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MITRA Forum Question Details

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  • Henry Ossawa Tanner Painting TechniquesApproveRejectUn-ApproveSubscribeUn-Unsubscribe
    Question asked 2017-10-05 20:11:57 ... Most recent comment 2017-10-19 11:47:31
    Oil Paint Other Paint Additives Paint Making Scientific Analysis Studio Tools and Tips Technical Art History

    I am in the copyist program at The Met, copying The Flight into Egypt by Tanner, link below: 

    In searching for more information about Tanner's techniques, I came across this 2011 presentation:

    My questions are specifically about the content from 33:20-34:46. 

    I'm trying to figure out two key techniques. First- the dragged paint technique. Brian Baade mentioned this briefly in the presentation for the Near East Scene-Mosque in Tangier painting. In trying to achieve the same effect, I can't seem to get my paint to break. I buy my pigments, not make my own. Do commercial pigments come with too much oil? Is there some way of getting a dryer paint? Second- the impasto texture of the paint in The Good Shepherd. Brian Baade mentions that he doesn't know what method was used to apply paint, but I thought I'd ask about what tools/techniques were found to produce the most similar result.



Answers and Comments

  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    Hi Karri

    I am very happy that there is interest in Tanner's painings and techniques. I have quite a bit on my plate at the moment, but will respond over the weekend. In the meantime, if you can get access to it, I co-wrote a chapter on Tanners techniques (Pursuit of the Ideal Effect: The Materials and Techniques of Henry Ossawa Tanner) in the publication for the show Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit. If you get a chance to read through that chapter, you will see why answering this question is more complicated than one might think. Finally, I wil be conducting a new study of Tanner's media this winter, which will inform a new paper, entitled:The Spiritual from the Material: An Exploration of Henry Ossawa Tanner's Complex Tempera Systems in his Later Visionary Paintings.

    Brian Baade
    2017-10-05 20:35:37
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser Comment

    ​Thank you, I found the book and read through your section. I see what a challenge his work presents to a conservator! It was very helpful. Thank you for the recommendation. 

    2017-10-12 10:29:33
  • EditDeleteModerator Answer


    I am so, so sorry about how long it has taken me to get back to you.

    Your question is far more complicated than would initially seem possible. If you were able to view the talk that I co-presented the Smithsonian American Art Museum and you read the chater you must realize that paint and media are a huge question when it comes to Tanner. By the end of the 19th century, he was a highly skilled practitioner of standard oil paint media. Archival records and analytical evidence indicates that starting at least as early as 1918, Tanner began experimenting with mixed media effects, combining idiosyncratic emulsions made from a combination of mastic varnish, the mucilage extracted from soaking flax seeds, parchment glue, and a touch of drying oil and lanolin, with more common oil paints. That is one of the recorded recipes but there were probably other incarnations. There are even some notes made by Tanner to suggest that some of his recipes needed to be applied while the media was hot. This would make sense if the paints contained large percentages of animal glue. Our substantial examination and analysis indicated that he would often interlayer pigmented layers of these media with oil paints, sometimes with an intervening application of a coat of animal glue or sometimes just coat the oil paint layer with an unpigmented application of his emulsion recipe. Each of these possible layers would have a massive impact on the rheology, handling, and optical properties of the subsequent layer and the full effect achieved when viewing into the numerous paint layers.

    That brings us to another point; cross-sections that we took from Tanner paintings from around 1900 to near the end of his life all have an inordinate number of layers. Sometimes as many as 23. This number of layers and possible complex binding media make it almost impossible to really give simple directions about how to emulate his effects.

    As I wrote, it would be a good idea to read through our technical chapter, but it will not really provide a guide for copying Tanner.

    One should realize though, Tanner’s very idiosyncratic media usage did come with a price. Many, many of his paintings from his mature years, especially those with the most intriguing surface qualities, suffer from major preservation issues. This is not surprising. The more complicated the paint stratigraphy, at least in oil painting, the more likely the probability for problems. This is massively compounded when interlayering essentially incompatible materials. Finally, many of the ingredients in Tanners emulsions will remain eternally soluble in common solvents/cleaning systems. Some of Tanners paintings are sensitive to water, mineral spirits, and alcohols, making it very difficult (but not impossible for a highly trained conservator} to come up with a cleaning protocol.

    So… I worry that I have not really given you any useful advice here. Perhaps this impotence subconsciously aided in my procrastination in replying. What can I say….

    In your shoes, I would start by making experiments interlayering handmade oil paint with commercially available egg-oil emulsions to get a sense of the effects that occur when emulsions and oil media are interlayered. Then play around with adding layers of animal glue over oil layers and then add layers of tempera. From there I would expand to other hand-made emulsions. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it. The result will also probably be rather unstable as well.

    On the other hand, you could begin to explore the very different qualities that can be achieved by adding small amounts of amendments or mediums to paints that contain few or no stabilizers. These oil paints can be made by hand or purchased from a few suppliers that specialize in oil paints with no additives (when you begin working with paints like these you will quickly realize why most manufactures add small amounts of stabilizers to make the paint more useful and consistent). I do not generally laude the superiority of hand made paint as it is generally inferior to high quality commercially available paint. The issue here is that most commercially made paints have stabilizers added to avoid some of the problematic handling properties that you may want to utilize or manipulate. To a simple oil/pigment paint I would then experiment with adding oils of different handling properties (stand sun thickened, oxidized, etc) dry amendments like bentonite, calcite in oil, etc) and see what effect you can achieve, especially in layers. Really, the list goes on and on.

    As to you question about dryer paint. That is easy, make or use a paint that has less oil, or one that contain additives that make what is called a shorter paint. I am not sure that this will achieve the Tanner effect, though. You probably want a paint that is not necessarily dry but very sticky so that the color skips along the tops of the canvas threads without retaining the texture of the brush hairs. I may try adding a sticky oil, but one that does not overly level the stroke, to my paint. Something like sun thickened or oxidized oil. There are so many variable to this though that you will have to do a bunch of experiments with your specific paints to really figure out how to achieve what you want.

    So again, I apologize for the late response but I really find this a difficult question to answer satisfactorily.

    Please feel free to post addional comments or questions on this subject. It is also of great interest to me.

    Brian Baade
    2017-10-12 23:37:10
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser Comment

    ​WOW! Thank you so much for all of your help! I have so much research to do! I'll let you know how everything goes!

    2017-10-19 11:47:31

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