Update 3: Victorian Visionaries – A Trying Technique

I’m switching gears from my earlier posts. I’m in the second half of my project, which is largely artistic creation. While keeping the research from London in mind, I have begun a visual investigation of Pre-Raphaelite painting techniques. The results are promising, but the process has been a bit frustrating.

I started with researching the supplies they used. In London, right around the corner from the Brotherhood’s “headquarters”, I stopped into L. Cornelissen & Son – Artists’ Colourmen. They have been selling artists’ materials there since 1855. It is quite possible that the Pre-Raphaelites purchased supplies here (an exciting thought); it looked as if it hadn’t changed in the one hundred and sixty years since. The owner explained the types of mediums, pigments, and varnishes Victorian artists employed. It turns out, you can still purchase many of them at your local Michael’s for a fair price!

Reminiscent of Ollivander's Wand Shop, no?

Reminiscent of Ollivander’s Wand Shop, no?

I picked up some linseed oil and liquin medium, as well as a wide variety of oil paints. The growth of the public art market in the early 1800’s led to an expansion of art materials for sale, as well as scientific discoveries that increased the range of available pigments and mediums. By the middle of the century, the Pre-Raphaelites palette would have consisted of cobalt blue, ultramarine, emerald green, madder, umbers, ochres and sienna. The unique “Pre-Raphaelite purple” was created by combining cobalt blue with madder. (I used alizarin crimson as an alternative to madder, which can fade over time).

Materials on glass palette, pre-mess

Materials on glass palette, pre-mess

With everything ready to go, I began my attempt at the “wet-on-wet” technique. This process flew in the face of artists’ academic training and was difficult to control. William Holman Hunt explained it in these steps:

“Select a prepared ground, originally for its brightness, and renovate it, if necessary, with fresh white (gesso) when first it comes into the studio, white to be mixed with a very little amber or copal varnish. Let this last coat become of a thoroughly stone-like hardness. Upon this surface, complete with exactness the outline of the part in hand. On the morning for the painting, spread a coat of fresh white mixed with a drop of varnish very evenly with a palette knife over the part for the day’s work, of such consistency that the drawing should faintly show through. Over this wet ground, the colour (transparent and semi-transparent) should be laid with light sable brushes, and the touches must be made so tenderly that the ground below shall not be worked up…Painting of this kind cannot be retouched except with an entire loss of luminosity.”

In essence, “wet-on-wet” is reminiscent of the old fresco technique of painting onto a wet ground. Yet on a white canvas, it illuminates the pigments and allows the artist to capture realistic light effects. It is also what gives Pre-Raphaelite art such a singular style.

But it is no walk in the proverbial park. I mixed a little white oil paint with some liquin and spread it over a small canvas. I went to work on top of it with pigmented paint, and it was like trying to frost a cake made of Jell-O. I scraped it off and tried again with minimal liquin, which reduced the jelly-like texture of the surface, but still made it difficult to push the paint in a desired direction. Finally, I had to let it dry after the first glaze and come back the next day to layer more pigments on top. I did this until I reached the opacity I needed in certain areas of the composition. Here is one example of an experimental canvas: 

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Finished product

Finished product – Detail from Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts (1852)

I’ve been practicing and it’s become easier to manipulate. I’ve also noticed that my studies do have a more luminous quality than my usual work.

I’ve also been sketching, so that I don’t have to literally watch paint dry. My drawings are more focused on composition; I’ve drawn in monochrome to single out their use of light and shadow to create a space. Some PRB artists removed as much contrast as they dared, as in Rossetti’s portrait of Jane Morris below. It gives the flattened image an immediate, unsettling quality reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts.

My study of a Jane Morris portrait

My study of a Jane Morris portrait

Others, like Millais, placed their subjects in a dark space and illuminated them with a spotlighted, high-definition effect.

Study of The Return of the Dove to the Art by Millais

Study of The Return of the Dove to the Ark by Millais

Many of their compositions seem to favor figures which dominate the canvas and are pushed into the viewer’s space. These characters also seem posed in more natural, if somewhat awkward, positions than that of a melodramatic Rubens or Gainsborough lady. If there are multiple figures in the painting, their interactions are depicted through facial expressions and the way they interact with their environment. It is also important to note that although it is the humans telling the story, every detail, from tree bark to a shoe, receives the same amount of detail.

Like the wet-on-wet technique, this heightened attention to detail is also key to the Pre-Raphaelite “look”. I have also been practicing this by selecting details from various PRB paintings to do small studies of.

My detail from Millais' The Proscribed Royalist, 1853

My detail from Millais’ The Proscribed Royalist, 1853

While it does achieve the intended effect, I am disgruntled with my glacial pace. It does not thrill me. I had set out to make a series of studies on 5 inch square canvases, hopefully around 10 or so. I was only up to four as of last week. Since we’re less than a month out from classes beginning (eek!), in a panic, I decided to start on my final canvases. (I’ll take some photos and put them in my next update.)

In his diary, PRB member William Holman Hunt also complained of the tediousness of this technique; to achieve the level of detail he desired, he finished roughly one square inch a day. Well, even with seven weeks, I can’t afford that pace. Though obviously not the sole reason, I would imagine that many 21st century artists can’t support themselves working at this speed, another reason the style might be unpopular.

I set out to explore a painting technique unlike my typically loose style. I think I’ve accomplished that so far, if only through sheer force. I’ll see where I’m at in a few more weeks!

Till then!

-Vail