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I recently examined a remarkable version of the famous Turner’s views of ancient Rome. This post is a brief intro to the Technical art examination literature on Turner which is pretty vast, thanks mostly to the research of Dr. Joyce H. Townsend, currently, Senior Conservation Scientist at the Tate Gallery. I’d like to first mention “Turner’s painting techniques”  which was first published in 1993 as the accompanying catalogue to the homologous exhibition at the Tate Gallery. Dr. Townsend had access to the over 300 Turner’s paintings and 20,000 watercolors which make up the Tate’s Turner collection, the largest in the world. The 7th edition of the book (2007) has a 6th chapter with latest scientific data. Other contribution of Mr. Townsend on Turner are in [2, 3]. I found very inspiring the paragraph where Mr. Townsend describes the role of technical examination in art conservation:
“Technical examination provides details of the artistic process which are rarely visible to the casual observer, and which natural deterioration and early restoration have blurred or even hidden. Much information is concealed from the gallery viewer by thick, yellowed varnish, and its recovery enables us to imagine the works as the artist saw them, to share in his doubts and improvisations during the painting process, and to read the meaning of the painting, in some cases lost to all but the artist’s generation. “
Going back to Turner, it is interesting to recall as Sir George Beaumont referred to Turner as a “white painter” whose influence he thought would have been dangerous for the young artists. Indeed, Sir Beaumont, as many other art critics of his time, was too used to the warm tones of the old masters due to the yellowed varnish and dirt accumulation. Turner was considered treacherously too bright.
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It is interesting to recall the role Turner’s father played in his workflow. While he was alive he prepared the priming and also the stretchers for his son. It is interesting to note that Turner’s paintings are mostly 2 x 3 ft or 3 x 4 ft. which are not common sizes for the period and so he probably had them made specifically for him.
Priming is very peculiar in Turner’s technique. He worked mostly on highly absorbent priming, colored white or off-white. Since they also absorb moisture and were subject to degradation, they necessitated extensive relining which have changed the appearance of most of his paintings. It is supposed that he wanted that kind of priming so that the paint could dry rapidly and the paintings could be transported easily. On the other hand, since he was a fast painter, the shorter working time allowed by the absorbent ground was not a problem for him. So, as mentioned, the canvases were prepared for a large part by his father, without coating of size (whole egg as the medium) to facilitate the oil absorption. The filler was lead white with, occasionally, some chalk and gypsum. In watercolors Turner was even most radical and he applied the paint directly to the paper. After his father’s death Turner used only commercial made canvases (oil medium with lead white and chalk and with a layer of size in the middle).
Interestingly, differently than his contemporaries’ portrait painters such as Reynolds and Gainsborough, he did not use a midtoned priming but a white one. He used to first paint fast large areas with a paint loaded hard brush – whose use is documented by the many brush-hairs found stuck in his paintings. Later he would come back to retouch and glaze them, even with his fingers. His skies are often made with a palette knife, while highlights in the waves’ foam are applied with small brushstrokes of thick paint. In Turner’s painting technique, of the utterly importance were the “varnishing days” when a painting was prepared and “finished” for an exhibition with glazing, retouches and varnishing.
Before starting painting in oil Turner had a long experience with watercolor which influenced his working method in oil. He didn’t use to prepare an underdrawing, his compositions in oil are blocked-in with washes of thinned oil paint, as can be seen in many of his unfinished works. The use of pencil underdrawing, which was otherwise common at his time, was found in just very few of his painting.
Anecdotes regarding Turner depict him as pretty parsimonious, if not stingy. One for all, he was told to say to one of his friends “Cobalt blue is enough for me”. A pigment that was more cheap than the other blues, at his time. Bitumen, a dark brown pigment, was used by Turner for shadows, as many other artists of his time, and caused the characteristic craquelure. He wanted to provide his paintings with strong contrast between reds (mars red, vermilion) and greens and used viridian and the new manufactured emerald green, as much bright as poisonous. He also wanted to introduce vivid contrast between yellows (chrome yellow) and blues (cobalt blue, synthetic ultramarine). He was an early user of newly manufactured pigments, such as emerald green, mars red and barium sulfate in his later paintings. As the other painters of his time, he also used for his oil paintings Prussian blue, smalt, indigo, gamboge, madder lake at the beginning of his career.
Most of Turner’s paintings have altered, already in his own time. John Ruskin (1819-1900) in his book “Modern Painters” (1856) wrote about Turner:
“How are we enough to regret that so great a painter should not leave a single work by which in succeeding ages he might be entirely estimated? The fact of his using means so imperfect….appears to me utterly inexplicable…If the effects he desires cannot be to their full extent produced except by these treacherous means, one picture only should be painted each year as an exhibition of immediate power, and the rest should be carried out, whatever the expense of labour and time, in safe materials, even at the risk of some deterioration of immediate effect”
References Joyce H. Townsend “Turner’s painting techniques” Tate Publishing (first published 1993) edition 2007.  Joyce H. Townsend “The Materials and Techniques of Turner Primings and Supports” Studies in Conservation, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Aug., 1994), pp. 145-153.  AAVV “Paint and Purpose. A study of technique in British Art” Tate Gallery Publishing, edited by Stephen Hackney, Rica Jones, Joyce Townsend, 1999. [ws_table id=”4″] [ws_table id=”5″]