Art Materials

An Early Insight into Art Materials by Jeannine Cook

Happenstance has just given me a lovely gift of information. I was reading a wonderful biography by the late famed British historian, Hugh Trevor Roper, on the 17th century Huguenot physician, Theodore de Mayerne.  Brilliantly intelligent and successful, de Mayerne was first physician to King Henri IV of France, then attended James I of England and his successor, Charles I. 

Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, to give him his full name, was bornin Geneva of French parents in 1573 and lived until 1654/55, ending his days in England.  This is a portrait thought to be done of him in London by Peter Paul Rubens about 1630.

Dr. Theodore de Mayerne,  Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1630.  Image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina

Dr. Theodore de Mayerne, Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1630.  Image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina

De Mayerne was a multi-faceted scientist, in essence, for his interests and knowledge stretched far beyond the practise of medicine.  Chemist, Hermeticist, experimenter – on one side and on the other, a skilled linguist and writer, high-level diplomat and spy for his Royal employers, as well as deeply knowledgeable expert in art and art materials and practices.  In  short, a true Renaissance man. In 1620, he began with a flourish a new treatise entitled Pictoria, Sculptoria, et quae subalternarum artiumIn the many folios, he records observations, derived from reading in part but more from conversations with artists  and craftsmen, about their techniques, technical descriptions of materials used, sources of these materials and their chemical characteristics.

The hand-written title page of the Mayerne manuscript, 'Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium', England (London), 1620-1646,

The hand-written title page of the Mayerne manuscript, 'Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium',
England (London), 1620-1646,

 

Being a very prominent member of three Royal courts, he had the opportunity to meet a wide selection of artists and craftsmen.  He was ever curious and discussed with them different approaches to oil painting, mixing and preparing pigments, the best oils to use, surface preparation, conservation of art, the art of enamelling, watercolour and miniature painting and all manner of other information.  His friendships with Rubens, with Van Dyck, Orazio and his daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi, miniaturists Jean Petitot and John Hoskins and others were fruitful in the detailing of art technology in his folio notes.

Mayerne’s notes on the mixing of colours, taken from Peter Paul Rubens while sitting for his portrait

Mayerne’s notes on the mixing of colours, taken from Peter Paul Rubens while sitting for his portrait

Dr. Theodore de Mayerne,  oil and black chalk, with grey wash, c. 1631, Peter Paul Rubens.  Image courtesy of the British Museum

Dr. Theodore de Mayerne, oil and black chalk, with grey wash, c. 1631, Peter Paul Rubens.  Image courtesy of the British Museum

 Mayerne’s notes on oil, taken from Anthony van Dyck,

 Mayerne’s notes on oil, taken from Anthony van Dyck,

De Mayerne continued with this art treatise for a number of years with the last entries in the 170 folios in 1646.  

Folios 5 & 9O, Theodore de Mayerne,  Pictoria, Sculptoria...

Folios 5 & 9O, Theodore de Mayerne, Pictoria, Sculptoria...

After his death, the document ended up eventually in the British Library, under the filing, Sloane MS 2052.  From the time of Horace Walpole onwards, it has been considered an indispensable source of information on Dutch and Flemish painting in the Baroque era, allowing later scholars to learn of Northern European diverse art practices. Today, scientists still use De Mayerne's work as a vital source of information for the 17th century, on a par with Cennino Cennini's Il Libro dell' Arte for the early 15th century.  Manufacturers of Old Master materials still use De Mayerne's recipes - for  amber resin varnish, for example.  Countless art restorers, in the Prado Museum, the Getty and elsewhere, apparently refer to De Mayerne's careful records about art materials and contemporary techniques.

The more I read, the more I realise there is so much more to learn about.  I started reading Hugh Trevor Roper's wonderful Europe's Physician.  The various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne to learn about an early, prominent physician. I ended up learning about a meticulous chronicler of 17th century art and its practice. What a delicious bonus! 

Frames - more on their history by Jeannine Cook

I was poking about on the Web to learn more about the history of frames, and for anyone who is interested, there is a wonderful website done by Paul Mitchell, an antique and reproduction frame-maker and conservator of paintings in the UK. Entitled "A short history of the Frame", it makes for concise and fascinating reading for anyone who is interested in how a frame can enhance (as well as protect) a work of art, as well as the evolution of frames.

View of a frame-maker's workshop, oil on canvas, c 1900. (Image courtesy of Dorotheum)

View of a frame-maker's workshop, oil on canvas, c 1900. (Image courtesy of Dorotheum)

By the same token, the changes in taste that dictate a type of frame on a painting at one point and an entirely different one at another period are wonderfully chronicled by a short paragraph about the framing over time of the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece hanging in the Louvre.

It reminds me of a wonderful story told with great glee by my beloved godfather, the late Reverend Richard H. Randolph, SJ. He was standing in front of a painting in London's National Gallery one day, and turning to his companion, he remarked that he felt the frame was entirely wrong for the work of art. He then described how he would re-frame it, and as he was talking, he noticed a distinguished-looking man was standing behind him, listening intently. He thought no more of the incident until, on his next visit to the same Museum gallery, he saw that the picture in question had been re-framed – exactly as he had described! The gentleman behind him turned out to be the then-Director of the National Gallery, an attentive audience!

Hidden from Sight by Jeannine Cook

Today, when the art materials industry and art instruction world have hugely increased in size, everyone can easily turn to art, either to create or to support its creation. The statistics abound to show what a beneficial multiplier factor the arts are to an area's economy, and the arts are viewed very positively.

It is, however, still, a rather solitary occupation to be an artist. No matter what the discipline, it remains a discipline requiring a person ultimately to produce something. In painting or drawing, for instance, it is mostly the artist's passion which will keep the creation going. In that dedication to creating a work, there is a lot that goes on "behind the scenes". When I conceive of a drawing or painting, there are initially decisions as to the medium (silverpoint drawing or graphite, for instance, or watercolours or acrylics), the format (horizontal or vertical, large or small), or is it going to be one piece or one in a series. Once those basic choices are made, there are then the decisions as to how to convey the concept, what to say, how to say it, why is it important?

Studies and exploratory drawings help the preparation. And it is at that stage, often, that the essence of the idea - the essence of a person's character for a portrait, or the spirit of the land in a landscape, for example - becomes paramount. What is "hidden from our sense of sight", as art consultant and author Roger H. Boulet wrote on draughtswoman Ann Kipling of British Columbia, is something that each artist needs to tap into, albeit often unconsciously. Paula Rego (see my blog entry of April 1st) was talking of tapping into this when she talked of the excitement of a voyage into the unknown each time she starts drawing. Intensity of observation, vitality of expression, a willingness to push through to evoke life itself - those are pathways to creation that each artist travels willingly, knowing they are important. And each of us, as artists, recognises that those journeys are lonely but rewarding.

Study for 'The Dance', Paula rego (Image courtesy of the Tate)

Study for 'The Dance', Paula rego (Image courtesy of the Tate)

The Dance, oil, Paula Rego, 1986, (Image courtesy of the Tate)

The Dance, oil, Paula Rego, 1986, (Image courtesy of the Tate)