observation - and it was they who not only mapped the routes they took, but also created a visual record of the ethnography, flora, fauna, geography and topography of the places they visited.

As Australia became colonised by the British, some sketches and paintings were also done simply for pleasure - from the early 17th century watercolour painting had been an acceptable aristocratic pastime, and from the mid 18th century the painting of landscapes, particularly topographic landscapes, had become popular with the middle classes.

A topographic landscape is almost like a map, that is, a clear conventional representation of a particular place. The viewer is presented with an apparently ordered and unambiguous landscape.


William Ellis, View of Adventure Bay, Van Diemen's Land, New Holland, 1777

This style of drawing had become part of the curriculum of military academies in order to achieve accurate visual records, such as coastal profiles for navigation purposes and the drawing of ports for naval intelligence.

It was never considered 'high art' but by the late 1700s topographic painting had been influenced the fashionable 'picturesque' style of painting in England, where the natural features of the landscape were arranged in a pleasing and irregular way, with the style being characterised by varied sinuous lines and variations in light and dark. Picturesque landscapes were linked to the fashion for travel and the exotic, so looking at paintings in this style became an aesthetic pursuit in itself.


Thomas Watling, A direct north general view of Sydney Cove, 1794, Dixson Galleries, SLNSW

You can see how the picturesque style quickly influenced early Australian artists. This oil painting, A direct north general view of Sydney Cove, attributed to Thomas Watling, is likely to have been painted in the early 1800s based on a 1794 drawing. 1.

Artists often kept journals, or note books, which they would use to sketch on site. Very often, specimens of locals plants would also be collected and taken home so that they could be both displayed and copied in more detail. Sometimes live specimens survived the trip, however, once a plant had died, it lost its colour, so it was important that some record of the original colours was kept.

(Whilst not all drawings and paintings were always technically accurate or drawn in the traditional style of scientific illustration, there was generally enough information to allow experts in Britain to complete both the scientific recording, naming and illustration.) (see details in later blog)


Joseph Banks, a wealthy 25 year old naturalist, accompanied Captain James Cook on his first visit to Australia, and he brought with him two highly skilled topographical artists (see details in later blog). As a botanist Banks was highly interested in collecting and cataloging specimens of unknown plants.

As you will see as you look at the drawings and charts from the early explorers, watercolours used by naval chartmakers were generally limited to two greens, two browns, crimson, blue and black. Many of the artists of the time have used these few colours, combined with pencil and ink, to great effect.

It was also customary for artists to draw black borders around their works, and charts in particular often had further borders of pink or cream wash aro