These unsung women were behind some of New Zealand's most iconic retro art

These unsung women were behind some of New Zealand's most iconic retro art

Black and white photo of women painting landscape

Their intricate artwork became a New Zealand sensation, but the “lady colourists” of the famed Whites Aviation studio remained unknown. Meet one of the unsung women behind the scenes of some of our most popular retro art.

When interviewed in late 2015 at 82 years of age, Grace Rawson shared her happy memories as a hand-colourist for Whites Aviation between 1953 and 1963. Still “full of adoration” for both “Mr Stewart and Mr White”, Grace’s story was one of staff loyalty, vocational alchemy and a genuine passion for creating a hand-coloured New Zealand. Such was the enjoyment she got from her work, she even planned her honeymoon around visiting some of the locations of the Whites Aviation scenes.

Auckland Harbour Bridge

Auckland Harbour Bridge opening.

As a teenager, she had a photo of herself in her ball gown hand-coloured by Crown Studios, as did many Epsom Girls Grammar School students at the time. The photo was displayed in the studio window, clinching Grace’s inspiration to apply for a position as a hand-colourist. For £1 10s a week, she was taught by one Shirley Davies, a “real hard-case character”, and she says she fell in love with painting portraits and groups.

Colourised photograph of Cape Reinga

Cape Reinga.

After returning from a trip to England in 1953, Grace heard of the growing reputation of Whites Aviation. She still recalls meeting owner Leo White, showing him her British art portfolio of old mills, bridges and thatched roofs, and being asked to paint some of White’s own photos to further prove her skills.

Avon River lined with golden trees in Christchurch

Avon River, Christchurch.

Complementing Grace’s memories of these times is a 1963 article from the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, which offers a rare behind-the-scenes view of life in the Whites’ colouring studio. The studio was a well-lit room in the Darby’s Buildings, on the corner of Darby and Elliot Streets in downtown Auckland, where a group of about eight women using cotton-topped sticks hand-coloured photographs of New Zealand. The article was titled, “Steady Hand, Keen Eye and a Retentive Memory Needed for Tinting”.

Black and white photo of women

Grace (at near) now lives in an Auckland rest home, and remains in great spirits.

In the art paradigms of the day, these women weren’t regarded as artists; nor, for that matter, were those who took the photos. However, what the article did provide was insight into the delicate and intricate nature of the craft:

The sea was washed with blue, highlights were added in green and a darker blue. Rangitoto was a combination of green and mauve for the base and blue and mauve at the top.
Colouised photograph of Queenstown


"Highlights were of raw sienna. The yachts were mainly scraped up with shadows on the sails and the hulls brown. The tree in the foreground was washed with a darkish green with the highlights of a paler tone of the same colour. The flowers were done last. For bush, four shades of green were used, (plus) several tones of yellow, browns and pinks.”

Painting of ocean coast with lighthouse.

A soaring view of Castlepoint, on the Wairarapa coast.

The photos were first printed on a special semi-matte, fibre-based paper, striking a level of absorption that allowed the colour to cure without bleeding. The photos were then painted in oil thinned with turpentine, for the paint to be translucent – a wash-like effect. Paintbrushes were only rarely used. Instead, a small amount of cotton wool was wrapped around the end of a thin grapevine to create a brush. Cotton wool had the advantage of providing only a thin film of colour, and in a uniformed, streak-free way.

Colourised photograph of Milford Sound

Milford Sound.

For landscapes, Grace recalls Leo describing the exact colours to ensure clarity and depict the New Zealand light. White frequently brought back samples, such as the time he returned from the South Island high country with a handful of tussock. A photo of 35cm by 50cm would take about a morning to colour. But when painting a large mural, it wouldn’t be uncommon to work as a team, standing, sitting or climbing on stools. Even then, big pieces could take many days to complete – nine in the case of a large Lake Taupō photograph worked on by four women, in 1963.

Painted picture of Shotover River

Dab by dab, the Whites artists put the colour back into black-and-white landscapes, such as this once-monochromatic photo of the Shotover River near Queenstown.

Reflecting on what created the Whites sensation, Grace recalls:

It was very important for people to have photographs of New Zealand on their walls in those days. And once Whites started selling, they went berserk.
Colourised photograph of Ōpunake, with Mt Taranaki behind

Ōpunake, with Mt Taranaki behind.

"In my view, everybody bought them because there was nothing else like them at the time. There were some prints of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Bruegel’s paintings, Constable’s hay wain, but suddenly Whites was different. It was real, and the country we lived in, and hand coloured. It absolutely took off.”

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