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  • How useful are early 20th C books on art materials?ApproveRejectUn-ApproveSubscribeUn-Unsubscribe
    Question asked 2017-10-23 13:29:21 ... Most recent comment 2017-10-24 00:17:23
    Technical Art History

    ​I have studied art materials off and on since 1990 and own copies of several of A. P. Laurie's books and those of D.V. Thompson, Ralph Mayer, Cennino Cennini, etc.   I am still interested in the historical development of art materials and practices over the centuries but do not take them seriously as sound, modern studio art practices.   No search for the elusive "secret mediums" of the old master here.

    Q #1   Except as a study of the history of art conservation/art materials, how useful are these books to the art student wishing to use the most permanent materials and practices?  

    So many of the materials discussed are either discontinued, replaced with more permanent ones, changed in chemical composition but with the same name, etc,  or altogether unavailable, that it seems as if it would only serve to confuse the new artist.   I know that it did years ago when I first started studying them and my mind often swam with conflicting advice.  

    Q #2   With more recent research and knowledge of art conservation and materials, how far back can we depend on books on art materials and practices?   20 years, 40 years, more?

    Q #3   Ralph Mayer died ca 1980, so how reliable are updates to his books?

    Its a shame that we do not have more authors who are well versed in chemistry to help with the technical aspects like A.P.Laurie but The Artist's Assistant , by Leslie Carlyle, Archetype Publications, 2001, while not a painting methods book, has a lot of useful, modern  information on many older practices and art materials.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

Answers and Comments

  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    This is a pretty broad question. Where manufactured art materials are concerned, the most current information about ingredients, long-term performance and safety are obviously better than old data, so out-of-print books are progressively less useful in this regard. As research materials for learning the craft of painting, however, older handbooks can be really valuable. Craftsmanship is about learning standards of performance, how to define them for oneself and how to meet those standards. In my opinion, a book like The Technique of Painting by Moreau-Vauthier, for instance, still has a lot to offer the skilled trade of painting, even if many of the materials covered are now obsolete. 

    Matthew Kinsey, Utrecht Art Supplies
    2017-10-23 16:23:22
  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    Matthew is correct about the writing about craft, modern ingredients, long-term performance, and safety. As to painting practice, the answer is very complicated. The Carlyle book is rather unique, but its purpose it to document the manuals of the 19th century British writers on the subject and the materials produced at that time. It is accurate about that, but it documents a period in time when writers were the most misguided about painting practice. I would not use the included recipes as models of good painting practice.   In many ways, these are the types of books that remain relevant for the longest period of time as they do not rely on the interpretation of incomplete data.

    As to more recent writers on the craft of oil painting, there is a famous book of painting formulas that contains many, many recipes that should NEVER be added to oil paint. Maroger was just completely wrong about just about everything he included in his infamous book. Mayer was very good in spirit, although today his recipes for glazing mediums containing 50-50 oil-damar are considered very problematic. Some of his tenants are timeless while other suggestions in his tome are obsolete today. I can think of no inaccuracies in Gottsegen, and his book is very useful if a bit conservative. The situation today is far more simple about pigments, as long as you have the actual pigment number it should be easy to find information about permanence. Painting practice is more complicated. If it were not, there would be little use for a forum like this one.

    Some older books are generally on the mark even though they have some of the particulars wrong. Most of the descriptions that attempt to outline the methods and materials of the Old Masters, however, were completely off base. Doerner was so off that much of what he suggested created paintings that are already in very bad condition. A. P. Laurie and Church are less problematic and some of the 19th century volumes are better since they focus on interpreting old manuscripts, although, even in this, we need to be very careful. Few of these are authoritative. Even Thompson's Cennini translation has been shown to contain over 400 mistakes, some of these are quite crucial. There are new and authoritative translations of both Cennini and the Strasbourg Manuscript. The translations of De Mayern included in Fels's book is also problematic as it is an English translation of a less than perfect German translation of the original manuscript.

    We do live in a golden age of publications on historical painting practice. Most current monographs on Old Master painters contain a technical section that can provide real information. However, to be absolutely honest, even the early issues of the National Gallery Technical Bulletin should not be read as gospel about historical painting practice as they based some of their assumptions on analytical instrumentation and data that is now known to be insufficient to make definitive conclusions. The most obvious example is their initial pronouncements that tempera grassa was a very common medium in 15th C. Italy based on their early chemical analysis. We know know this analysis is more complicated than they initially thought and most authorities on the evolution of painting in Italy no longer accept that supposition. For the most part, though, TNGTB is a wealth of concrete information about documented historical painting practice. Publications by conservation scientists and conservators working together, published in the last decade or two can generally be relied on….as far as we know today.

    This is probably a less than satisfactory response but it is an accurate description of the situation as it is.

    Brian Baade
    2017-10-23 20:17:48
  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    I suppose it depends on what one expects to extract from the resource, and how to apply the information. If you really think you're going to find the verified secrets of the Old Masters, those old books are going to break your heart. It has to be acknowledged that Moreau-Vauthier's reverse-engineering of Roman encaustics is just not useful to a painter today. Then again, he happened to study under Jean-Léon Gérôme, and he wrote books on how to paint- that's worth a look. Read The Painter In Oil by Daniel Burleigh Parkhurst and see if it doesn't make you want to step up your game. The best of the old books have at least one valuable lesson to teach: there are some things a painter must be able to do very well, each time, according to a professional standard. That lesson was attractive to many in my generation, who were taught by old AbEx adherents at a time when traditional skill was too often derided. 

    Matthew Kinsey, Utrecht Art Supplies
    2017-10-24 00:17:23

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