Thursday, May 5, 2016

Stuart's Pigments and Paint Application

American Painters on Technique: the Colonial Period to 1860, "Gilbert Stuart: the First American Old Master": Mayer, Lance, and Gay Myers; Los Angeles, J Paul Getty Museum, 2011

In 3 parts:
In spite of {Benjamin} West's statement that "it is of no use to steal Stuart's colors [if you want to paint as he does you must steal his eyes]", American painters were extremely curious to know which pigments Stuart used to achieve his dazzling effects.  As a result, we probably know more about his pigments than about those of any other early American painter.
The most remarkable thing about Stuart's colors is that they are not very remarkable.  Portrait painting can be done (and has been done for centuries) with relatively few pigments.  In fact, all contemporary observers agreed that Stuart used a limited number of pigments and mixtures on his palette.  It was traditional for a painter to place dabs of pure colors around the edge of the palette (usually beginning with white next to the thumbhole and proceeding left to the darker pigments) and also to place some premixed "tints" in the area below this row.  Stuart apparently placed seven or eight pure pigments and nine or ten premixed tints on his palette, which is fewer than many other artists whose palette arrangements have been recorded.  For instance, Thomas Bardwell, in his 1756 book, recommended twelve pure colors and twelve mixed tints for portraits.  In the early nineteenth century, some writers recommended up to sixty-six mixed tints! Jocelyn's description of Stuart's actual wooden palette took a gentle poke at artists who thought that a large number of mixed tints would help them; he said Stuart's "pallet-board" was "smaller than the large pallets affected by some lesser artists."
A limited number of pigments and mixtures makes sense given Stuart's style of painting, and in fact it was his method of applying his paints that was unique, rather than the nature of his pigments.  In the use of his palette and the application of his paints, Stuart was nearly the opposite of Copely, who was said to have spent hours premixing the exact tint with his palette knife for every flesh tone and shadow.  Stuart, by comparison, "condemned the practice of mixing a colour on a knife, and comparing it with whatever was to be imitated.---'Good flesh colouring,' he said, 'partook of all colours, not mixed, so as to be combined in one tint, but shining through each other, like the blood through the natural skin.'  Stuart could not endure Copely's laboured flesh, which he compared to tanned leather."
Suart used, in Jouett's words, "chopping" strokes of distinct colors to give the effect of translucent flesh, thereby avoiding the leathery look that he disliked in Copely's work.  Jouett also reported Stuart's advice to "keep your colours as separate as you can.  No blending, tis destruction to clear and beautiful effect."  Others noticed this as well; John Cogdell, after describing how Stuart combined different colors, added: "Tho this is not done on his pallette but only as they are wanted with the pencil.  Mr. Stewart lays one tint over another." In a detailed account of Stuart's method, Obadiah Dickinson described how a portrait became more distinct as it progressed; "Mr. Steward endeavours in the first sitting to give the appearance of the person at 20 yards distant and in each succeeding sitting to advance its effect nearer until it be completed at 2 yards distance."  But Dickinson noted that even in final touches, Stuart advised; "What you do in the shadows over the glazing must be finished if possible with a single touch or you will spoil the beauty of your work."

Stuart also had opinions about Titian and Rubens that may have influenced his own method of applying paint............ TO BE CONTINUED

Samuel Meeker 1763-1831 a merchant in Philadelphia

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