Techniques of the American Artist

From Experimental Chemistry to Representing Paint

by Adrienne Baxter Bell

 Winslow Homer, In a Florida Jungle, 1885–86, The Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA

Art History and Conservation: Bridging the Divide

 Driven by logic and eager to learn, first-year art history students often ask of a work of art, “How was it made?” and “How long did it take to make that?” And yet, only a few years later, as those same students are writing formal, contextual and theoretical analyses, they are overlooking the crucial issues of paint application, casting techniques, mediums and supports. Indifference to technique has created a lacuna in American art history: few studies grapple with the complexities of artistic process.1

As Robert Herbert demonstrated thirty-five years ago in his landmark study of Claude Monet’s paintings, technical examinations can challenge entrenched misconceptions.2 By studying details of Monet’s paintings, Herbert refuted the assumptions that Monet painted spontaneously and that he never corrected or adjusted his work. Today, conservators have even more equipment at their disposal to peer beyond the surface of works of art and to discover initial sketches, underdrawings and compositional changes (pentimenti); they can visualize much that is invisible to the naked eye.3 When considering treatment options, they can, quite literally, cross examine paint samples to analyze glazes and varnishes, and determine the degree to which artists mixed glazes with paints or applied them separately—essential information when determining, for example, whether or not to remove a varnish that appears to have yellowed.

By examining supports, conservators help to explain the acceptance of new artforms, such as the sketch. By probing the nature of brushwork, they offer evidence of characteristic traits, in that brushwork can serve as a form of artistic signature. In the absence of brushwork and in the presence of somewhat idiosyncratic application processes, such as rubbing with a cloth, scraping and scoring with a brush handle, and smudging with a fingertip, they uncover crucially important moments of dissatisfaction with the status quo, potential turning points in an artist’s working life. When such investigations are conducted without presuppositions and in concert with intense visual analysis and documentation (such as letters, journals and notebooks), they can shed light on how artists turn the ordinary stuff and substance of their trade into works of art.


Copley’s Skin and Allston’s Search for “Titan’s Dirt”

John Singer Sargent, Muddy Alligators The Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts Technical examinations help to explain art historical oddities and why certain artists were trapped in antiquated artistic processes and styles. In American Painters on Technique, an invaluable, two-volume study, conservators Lance Mayer and Gay Myers address the cases of John Singleton Copley and Washington Allston, among other artists. While many of Copley’s American portraits are well preserved, and while many likenesses are precociously naturalistic, the complexions of some of Copley’s sitters have a slightly yellowish cast. Mayer and Myers attribute this tone to Copley’s habit of “oiling out” the underlayers of his paintings—that is, of rubbing oil into the dried layers of paint to prepare them for additional paints.4 However, oil, like varnish, turns yellow over time. Copley worked deliberatively and, unlike Gilbert Stuart, often needed many sittings for his portraits. As the faces of his subjects required the bulk of his attention, they also received most of the oil. By the time Copley moved to England, however, the yellowing of the flesh tones had diminished.5 In short, Copley improved; he could work more quickly and use less of the potentially yellowing oil.

The generation of artists that succeeded Copley viewed Washington Allston as the next great leader. From the time he studied at Harvard University, Allston sought to decipher the recipes of the old masters, specifically those of sixteenth-century Italians, so that he could emulate their rich, vibrant tonalities. In London, the search had been on to uncover “the Venetian Secret,” which had to do with creating a dark, monochromatic underpainting in russet hues followed by “lights modeled in pure white,” with “any shadows darker than the ground.” The final step involved “extensive glazing with transparent colors.”6 Allston experimented relentlessly—he even tried mixing paint with skimmed milk—but criticism from colleagues and perhaps a waning interest in historical painting led to his failure to complete works of art, most famously, Belshazzar’s Feast (1817–43).7 As it turned out, Allston’s obsession was his weakness, for in his search to locate the precise color of Titian’s shading—what he termed, somewhat inelegantly, “Titian’s dirt”—he produced works that looked, in the words of his colleagues, “soiled” and “too brown.”8 He bequeathed to American art a mixed legacy: a man both deeply respected for his intelligence and erudition and, at the same time, creatively handicapped by a quest to recover the past.


“Learn about the new Pasteboards ”: The Validation of the Sketch in America

While the sketch had been considered an important artform in Italy since the sixteenth century, it only began to flourish in America during the antebellum years—spurred, as Mayer and Myers argue, by the independent spirit of the Emersonian age. The sketch had always been used as a preparatory vehicle; now, it adhered more closely to its etymological root: the Greek skhedios, meaning temporary or extemporaneous. In France and America, the gradual acceptance of the sketch and of landscape painting went hand in hand. Artists, notably of the Barbizon School, studied the beauty of the French countryside and made on-the-spot sketches with loose, expressive brushwork.

From the 1830s to 1860s, new artistic materials nourished the appreciation of the sketch as an artform. Manufacturers made an entirely new range of supports, which allowed landscape painters to work out of doors.9 Thomas Cole (in the Catskills) urged Asher B. Durand (in New York City) to “learn about the new pasteboards,” that is, sheets of paper pasted together to make a stiff, lightweight board that resembled cardboard.10 Pasteboard, Academy board, millboard, canvas board and “oiled sketching paper” or “oiled paper” were all new inventions; the solid sketching block—a stack of prepared sheets glued at the edge, which could be separated with a knife—provided support for the paper. All of the supports facilitated the making of the plein-air sketch. Artists quickly codified their devotion to the medium; led by Durand and the poet William Cullen Bryant, they founded the Sketch Club (or the XXI) in 1829, a forerunner of the Century Association.11 Mayer and Myers write: “The materials for sketching outdoors, which had initially been condemned as ephemeral and suitable only for experiments, therefore took on an importance far greater than they had when sketches were simply notations by artists for their own private use.”12 In short, new artistic materials helped to validate and nourish one of the most influential artforms in American history.


The Age of Eclecticism

 John Marin, Ragged Island, Maine, 1914 The Art Institute of Chicago, ChicagoThe sketch heralded a new appreciation for the artist’s engagement with the materials of art. In some cases, artists achieved hitherto unseen heights of expertise and agility, as in the watercolors of Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, and the paintings of George Inness, Thomas Eakins and Abbott Handerson Thayer. In other cases, artists prodded mediums beyond their inherent capabilities and often did considerable harm to their own work. While some of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s paintings remain fairly well preserved, others have fallen into a catastrophic state barely hinting at their original beauty. According to conservator Sheldon Keck, Ryder must have been aware that certain colors dry more quickly than others, but he seemed to ignore the canons of chemistry. As a result, the “sluggish underlayer of not yet dried paint extrudes up out of the cracks as glossy globules,” which are evident, for example, in Ryder’s Moonlit Cove (early to middle 1880s).13 The list of injurious activities continued. According to Kenneth Hayes Miller, a friend of the artist, Ryder would wash his paintings “with a wet cloth to bring out their depth and transparency.” “On evaporation,” Keck added, “the water could definitely cause blanching of the paint and glazes.”14 Ryder also concocted a “glaze composed of oil varnish and bitumen, which [he] applied over much of the underpainting of the composition.” Not only did the paint not adhere to the glaze but the glaze itself is thermoplastic—it softens in warm temperatures and hardens in cool ones—and has continued to drip in Ryder’s paintings.15 Keck went so far as to recommend that curators exhibit Ryder’s paintings face up to prevent further slippage of the paint. When the works were not on view, he added, they should be hung upside down, presumably to counteract the “plastic flow” of the paint.16


Painting to Paint Out

Scores of first-hand accounts of Inness at work confirm the central role that process played in the creation of his landscape paintings. Although, as a young artist during the 1850s, Inness painted far more meticulously than he did in later years, he maintained an uncanny eye for the superfluous. Conservator Judy Dion has shown that even the young Inness refined his earliest compositions by painting out extraneous objects. For example, infrared reflectography reveals that he removed a large mass of foliage and a long tree branch from Twilight on the Campagna (c. 1851). He also removed two birds from the area near the stream. Dion observed: “As the painting progressed, [Inness’s] intent appears to have been to intensify the austere drama of the trees by simplifying their profiles, exposing more wood at the branch tips, and subordinating the role of foliage.”17 These small adjustments mattered; they helped to clarify the composition and to draw the viewer’s focus to the key locations of the scene. This acute sensitivity would ultimately characterize Inness’s late landscape painting process. Many years later, as an eminence grise of the American artworld, Inness showed a work to his friend Elliott Daingerfield. He pointed to an area of the composition and stated, “I paint in all of these details in order that I may know how to paint them out.”18

Additional analysis and much care in the conservation of Inness’s paintings are required. The artist’s toned glazes often resemble discolored varnish; as a result, several late landscapes have been stripped not only of these glazes, which help to generate luminosity, but also of some original paint. This much is clear: Inness’s technical dexterity matched the inventiveness of his compositions. During his late landscape painting period (c. 1878–94), he viewed the canvas in part in a presciently modern lens: not exclusively as a support for a representation but, instead, as an arena in which to explore the union of artist and art. Like Titian, he relished the expressive potential of the brushstroke. Like Edgar Degas, he felt that his right to reconsider a composition extended long after that work had been sold. Like James McNeill Whistler, he rejected production time as a factor in determining the value of art. Like many of the modern artists that followed him, he elevated the role of the pictorial mark— the gesture of paint—in the history of American art.19


The Virtuosity of Alla Prima

John Marin, West Street, New York, 1910 The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

The sense of virtuosity in Inness’s painting is equally present in the art of watercolor. As conservator Judith Walsh reminds us, watercolor is an exceptionally difficult medium to master; its beauty often lies in its putative simplicity. Paper buckles when wet; colors puddle and run into one another; fine washes superimposed become muddy; mistakes cannot be painted out; and underdrawings often show through washes. Moreover, working out of doors can aggravate these difficulties. Despite all of these technical minefields, watercolors are often valued above all for their inherent “spontaneity.”20 Winslow Homer was a relentless student of the medium; his watercolors often show traces of his decision-making process. After examining In a Florida Jungle (1885–86), Walsh concluded that Homer moved two key narrative features: the roseate spoonbill and the snout of the crocodile, bringing them closer to one another on opposite sides of the stretch of beach. Traces of the original forms remain in the watercolor paper. These two adjustments, as Walsh rightly notes, gave the picture “a new dramatic tension.”21 Thus, Homer’s watercolors are lessons in creativity; he seems to have wanted us to appreciate the subtle but crucial changes that he made to his compositions.

Sargent’s sister reported that he “works like a dog” in the atelier of Émile-Auguste Carolus Duran.22 There, he learned the fundamentals of painting and the importance of painting in values. He looked, as did William Page, for the “middle tone.” In order to create lights while working in watercolors, he would use a “resist,” a colorless wax stick, crayon or knife-sharpened candle, which, when applied to a sheet of paper, would protect certain areas from later washes. He also used a liquid agent—a “frisket”—for this purpose; he could later remove it by rubbing the paper or using solvents, or with mild abrasives, such as bread crumbs or an eraser. The frisket could create highlights when areas around the blocked sections were defined with dark washes.23 When he needed to give the illusion of a few tiny glints of sunlight, he would scratch them into the watercolor paper, as seen on the spiked teeth of the foreground reptile in Muddy Alligators (1917). These details are extraordinary; many are easily overlooked and yet, when seen within the whole composition, provide essential notes of liveliness.

An understanding of Sargent’s technique in oil paints helps us to appreciate the virtuosity of his portraits. He maintained the philosophy of alla prima, technically meaning “at first attempt” but in practice meaning “wet-on-wet,” or painting in one sitting. In other words, Sargent strove to complete a portrait at one try, without returning to a composition to make corrections or adjustments, though he was known to add a few strokes to a portrait after it was framed. When a part of a composition displeased him, he scraped it out entirely and repainted it from the beginning. Moreover, cross-sectional paint samples confirm that even the final touches on the faces of Sargent’s portraits were often painted wet-into-wet. Mayer and Myers underscore the ingenuity of this technique: “More timid and less skilled artists—in other words, practically all other painters of all time—tended to apply final strokes over previously dried paint, so they could have the option of wiping off the stroke and trying again if it did not come out exactly right.”24 Sargent was confident that it would. Conservation also reveals that he scrutinized the placement of the subject within the composition. Many of his canvases have excess fabric folded behind the stretchers, or pieces added to the sides, so that he could reposition or redefine the location of the subject after the portrait was completed.25


Modernism in Technique: “I Am Representing Paint First of All”

After Homer and Sargent, John Marin upheld the mantle of virtuosity in American watercolors. In a recent catalogue to accompany a Marin exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Kristi Dahm made a very good case for the claim that Marin’s “shift toward a nonliteral style of representation was connected with his exploration of the new ways to handle watercolor.”26 Marin’s agility with the materials of watercolor—with the texture and weight of his paper, with brushwork, and with the watery substance of the medium— allowed him to generate extraordinary illusions in his landscape paintings. Dahm’s excellent description of the complex and infinitely delicate process by which Marin created Ragged Island, Maine (1914) is worth quoting nearly in full:

[Marin] combined a grainy blue pigment with green and red in a poorly mixed wash, which he brushed and poured onto the paper while keeping the surface level. The water   penetrated the well-sized paper slowly, which allowed the particles of pigment time to deposit in dark clusters at the lowest points of the sheet. Marin then blotted the surface with a  damp rag or blotting paper to lift pigment away from the high points, producing a strong, speckled pattern across the ocean. Next, he manipulated the wash further by brushing on clear water at the upper left, breaking up the clusters of pigment and extending the color. The blue wash tapers off at the top edge, giving a convincing sensation of the sea receding into distant clouds and mist. At the top right, the wash appears to flow upward, while at the lower right it clearly moves downward, indicating that Marin rocked the sheet back and forth. He also tipped the right edge down, encouraging the wash to collect on all sides of the rock formation at the lower right. As he moved the paper, he added more wash to the lower edge; it pooled densely there, suggesting the motion of the sea against the shore.27

These subtle adjustments to pigment within the watery medium and to the axes of the paper allowed Marin to create an extraordinary vibrant scene in which the density of rock and buildings on the shoreline counterbalance the aqueous tenor of the adjacent sea. Marin’s watercolors situate the viewer on that exquisite edge between representation and abstraction, between literal and non-literal marks. In this place, he seeks freedom from the strictures of representation to explore the infinite potential of graphic marks. In West Street, New York (1910), as Dahm astutely points out, Marin populated the foreground with tiny dots of black, blue, red and yellow paint, dots that are unaffiliated with the representational needs of the composition. Close-up details of these dots reveal the tell-tale striations of fingerprints. Dahm remarks: “These small, expressive some times suggest movement and at others operate more as punctuation marks or staccato musical notes, accenting the scene and contrasting with the more rigorously rendered buildings.”28 While their illegibility may seem to disconnect them from the narrative, they ideally embody Marin’s stated goal for the composition: “Buildings streets—people—become a Solid mass of moving aliveness.”29 Referring to works of the later 1920s, Marin codified this achievement: “ these new paintings, although I use objects, I am representing paint first of all, and not the motif primarily.”30


The Substance of Art

The analytic practices of conservators wisely decelerate the viewing of art; they remind us to consider the ramifications of every detail, no matter how small, and to scrutinize artistic materials and procedures. Infrared photographs and X-rays uncover preliminary thoughts and help us to deconstruct where and why a decision was reconsidered. Through process, we can begin to see Ryder’s unorthodox experiments as courageous explorations of paint’s ability, in all its luminosity, to convey mythic reveries. Conservation illuminates the ingenuity of paint handling—be it a deceptively simple brushstroke, a dexterous fleck of paint from a fingertip or even the judicious tilt of a puddle of colored water to a composition’s ideal location. When art history is conducted with no connection to the messy, ineffable, alchemical process of art, then it becomes, in James Elkins’s eloquent phrase, “a meager reading of pictures.”31 Instead, it must grapple with the substance of art. It must understand that: “To a painter, [oil paint] is the life’s blood: a substance so utterly entrancing, infuriating, and ravishingly beautiful that it makes it worthwhile to go back into the studio every morning, year after year, for an entire lifetime.” “Any history of painting,” Elkins concludes, “that does not take that obsession seriously is incomplete.”32



This essay is dedicated to Professor David Rosand (1938–2014), whose superlative analyses of “the meaning of the mark” have long been a source of inspiration.

1. By contrast, American art museums are tremendous resources for the study of technique. See, for example, the work of the Getty Conservation Institute; the “Conservation and Scientific Research” websites at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; “Revealing Picasso” at the Art Institute of Chicago; “Conservation and Collections Management” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Farther afield, the Tate offers a fine collection of papers on artists’ materials and techniques: tate-papers.

2. Robert L. Herbert, “Method and Meaning in Monet,” Art in America 67 (September 1979), pp. 90–108. James Elkins’s description of attempting to replicate a Monet painting is an essential complement to Herbert’s analysis. See Elkins, What Painting Is: How to Think about Oil Painting, Using the Language of Alchemy (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 10–19.

3. The longer wavelengths of infrared reflectography allow it to penetrate paint layers. The thinner the paint, the more layers can be discerned. See “Infrared Reflectography”: conservation-project/examination-techniques/infrared. X-rays have greater energy than visible light and can penetrate paint layers and supports to varying degrees. See “X-Radiography”: conservation-project/examination-techniques/x-radiography.

4. Lance Mayer and Gay Myers, American Painters on Technique: The Colonial Period to 1860 (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011), pp. 30–31. Hereafter, The Colonial Period.

5. Ibid., p. 31.

6. Ibid., pp. 16–17.

7. Joyce Hill Stoner, “Washington Allston: Poems, Veils, and ‘Titian’s Dirt,’” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 29:1 (1990), p. 3.

8. Quoted in Mayer and Myers, The Colonial Period, p. 66.

9. An essential reference here is Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830–1880 (Dallas Museum of Art, 1998).

10. Mayer and Myers, The Colonial Period, p. 147.

11. Barbara Dayer Gallati, “Asher B. Durand’s Early Career: A Portrait of the Artist as an Ambitious Man,” in Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape (New York: Brooklyn Museum, in association with D Giles, Limited, London, 2007), p. 53.

12. Mayer and Myers, The Colonial Period, p. 149.

13. Sheldon Keck, “Albert P. Ryder: His Technical Procedures,” in William Innes Homer and Lloyd Goodrich, Albert Pinkham Ryder: Painter of Dreams (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989), p. 177. According to Keck, flake white, umbers and prussian blue are rapid dryers; ivory black, lamp black and Van Dyke brown are very slow dryers. Moreover, Ryder never understood that certain pigments interact poorly with each other. For example, emerald green is rapidly ruined by cadmium yellow; indigo is unsafe when mixed with white lead.

14. Ibid., p. 180. Blanching—otherwise referred to as “chalking” or “crystalline bloom”— can be caused by ammonium sulfate crystals migrating to the surface of the painting. These crystals appear as hazy patches. See Eugena Ordonez and John Twilley, “Clarifying the Haze: Efflorescence on Works of Art,” Analytical Chemistry 69:13 (1997): 416A–22A.

15. Ibid., p. 178.

16. Ibid., p. 182.

17. Judy Dion, “A Technical Comparison of Two Paintings from Inness’s First Italian Trip,” in George Inness in Italy, Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., no. 2 (2011), p. 51.

18. Quoted in Elliott Daingerfield, Fifty Paintings by George Inness (New York: privately printed by Frederic Fairchild Sherman, 1913), p. 6.

19. For more on these topics, see Adrienne Baxter Bell, George Inness and the Visionary Landscape (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 2003).

20. Judith C. Walsh, “Observations on the Watercolor Techniques of Homer and Sargent,” in American Traditions in Watercolor: The Worcester Art Museum Collection (New York: Abbeville Press, in association with the Worcester Art Museum, 1987), p. 45.

21. Ibid., p. 50.

22. Quoted in Lance Mayer and Gay Myers, American Painters on Technique, 1860–1945 (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013), p. 174. Hereafter, 1860–1945.

23. Walsh, pp. 57–58.

24. Mayer and Myers, 1860–1945, p. 186.

25. Ibid., p. 181.

26. Kristi Dahm, “Playing Around with Paint: John Marin’s Evolving Watercolor Technique,” in John Marin’s Watercolors: A Medium for Modernism (Art Institute of Chicago, 2011), p. 45.

27. Ibid., p. 48.

28. Ibid., p. 46.

29. Quoted in ibid., p. 46.

30. Ibid., p. 157.

31. Elkins, What Painting Is, p. 5.

32. Ibid.

American Arts Quarterly, Volume 31, Number 4