The history of concealment painting on warships began during the Crimean War. That's when the first camouflages were noticed in the navy.
In the earlier periods, when sea combat was close-range, there was no point in using camouflage. In 1854, for improving concealment characteristics, they started painting the gunboats in the Russian Imperial Navy, which were operating on the Baltic Sea, in a gray-blue color similar to the color of skerries when viewed at a distance. Afterwards, during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), the Russian small torpedo boats Chesma, Sinop, Navarino, and Sukhum-Kale were painted in a light-green color similar to the color of sea water. However, the experience gained in these two wars was not carried through.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, warships of different countries, especially cruisers and ironclads, had luxury and taffeta camouflages. They had white or black hulls, white superstructures, yellow funnels, and many gold-plated decorations. The Victorian style was running the show, and the Mistress of the Sea was setting the tone.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese and the Austro-Hungarian Navies were the first to walk away from such patterns. In September 1903, the ships in the Russian Pacific Fleet based at Port Arthur were repainted in the “combat” olive drab color. At the same time, the Second and Third Pacific Squadrons that sailed to the Far East at the beginning of the war had the old taffeta camouflages: black hulls and superstructures with bright yellow funnels. The results are well-known: as the distances for engagements increased, the Japanese ships painted to match the stormy sea had an advantage.
The battles during the Russo-Japanese War revealed the benefits of camouflages on warships. The combat distances increased, and painting a ship to make aiming at her more difficult and help the ship blend in with the water surface became an essential attribute of military fleets. The experiments with different patterns continued until the beginning of World War I. However, sailors were very skeptical about the innovation. The visibility conditions at sea were affected by too many factors: weather, time, etc. With the start of World War I, surface ships faced a new threat—submarines. It became necessary to blur the ship's exterior to hinder defining her movement parameters: course angle, speed, and distance to her.
That was when the British artist and the Navy officer Norman Wilkinson suggested a camouflage scheme, later known as dazzle camouflage, or razzle dazzle, or dazzle painting. He advised that ships be painted with abstract designs: to create illusive planes, angles, and other forms. Wilkinson served as an officer on a submarine and concluded that there was no need to hide the object, confusing the enemy preparing for a strike was more efficient.
In fairness, the first person who suggested painting ships in a «zebra» style was the British professor of zoology Graham Kerr. In September 1914, he sent a letter to First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, in which he said:
«… a continuous uniform shade renders conspicuous. This can be counteracted by breaking up the surface by violently contrasting pigments."
However, as it often happens, the idea was swept under the rug. It wasn’t until summer 1915 that the Admiralty gave the order to start experiments with disruptive camouflage, but according to Wilkinson's proposal.
The concept for that camouflage was based on the fancy fine arts of the time, mainly cubism. In those days, the aiming of torpedoes from a submarine was based on visual data. The submarine Commander calculated the distance triangle according to the data received with the help of an optical rangefinder. So, he defined all of a target's movement parameters visually: speed, size, and course angle. Using dazzling camouflage often made it harder for submariners to correctly define those parameters. Due to the unusual painting and ornaments, the sizes of the ship were disrupted, and her silhouette was blurred or blended in to sky or sea surface.
After the successful trials, the dazzle camouflage was adopted by the British, French, and U.S.A. Navies. The main colors in dazzling camouflage were black, white, white dirt, green, and blue. As such painting was applied not only on warships, but on merchant vessels too, the convoys that included those parrot-like ships looked completely stunning, according to witnesses. Besides the main scheme, the painting was often complemented with a fake wave on the forechain, which was misleading when defining the speed of the ship. The fake wave was also painted under the sternpost, to create an illusion as to the course of the target.
Nevertheless, the very first classic camouflage to make a ship less visible near the shore and distort her silhouette was used in the Russian Navy. During the Russo-Japanese War, the destroyers of the Vladivostok Independent Cruiser Squadron were covered with mottled paintwork that resembled a coastline. Later, in summer 1915, an artist from Sevastopol Yuri Shpazhinsky addressed the Ministry of the Navy, to propose a special ship camouflage scheme, which he called «illusory». According to his idea, such a scheme could make it difficult to define the distance to the ship. The Navy command found the proposal interesting, and gave the order to paint the camo on the Black Sea Fleet ironclad Sinop, destroyers Shchastlivyi and Gromkiy, and later, the avisos of the Baltic Fleet Kondor and Berkut (former border guard ships). Moreover, another of Shpazhinsky's ideas was tested on avisos: special lugs were mounted on masts and tubes, but they didn't have the impact expected, and further experiments were shut down. Also, in the Baltic Fleet, a few destroyers of the Novik class had a different camouflage scheme—horizontal lines of different colors, changing from dark (near the water) to light.