The Art and Science of Watercolor Conservation

Uploaded by BrooklynMuseum on 28.04.2010

I'm going to give you a little introduction to the exhibition to begin with. Then, what
we're going to do is Rachel and I have selected works within the gallery that we're going
to talk about; both in terms of their history as art objects and also as their history as
physical objects that were made in a certain way with certain materials and with certain
techniques. That's where Rachel's expertise is really fundamental to how we understand
what watercolor is all about. The Brooklyn Museum owns one of the most important collections
of American watercolors in the country. It was begun very early, at the turn of the century.
What we try to do is once every ten years put on a major exhibition that draws from
this collection. Most of the time, these works are not on permanent view and Rachel will
speak a little to why that is the case.
Each time we do the watercolor exhibition, we try to have a different focus. This time
we decided to do landscapes, very specifically; in part because they cover the whole range
of watercolor production in this collection from the late 18th century, that is the late
1700s to the mid 20th century. The latest works in this exhibition are from the 1950s.
Watercolor emerged as a fine art in the practice of landscape painting. Before landscape became
a professionalized genre for artists, watercolor was used as a study medium and not as a medium
for finished works of high standing.
When landscape began to be practiced as a more formalized genre in the late 1700s and
gradually gained more respect among artists, watercolor was a key medium. In part, because
of its portability and the fact that artists going out into the field would take these
portable supplies with them and be able to create their works on the spot, or at least
begin them on the spot.
Watercolor in America very much followed in the pathway of watercolor in Great Britain.
That was where it was first professionalized to the point of being exhibited annually in
major exhibitions by major artists. This occurred in the eighteen-teens and -twenties, and it
was very much the influence of watercolor in Britain that shaped watercolor art in this
What we're going to do now is talk about this really amazing case of objects that are all
materials used for watercolor practice. They're all, almost all, from the 19th century. So
Rachel, I'll just let you jump in.
Thank you. I wanted to explain a few things, as Terry said, in this case and also tell
you really just very basically what watercolor is. Some of you probably know very well, but
basically, watercolor is pigment particles suspended in water and with the addition of
a binder called gum Arabic. I don't know if you can see these amber little round lumps
here on a glass tray, that's the gum arabic. The gum arabic serves two purposes. It actually
sticks the pigment to the paper, and it also keeps the pigment particles suspended in water
so they can actually have a chance to wash across the paper rather than just sink immediately.
You see a few different watercolor sets here. From Medieval to Renaissance times, artists
had to grind and refine their own pigments which was quite a laborious process. It was
something they had to be trained in to do.
Beginning in the late 18th century, the color man trade-- really, maybe even earlier than
that-- the color man trade was being developed. The color man would develop these materials
for the artist, including canvasses and stretchers and pigments and supply them to the artist.
So this was a great boon to using watercolor as amateur use. They didn't have to go through
that whole process.
In the late 18th century, they realized that if they added honey to the watercolor, the
gum and the pigment and the water, that the cakes were much easier to use. This was done
in 1775 by a man named Reeves, and actually, the Reeves company is still in business today.
He was able to make watercolors into cakes and these are called dry cakes. What the artist
would do is they would dip the cakes into water and then they would take like maybe
a porcelain tray and they would rub it up into a wash. So, that was one development.
The next development was by Windsor and Newton in 1830 where they actually added something
called glycerin. It's a syrupy form of alcohol and this would keep the colors moist. They
would pour them into these porcelain pans where they would dry, so they were also called
pan colors.
But this was the very first time that artists could actually dip their brush with water
onto the pan and use it directly. This made it much, much easier, even more so than the
dry cakes, for artists to take their supplies outdoors and to work that way. It was very
important, the color man, as an instrument in the development of watercolor.
What you see here actually are moist colors probably, and there's a small tin over here.
In the middle are drawing instruments, crayons etc. In, as I say, 1846 about 15 years after
moist colors were developed, Windsor and Newton developed tube colors. They had to add even
more glycerin so you could squeeze them out of a tube.
But this was important because artists would squeeze the paint right out of the tube for
opaque highlights so it was a whole different way of working, so keep that in mind. As we
go through the show we're going to show you examples of more opaque working.
In 1834, Windsor and Newton also developed a new white that the artist could use. What
happened was lead white, which was commonly used for oil painting, was known to darken
in atmospheric pollution with sulfuric acid. That would come from coal tar that was being
burned-- especially in England-- in London at the time, and so they knew that this would
darken their paintings.
Chinese white zinc white was known, but Windsor & Newton was able to refine it and make
it so that watercolorists could now use it in wash. So this, also, was added to pigments
and made the use of opaque painting possible and we're going to see examples of that as
We're going to double back now to the beginning of the show. We're going to head to the corner
of the gallery over here to look at the earliest work in the exhibition. This is the earliest
work in the exhibition. It's from 1777. It's by William Pierie who was actually a member
of the British Army and came here as part of their posts in the colonies and he was
an exceptional watercolorist.
But this is someone who would have been trained as part of his army training. He would have
taken art courses because these watercolors were very much akin to mapping. They were
strategic images that military artists would do once they came to this country or sent
on any kind of expedition.
We're used to just sending people out with digital cameras now. To bring back images
of a place that were accurate, one sent artists who were trained to represent what they were
Now, I think one of the things you notice right off is this is not a terribly colorful
image. The reason is because this participates in the very early use of watercolor. In that
era, the range of colors was fairly limited and also the use of washes really was keyed
into the notion of transparency.
Watercolor, in its earliest years in England, was very much about transparency and manipulating
washes that were not opaque. We'll see as we move through time that opaqueness becomes
a real bone of contention at various points, in terms of watercolor.
So, we're going to ask Rachel to...
What's interesting about this stage, as Terry mentioned, is that these very grayish tonalities
is partly because of the materials that were available for washes at the time, but also
watercolor manuals were extremely prolific at the time. Especially this time, and they
were recommending for these exact topographical and landscape hues the use of these gray tints.
This is what they thought was best and appropriate and they would recommend even specific pigments.
Whereas they recommended, probably for something like this, would be blue and red and yellow
together to make something like this.
Also, another really interesting point about this piece, which is different than any other
piece in the show, is that it's on what is called a traditional laid paper. You can see,
I don't know if you can come closer, there's a rectilinear pattern. There's these horizontal
lines and these vertical lines that you see from a traditional laid paper.
Laid. That's L-A-I-D, just in case you haven't heard it used as a paper term.
Right, and it's created as the sheet is formed on the surface of the paper mold. Anyway,
what I want to introduce here is in the late 18th century artists were seeking different
kinds of papers. This wasn't really suiting their purposes, with these ridges and all.
At the time, James Whatman, in the mid to late 18th century, developed something called
a wove paper where he was able to manipulate the screen that they make paper on so that
you wouldn't get these ridges. Watercolorists were really thrilled with this development.
Another thing that he developed, which was instrumental in the development of watercolor
along with Chinese white at the time, along with wove paper, was the fact that he developed
a unique hard sizing for paper.
What had happened is after the paper was made it was then dipped in a tub of gelatin often.
That imparted a certain strength and filled in spaces and also allowed people to write
on paper so it wouldn't be absorbed and spread right into the paper. That had normally been
kind of a thin sizing.
In Whatman's case, he developed a very hard sizing. This way, watercolorists were able
to use water on their paper and manipulate it, take water off, do wet-to-wet sponging,
blotting, and all these techniques that we're going to show you now, which they couldn't
have done without it.
Watercolorists, also, throughout the centuries, have used all kinds of paper, and you'll see
that too, but this is really the most popular paper that watercolors use.
Rachel and I have chosen this work by James Beck to show you the whole beginnings of opaque
pigments and how the denseness of opaque colors changed the way watercolors looked and what
artists were able to do. You'll notice, compared to this little watercolor, this is a much
more elaborate composition.
This is by an English trained artist who came and worked in the United States in the 1790s,
very much in the mid-Atlantic states-- in Pennsylvania, in particular. This is a view
in Philadelphia, believe it or not.
His composition is fairly more advanced in terms of a receding space; this v form, your
eye is led in by this river, the sky is really very beautifully delineated, and there are
many more actual details.
If you look here, the closer you get you're not going to see more detail to a great degree.
Here the artist has used opaque color to describe, for example, the foam on the water going over
this little falls and the heavier whiteness in the clouds. So, you want to talk about
opacity, Rachel?
Yeah. I'm going to contradict myself right away in talking about how important paper
is because, in this case, the paper's not important at all. The paper is completely
covered by this opaque paint to emulate oil paintings and to give you more of that feel.
In fact, this is mounted to canvas, which is mounted to a stretcher, which we'll talk
a little bit about, too, as we see further examples of how these things were mounted
like oil paintings.
In this case, unlike the transparent technique, which we're going to see, this was built up.
You would start with your darks and you would build up your pigments until you got to your
very lightest color. So that's a big difference with the opaque style.
That is the method in oil. What you had watercolors doing in various periods in time were either
choosing to exploit the real features of watercolor or, contrary to that, using watercolor in
a way that was more oil painting-like and to achieve oil painting effects. You're going
to see this back and forth. It's like a pendulum that swings as to what's really more desirable.
In England, for example, during the 1820s, there was a real contention between watercolorists,
who regarded themselves as purists who were using washes, and those who were using opaque
colors. Should we say a word about that one? Are you ready for that?
Yeah. One thing I wanted to point to was the use of the tube colors, in this case, was
also very useful for the artists to be able to do this. The development of those in the
1840s was very important. That helped them do this a lot. Also, in this one, this is
an example where he added a lot of Chinese white or chalk white or what we call body.
It would add body to the pigment and that's why these are often called body colors or
wash, so I just wanted to introduce that term, which you hear a lot.
They're not different?
They're not different? Body color and wash?
I thought they were quite different.
Well, wash refers to a broader term where watercolors are opaquely painted or thickly
painted. It could include body color. Body color really refers very specifically to an
inert white added to it. You may see other people saying different things.
I couldn't wait on that question.
It was an important question. Yeah. I think this watercolor is really the antithesis of
this one. This, the paper is primary. It's one of the most important aspects of the materials.
The artist, here, has gone from light washes here to dark, which is very typical to the
transparent technique where the composition is built up with layers and layers of thin
The darks either sometimes white highlights or reds were added at the very end. The pure
white highlights are really used from the paper itself. Excuse me, the paper serves
as the white highlights.
We're in the 1820s now, which is the beginning of the Hudson River School and the blossoming
of this country's native landscape school. Initially, it was British artists coming here
and doing watercolors on which engravings were based in publications. Artists like William
Guy Wall-- Wall, in particular-- who came and did a serial set of views that were then
engraved as prints and then bound in portfolios and sold. It was one of the ways in which
American landscape was popularized.
What's interesting is that the early Hudson River School painters like Cole and Church
very seldom used watercolors themselves. It was still a time, in this country, where there
was a separation between those considered fine artists, that is to say oil painters
and sculptors, and those considered practical artists.
For a very long time, and well into the mid 19th century, you had watercolors characterized
as either illustrators or commercial artists or artists preparing imagery for use as prints.
It's only going to be after the Civil War era that watercolor really is raised in terms
of its stature and the level of its respect. Are you done with that one?
Yeah. As you walk by this one you might want to notice how the artist has manipulated the
washes. He probably wet the paper and blotted off some color to create highlights as well...
and maybe sponged here a little bit. You might just want to take a look as you walk by.
Having talked about commercial artists, one of the really interesting pieces in this show
is by a woman who was known as Fanny Palmer. Her name was Francis Palmer, and she was one
of the very few women who produced imagery for reproduction as a trends by Courier &
Ives. She was highly successful in her career. This is one of the images. It happens to be
of the Samuel Sweet homestead which was, indeed, in Brooklyn.
When I look at this, I am interested in the level of detail; how this was a very literal
image, and the fact that she was able to use a very precise touch. It fits into a kind
of scene painting genre that was very popular at mid-century. And when Rachel looks at it,
she sort of gravitates to a very different element.
Yeah, its condition. And what's interesting about this is she's really combined and really
matured the full watercolor technique. There's washes used in the background. It's built
up, but there's opaque areas where body color or gouache is used-- you know, opaque. She's
also used-- in these darker areas, it's kind of hard to see, but in the horses and coachmen
and some of the brown areas she's actually added a layer of gum arabic on top to add
saturation to the pigment.
I think that's really an imitation of oil or what you would want to feel out of oil,
this kind of translucency and saturation and depth of color.
But also what, to me, is most notable about this is this dark area in the center of the
piece. You all can notice that. But this piece, again, was probably put on a strainer, a wooden
strainer, and the paper was stretched over it and it was placed in a frame the way an
oil painting would be presented.
And what may have happened was that they're often using backings to support the paintings
in the back. There might have been a wood backing on the back, which is acidic and can
stain paper.
That's something that we are very attuned to in the museum is housing these pieces with
the appropriate materials that are not acidic, and that will not stain or hurt the paper,
which was not as well-known at this time.
So for all of you who have works on paper or watercolor at home and you wanted to fill
out that space in the frame and you stuck in a nice handy piece of cardboard from an
old box, take the cardboard out. Right, Rachel?
You'll avoid having this kind of darkened shadow on your image. You have to, when you're
backing things, you must use acid-free backing and archival matting and that's just a little
word of warning. We're going to go over to the other corner now and move into mid-century.
You may notice right off that this work is presented differently by us, physically, because
there is no mat, OK. You just have a frame going all the way up to the edge of the image.
This is the first watercolor, American watercolor, to come into the museum's collection.
It was a gift in 1906, actually the bequest of a very important...a Brooklyn collector,
Caroline Polhemus. She had a very large collection that included watercolors, and it was presented
after her death to the museum.
This work is by Alfred Fitch Bellows, who is one of the most outspoken proponents of
watercolor in the 1860s and 1870s. What he tried to do on behalf of American artist was
to raise the profile of watercolor.
To prove that it was not really an ambitious medium but one that was suitable for important
projects by major artists. One that was durable, as well. So there are a couple of things that
Bellows did; a few I'll mention, and then Rachel will speak more to the technique.
The size of the watercolor was much enlarged, and these were called exhibition watercolors.
They were prepared specifically for annual exhibitions by the Society of American Watercolorists,
which was formed in 1866 and had its first exhibition in 1867.
The subjects were intended to be like the kind of subjects that were then popular among
oil painters. You will also notice that this is a fairly opaque use of watercolor, and
more to the point, from my perspective, it's one that is highly detailed.
There aren't a lot of areas of really, really broad watery washes where detail is unimportant.
And you will see, again, this is one of those major shifts, especially in the 1860s.
Opacity becomes more important; detail becomes more important. And in this period, it's all
because watercolorists want to compete with oil painters in a very, very active deliberate
Yeah. What is interesting is, you are talking of the size of the sheet, the color man at
this time when James Whatman were making papers of many different sizes for the artist to
be able to do this. This was in response to the artists' requests, probably. This, as
Terry said, is framed without a mat. And I was just mentioning over there that proper
housing is very important in the preservation of watercolors. They are very sensitive to
acid materials and atmospheric pollutants in the air that come through.
And so, in this one, we have placed it against a rag board mat, but in lieu of the window
mat, we put in these mat board spacers. What this does is this keeps the watercolor from
pressing against the glazing.
In this case, when it's in an acrylic or Plexiglas, which isn't good for the piece if it was touching,
so that's our way of ensuring that.
What would happen if it did touch it?
If it did touch? In a moist environment mold could grow or it could... or change the surface
of the paint. In a museum, we try not to have moist environments. We have very controlled
relative humidity and temperature. But this just a further precaution, where you wouldn't
something pressed against the glass. So we do it that way. What's also interesting about
this piece is that there is discoloration on the back, which indicates this was also
mounted on a wooden strainer, like the Palmer and like the Beck. You know, again, it kind
of points to the whole presentation of these pieces as oil paintings.
Yeah, a strainer, generally it's kind of's about two inches thick, generally, and it's
a rectangle on the back, and the piece is done on paper. Sometimes it's then mounted
over onto canvas, which is stretched around the strainer on the back. It's a way to mount
the pieces.
Sometimes it's not mounted on the canvas. Sometimes it's just the paper which is stretched
on the back. And often, because these wooden strainers, they are...well, they are made
of wood, and as I said there are acidic, they can cause damage to the paper.
So when these things have been restored in the past, they've often cut off the paper
margins which were pulled around the back or the canvas. But we see, still on the back,
this kind of discoloration of the paper, which clues us in to the fact that it was once was
We're just going to move down the wall a little bit. Another important development for watercolor
in the 1860s was a movement called the American Pre-Raphaelites. This is a group of artist
who were followers of the aesthetics of John Ruskin, who was a British artist and theorists
and critique, very vocal, and prolific writer about art. He promoted art that was very much
a mirror of nature, down to the finest details. What he believed was that the closer one came
to detailing nature, the closer one came to achieving a sort of rapport with the divine.
That this one way of expressing God's creation and that detail was essential to creating
a work that had a kind of moral value.
Watercolor happened to be the most favorite medium among these artists, in part because
most of them worked out of doors, in open air. Most of them valued the effects of natural
light, as opposed to studio light.
Most of them choose to use really pure and brilliant colors that were applied in a very
different way in part. One technique was called stippling, and Rachel will talk a little about
some of the other techniques of Pre-Raphaelitism.
It was a fairly short lived movement, and most of these artists had finished working
in this vein by the 1870s or mid 1870s. In part, because every object was so time-consuming
to produce.
One of the best examples of American Pre-Raphaelitism is a work in the front room that you can look
at, again, before you leave the exhibition. It's another work by John Henry Hill, who
was one of the leaders of this moment.
You see the extraordinary painstaking detail. Virtually every little touch is made with
the tinniest brushes. Some of their brushes had just three or four hairs on them, and
it was a way of achieving the kind of visual exactitude and truths in nature that they
In this case, Hill has used a combination of techniques. He's really used some broad
washes for the background, and then he's kind of laid these more washy areas side-by-side
rather than overlapping in the area of the art. And then down here, he's really, fully
taken on, as Terry was saying, the stipple technique, where he lays kind of each dry
stroke side-by-side. And you can really see that here in the foreground.
And in this case, we were saying that Whatman had made these papers especially for use for
watercolors. He had also made a range of textures. Often they would range from hot press, which
is a smooth paper, to a cold press or rough paper.
In this case, Hill would have chosen the smoother paper, because that enabled him to make these
small strokes and have them show the way that he wanted them to. So, this one is...
But also, in this case, he did cover the whole paper, but the paper still had to be very
white. In other words, he's relying on the brilliance of that white paper to reflect
through his pigments and give this the effect that he wants.
So what you have happening, by the 1870s, is many more American painters are attempting
to bring watercolor practice into their orbit, and they weren't focused exclusively on watercolors.
These are oil painters who then began to see what watercolor could do for them, and this
was the case in the '70s and the '80s in particular. And these were the most active decades of
the American watercolor society, when these painters had a venue to show the many works
they were producing and when watercolor sales really shot up and made it worthwhile for
these artists to use watercolor.
These tended to be somewhat smaller works in their oil paintings. They tended to be
somewhat more affordable. So it offered them another way to promote and showcase their
Many people feel that the person who did most for American watercolors was Winslow Homer,
and we're lucky to have an amazing cache of Homer's here that were bought in 1912-- 12
of them-- and that was just a year after Homer's death.
It was an exhibition here in 1915 that really showcased Homer as a watercolorist for the
first time. People knew about his watercolors. He often said he would be best remembered
for his watercolors, and a lot of people would agree with him.
He started using watercolor in the early 1870s, using them for the kind of en plein air--
that is out of door-- country subject that you see here. He regularly visited the farm
of a friend in upstate New York and painted lots of these beautiful outdoor figure subjects.
What we did here was we hung a Homer from the '70s next to a Homer from the '90s, so
you could see just what he started to do, in terms of pushing the medium beyond his
initial use. If you look closely at this gorgeous piece called "Fresh Air," it's from 1878,
he's begun this picture like an oil painter would.
There is a very careful pencil outline throughout the figure, and he's built the figure up from
dark to light using the white opacity that Rachel mentioned. You start to see what he's
going to do later in the looseness of the sky. But everything is carefully outlined.
These little sheep, her figure, and built up from dark to light.
Here, by the 1890s, he has become an incredibly liberated and inventive watercolorist, where
he employs washes in a completely spontaneous way. Understanding how they will interact
with one another, letting areas of blank paper remain absolutely, candidly visible, not trying
to cover everything with a wash, and using these beautiful contrast of dark and light
to show a kind of flickering natural light.
And this was mature Homer. So, I don't know if you want to speak to these two or move
up to the other Homer's, whichever...
Yeah. Actually I may speak, if you all want to gather a little closely around in the jungle,
because there is actually a lot to look at for this one. And I would encourage you to
come up closely, if you want. As Terry was saying, as opposed to this very calculated
working method with fresh air, here you really see how Homer has altered his composition
in many stages to really come up with this watercolor. He's used these kind of wet-on-wet
washes here. That means when he applies the watercolor, he may apply another wash on top
of it. He may...
While it's still wet.
While it's still wet. He may also apply a transparent watercolor layer over it. Another,
after its dried somewhat. You had to carefully judge the proper wet and dry phases.
Excuse me?
Timing was...yeah.
...very important.
Yeah, very important. Right. And he probably, here, has made some changes in where he had
put these palm fronds here. You can see he's kind of muddied it up. He didn't really take
pains to cover up his changes. We may call them mistakes, but I think he didn't see them
that way. He thought of it as a process. And so, you often, if you look carefully at a
Homer, you can see all sorts of things.
So after, he probably laid in these washes. He probably had an underdrawing to lay in
some of these main elements of his composition. He, then, went in and took out things. By
either with a blotter he would release a pigment; sometimes he would use a sponge.
In this case, he actually would take a brush and put water on top of the pigment and then
pull away. And that's where he's gotten these kind of...They look like negative images of
these palm tree fronds here.
He's used it there. He's used it a little bit here. He's probably done some reworking
here. There may have been some changes going on. And there probably was a very large change
There may have been something...another palm tree he started or, I think, something. He's
just kind of left it the way it is. Here he's left where he may have had one of the trees
go over this. You can still see the evidence of that.
In the end, he added these very dark, very strong highlights in these palm trees. These
are probably the very last thing that he did.
I think that speaks to the whole notion of what we think is the way a watercolor is painted,
which is very quickly. There's no going back. The artist is only given one chance. Especially
in the hands of an artist like Homer, but really well before this, artists were so adept
at manipulating the medium. That they could make changes, and they would spend a lot of
time on these single objects. They would return to them and make changes after the fact in
separate campaigns.
We know that Homer did a lot his initial watercolor work out of doors, what's called sur le motif,
at the spot where he found his subject. He used his studio time to go back and manipulate
what he did initially. He was capable of returning to works and making significant changes well
after he had begun them.
What you're going to see in this photo is a picture of this image without the window
mat. And what you can see under...
Oh, yeah. This a rag board window mat. This just keeps the piece from directly touching
the Plexiglas, mainly.
Look at the edges, as you look at the ...
Yeah. And, you'll see around here that the painting is much darker. That would indicate
to us immediately is that, that this watercolor has faded dramatically, unfortunately. It
was known, really, since probably the late 18th century that watercolors faded. But I
think people wanted to believe that they were as good as oil paintings or they were as permanent
as oil paintings because they involved water and they involved paper. These were all very
permanent things.
But people, chemists like Field, they were discovering that this wasn't true. They really
was susceptible to the exposure to light. But it was a controversy that raged throughout
the 19th century.
And finally, it kind of culminated in this event when the South Kensington Museum in
London, which is now the V & A Museum, the Victoria and Albert, was exhibiting all
of Britain's most celebrated water colors. They had been up for 20 or 30 years and they
were considering having night hours and people were...
Some people who knew that or believed that watercolors were susceptible to light said
this is a horrible thing to do. And so, what they did was they commissioned two chemists,
Russell and Abney, who actually- to make a complete exhaustive study on the nature of
water color.
And in 1880, they published "The Action of Light on Watercolours." They did find that
watercolors are not as permanent as oil and that they do fade in the presence of light;
especially daylight; especially the blue color of the spectrum; especially ultraviolet light.
That they do fade, sometimes, when they are next to each other, certain pigments next
to each other, they do fade in the presence of oxygen. They made these things, and so
it was a new standard that for artists.
What is interesting is that pigments come from different sources somewhere from mineral
pigments like iron that you find in the earth and copper and mercury. Other pigments are
formed from plant sources like madder or indigo; from the dyes that they actually extract.
Also, each have their own very characteristic physical and chemical properties. I wanted
to just show you...I want to show you a few things, actually, that have to do with light
This is a form that we use here in the museum to help us keep track of the amount of exposure
a watercolor had. It is just a way for us to balance exhibition versus preservation.
Of course, people want to see these things but if they are shown over and over, they
will fade and no one will really get to see them in the future. We try to balance this
We keep very careful records of the intensity of light versus the time that they are exposed
to light. This is the meter that we use to measure intensity and foot-candles. Then,
of course, we record the time. Thanks. That is a light meter. And let's see the other
thing I wanted to...
A lot of people who wrote into our website or who left comments, for example, were asking
"I know Burchfield, where is your Burchfield?" When we do an exhibition, we have to go up
to Tony and Rachel and the paper lab and basically, ask permission to put something on view. If
it is over exposed, they will say "Maybe you can do four months now, but then it has to
be put away for five years." And these are the kind of negotiations one has to do.
Even with yourself in thinking "Well, what else between now and those five years might
I want to use the Burchfield? Should I save it for a project that I know is up-coming?"
That is the kind of thing that we need to think about.
Yeah, that is very true. I just want to show you a couple samples that are really interesting.
Actually up in the lab, we have painted out some. Here are some strips, this is a lightly
painted watercolor, and more heavily painted water color, and this is an acrylic. The reason
why watercolors are more susceptible to the action of light than acrylics or oil is the
gum does not form a protective coating on the pigment particles the way that oil and
acrylic do.
You can see, as this aged, this part that is folded in has been protected by light over
the months that this was exposed in a window. So you can see that... This is a couple of
months, I think, but I don't...Not even.
This is the watercolor where it is faded, this is where it is protected. This is a darker
layer of watercolor, so you don't notice the fading as much because there is more pigment
there but you see some fading.
This is the acrylic and you can see where it hasn't faded at all, and that is for that
reason. This is just another example. I was telling you that some pigments fade differently
from other pigments, especially organic pigments from plant materials fade quite easily.
And so, this was a watercolor sample strip that was folded up, and put in a window, and
also exposed to light. When you undo it, you can see. I don't know, you may have to get
Certain pigments have faded. Like this one, I am going to kind of let you...And this one
here, in exposure to light, very, very much. Just kind of gives us an idea of how these
things work.
Conservators have all sorts of little arts and crafts projects going all the time. So
we just look at the other Homer before we move to Modernism? Another thing that Rachel
and her colleagues do fairly regularly is treat watercolors. What we mean by that is
even though we take such good care of our works, there are changes that continue to
There are things that we didn't have the means of correcting at a certain point, but with
a growth of treatment techniques, one can undertake things that were not possible before.
and Tony achieved an incredible change in this watercolor which is another-- this is
a Homer from the 1880s. It is Homer in all of his incredible facility in the manipulation
of these washes. The way he does the rocks, the very sort of abbreviated way he describes
those probably bayberry bushes along the shore and Maine where he started to live in the
1880s. Rachel is going to say a word about the treatment they undertook on this particular
Yeah, I am going to show you...I can pass around...This is the upper as you are looking
at the right upper corner of this image, I hope you can see it. And I don't know if you
can see it, but those little brown spots are called foxing. Very common to see on works
of art on paper. They are often from iron inclusions but they are often can be from
mold growth.
This is really concentrated up here in the sky area and dotted throughout the image.
Foxing is unfortunately a result of being in a climate where the relative humidity is
high and it enables mold to grow. They need a certain moisture in order to do that.
In the past, that this was exposed to elevated relative humidity, not here in the museum,
but it does leave a stain in the paper. We were able to go in and locally, on a table
where it pulls down a vacuum, work locally. We did not want the water to spread as we
were working and we were able to bleach out these spots and then rinse them.
It has a nice effect, it clears it out. But it also, what I want to mention is that before
we would undertake a treatment like this, we will consult the curator-- Terry, especially--
and say "Is this something you think is worthwhile doing or for doing it for any kind of compensation?"
But whenever we are doing something that cosmetically affects a work of art, we would certainly
talk to the curator and really try to understand more of the artist's intent, which they can
inform us on. And really, what is important on the piece and how it should be viewed.
Want to say a word about the suction table?
Which I find to be a really scary thing.
Yeah. It's a table that is about this big. It's got an aluminum screen on it and there
is a motor that creates a suction and pulls down and so we are able to block out small
areas and get this real pull.I am able to put a brush, a tiny, tiny brush, bleach on
this. And in this case, I did it in alcohol because I didn't want the water to move throughout
the paper. And it will kind of-- it pulls down. It is an interesting piece of equipment
and it has allowed us to work locally on things that we could never have washed or never could
have treated in the past.
We would never had bleached this if it had an effect on the paint. We would have left
it. That would have been the trade off. In this case, we knew that the bleach did not
affect the pigment, and so that is why we proceeded with the treatment actually.
And the question is usually, the one that we banter back-and-forth about, is does it
bother you? Because you really don't want to undertake something that might alter a
work, unless it is essential. And the thing was that this image was so much about abbreviation.
The degree to which he didn't articulate detail. That having those spots were disruptive. What
he was trying to do was have this beautiful sweeps of wash that were evocative of the
surface or of the sky but that hadn't been very over worked.
They were, in fact, really not...His suggestion of the water, this is literally two brush
strokes that he achieves the view of the water. And so, then, for us to look at it. Yes, it
did become disruptive when we started focusing on the foxing in the sky, which is how we
came to the decision "Well, let's try and remove that."
We use a very dilute bleach. We use a bleach that really doesn't have chlorine in it, which
in the past was used often and often to make papers white, especially in the latter part
of the 19th century. And an artist did comment on that, "Don't ever use a paper that looks
very, very white." You read that in manuals, because they knew that bleach could harm paper.
In this case, it's used very controlled, very dilutely.
After we apply the bleach, we rinse it very carefully with proper pH water so that it
should be completely out of the paper.
One of the most amazing things the paper people, as we call them, are able to do is actually
use water on a watercolor in a way that it is so controlled. I mean there are works that
have darkened overall that they literally wash. And, to me, the notion of washing a
watercolor is just "freak out time." In fact, they are so able to control the amount of
water, the time the paper is saturated and, again, using the suction table-- just immediately
the water is really passing through and out, if I understand correctly.
It's not in the paper for very long.
Right, right. What's really great about the suction table is you don't want the water
to spread, either. When water spreads and a piece of paper hasn't been washed overall,
you can get tide lines, your own tide lines. You don't want to make your own tides lines
on something that Homer has done. So that's just kind of nature of water, itself, is that
it remove discoloration that has accumulated in the paper, and that's a very typical problem.
We're going to move around the corner and look at modernist watercolors. This whole
wall in the exhibition is devoted to... Actually, this little area in its entirety is devoted
to modernist watercolors. And that is watercolors that date from the nineteen-teens well into
the nineteen-thirties. And this was a moment of great progress, in terms of American art,
because many of these artists who chose watercolor as their primary medium-- including John Marin,
one of the great American modernist watercolorists, were able to do more adventurous and progressive
things then they managed to do in their oil painting.
There are many who feel that this really was the moment of America's contribution to watercolor.
That is, in the Modernist period, because what these artists were doing, in fact, pushed
medium further than European artists were doing at the time.
One of the things you will notice the most, particularity in Marin, but also in artists
like Demuth-- there's a work by Charles Demuth over here-- is that these were partial compositions.
They were made up parts of forms that the artist felt were significant, and that he
or she then wove back into a pictorial composition that didn't always involve the entire surface.
If you consider just how much of the paper remains exposed here, it was not the way 19th
century artists conceived of a work, where the entire picture had to finished. It had
to complete. And I just realized we skipped Impressionism, but we could always go back
What happened was that with impressionism, you began to see a loosening up of application
and a much more spontaneous and quick application of paint. At that point, a willingness to
let paper read through the composition.
But here, it becomes really, really very much of equal weight as the painted part. What
isn't painted has a strong compositional role as what is painted. What Marin tended to do
was, after isolating the kind of essential elements of a view, he would add these little
accent en-framing lines.
Which were, for him, a way expressing the energy of a place and also completing the
visual wholeness of a composition and the paper changes as well. And I think you are
going to speak a little bit about paper here.
Great. Yeah. When Whatman did develop his papers, as I said, he developed them in various
textures for artists to use. And they range from a smooth paper to a moderately textured
paper to a very rough textured. You can see here that Marin has really seized the use
of the rough textured papers in this one, and very much more so in this one. You can
very clearly, here, see the difference in the texture. As Terry was saying, he used
this to further his effect of spontaneity.
As he would draw the dry brush across the paper, it would often kind of hit just the
top of where that rough texture-- we call them the nubs and the valleys-- and that would
leave the valleys or the white of the paper to shine through. That gave a very spontaneous
look to his application of watercolor.
Oh, I should say that one other thing is that rough papers were very popular with amateur
watercolorists because they could be brought outside. These were very thick papers, as
well, and when you applied water they would not cockle or buckle.
Artists had, generally in the past, had wet papers and stretched them so that when they
applied watercolor they wouldn't necessarily buckle. When you had a paper this thick, that
was less of an issue.
If you want to see someone who was really giving himself completely to washes at this
stage, it's William Zorach, who was ultimately best known as a sculpture. He gave up painting,
oil paintings in 1920, shortly after this major trip to Yosemite. He continued to use
watercolor for his sculpture as a preparatory medium doing sketches. This work, painted
during a trip to Yosemite with his wife Marguerite, shows you an artist just reveling in his ability
to control colors and washes in an incredibly fluid manner. You could just sense how liquid
the application is throughout this image.
Definitely, this is an example of the pure wet-to-wet technique, where the artist would
put on a wet layer of watercolor and then immediately put on another wet layer of watercolor.
In the 19th century, watercolorists were aware, finally, that you didn't have to necessarily
put one layer of transparent on top of another. You could actually mix them while they were
still wet and get a whole other effect-- if you are very skilled. Actually, one such as
Homer and one such as Zorach, and he made very good use of that.
Also, this paper is...If you want to kind of compare the texture, this paper to the
Marin's paper, you can see this is much smoother paper. And this allowed Zorach to get these
very uniform washes, unlike the more staccato washes that Marin was more sought after.
So we're going to come over here and look at the Hopper, and this is also a good place
to tell you what these little squares mean. The Brooklyn Museum was the first museum to
buy a work by Edward Hopper, and that was in 1923, and it was out of the first Watercolor
Biennial that was held here. Not only did the museum buy amazing caches of watercolors
early on, like our purchase of 86 Sargent watercolors in 1909, and the Homers in 1912,
but beginning in 1923, the museum started to mount these annual or biannual, that's
every other year, exhibitions of watercolors by living artists. They tended to be huge
exhibitions, 300-350 objects. They were very spontaneously done.
It's harder to do exhibitions these days then it was then. Then, people would just bring
their works to the museum and they virtually went up on the wall. There were no loan forms
or insurance evaluations.
And these exhibitions, every other year, ended up being an amazing venue for the museum to
make its purchases. Every time you see this little square, indicates a watercolor that
was purchased out of one of the Biennial Exhibitions.
There are many more than the ones you see on view, but it really was an incredibly living
way for the museum to continue to build its collection. The last Biennial was in 1963
and we bought from them pretty consistently.
As I said, the first Hopper purchased by a museum was not this one, but our other Hopper,
which is on tour with the big Hopper show. It's now in Washington. We decided we couldn't
do an exhibition on American watercolor landscapes without Hopper so we put in this work, which
is a more recent gift. It came in in 2003.
Hopper was amazing for making things look easy. What he tended to focus on was a brilliancy
of light. And the effect of light sweeping over a landscape and over the architecture
in a landscape.
He did lots of plein air work, he did drawings preparatory to his watercolors but they still
always have this wonderful kind of spontaneous effect where you feel like he was able to
do it so simply and so quickly. But they're very, very involved in terms of his ability
to work with these washes and Rachel is going to say a little bit about that.
As Terry said, it's not always easy to tell with a Hopper how he's worked it because he's
really disguised it quite well and made it look so easy. I would say, actually in this
one he's applied his washes in various ways. He's applied this background in a more dry
manner, where it's just on the dry paper. In other parts of the composition he's probably
actually locally wet the paper so the paper swells and that way when it dries or as it's
wet and you apply a wash, it goes on as a more fluid layer and a more even layer. So
what he's done is he's worked more parts of the paper to give different effects in different
areas and in addition of subtractive and that kind of technique.
In the very end, he's put on these really heavy mineral pigments. That he's let them
just flood on and be there right on top to give a little more of these dense areas. So
it's an interesting piece to take a close look at.
Just the fact that he's able to delineate light effects so precisely gives you a sense
of his control. Because he is showing you where the light struck a passage of landscape
or a part of a house and he doesn't err. That is where the light is and that is just a tremendous
amount of control in being able to separate the lights and the darks through his use of
washes. We're just going to end in the last gallery and talk a little bit about watercolors
of the Depression Era. It was sort of interesting when we were choosing watercolors. From the
'30s, in particular, because this was a time I had thought a tremendous amount about before
actually choosing the objects for this show.
I'd thought about oil paintings a great deal in the 1930s. And you have a sense of what
'30s painting looks like, in terms of this new realism. Much of it was worked on for
the WPA.
It tended to be sober in mood and very much about the local scene throughout the country.
There are local scenes and places that weren't painted until the Depression Era. Partly because
of these localized government-sponsored art projects.
But when we chose these works and put them here and started to look at them, all of a
sudden it became very clear what watercolor shifts had been made in this era. For one
thing, these pictures are really dark.
So the pigment changes that you've seen in oil painting, the sobriety of color, the predominance
of earth tones, really a dramatic shift away from impressionism in particular becomes very,
very much apparent here.
There's sort of a heaviness and a darkness in the palate. There's a use of black, which
we simply hadn't seen since very, very early. Those early topographical landscapes where
you have more of the tans and the browns and the blacks and blues and all of a sudden it
became very, very clear how watercolor use had shifted.
There was still a lot of very wonderful, fluid, spontaneous work but the mood of it was different
and it was largely dependent upon the shift in the palate. You do see less impressionistic
work at this point.
That's completely in sync with what happened with work in oil where there was this new
blossoming of Depression Era Realism; Art of the New Deal. It was usually very much
about rural or urban parts of the country that before then were seldom the focus of
artistic practice.
We just point out in the sheets how he has used the traditional practices of watercolor
throughout the ages on this, even though the color palate is quite different. He's really
probably taken water and run it over these areas to make his highlights. The texture
is very apparent. The white of the paper is very apparent. He's probably actually just
poured water on right here with the brush to get this fiery look of his trees. As you
can see, it's washed away the blue of this roof here; this blue-black. Again, this really
traditional way of working and altering the process with water.
Using the water, itself.
Yeah, which is interesting. And we haven't looked at the Thon yet.
We are going to finish with a work that is the latest, or just about the second to latest
work in the exhibition. It's from the '50s. Anyone who knows the '50s will think it looks
very '50s. This is a really interesting work, in part because Rachel just did a really lengthy
treatment on this object. What you're beginning to see here is a new aesthetic. I think one
influenced to some degree by new abstractions in the 1950s and a sense of an all-over composition
that was less about clearly representational landscape than it was about the process of
painting, itself.
This is called "The Quarry" by William Thon. You can see vaguely these areas of veined
rock and then these spindly little trees. What's really kind of interesting is that
we know Thon went back to his watercolors again and again and changed them and built
them up.
This ended up being one of the really more challenging treatments that Rachel undertook
for this exhibition. It's one that she did a blog on, which is on the website, as well,
right? It was on the Thon.
Right. Right.
I'm just going to turn it over to you.
OK. Yeah, this is a really interesting piece. This is a fairly thick piece of paper, but
he's added, as Terry said, so many layers and he's reworked it so much that you can
see, it has a lot of dimension. It has a lot of buckling and cockling. He probably started
with a brush to lay in certain areas. Then, we think that he may have actually poured
water onto the surface of this paper to give these very feathery effects. Maybe even took
a brush with water and feathered edges or any edges that he saw.
Then, he probably went in and took a sponge or a blotter and created texture. He probably
did this in these areas here, especially. Yeah. Definitely. So he's really worked this.
This is a most incredible composition and we really... it's amazing to think how he
even kept track of it to make it really come together as it did.
In the end, what he did was he put on this India ink and also feathered that. And you
can see a real running together here of the yellow and the black.
What I want to show you, is this is a beautiful effect but it did cause some problems with
the stability of this piece. You can see it especially on this bottom example, it's a
little more clear.
But what was happening, and I'm going to pass it around and you're welcome to take a look,
is this black India ink which actually had a little bit of shellac varnish in it probably.
It became very brittle. And it didn't have anything to really hold on to it because it
had this big yellow layer, powdery yellow layer underneath.
And so, the black was actually lifting away and just flaking off of this painting, and
there is a lot of it. Normally we go with a small brush under a microscope and we add
it and consolidate it.
But you see you can see this on the blog. In this case, we use an ultrasonic mister
and we introduced a solvent that has very small particles, smaller than the pigment
itself, and was able to go into the underneath of the pigment and re-adhere the yellow and
then thus re-adhere the black.
Sometimes, we went in and worked on the black a little bit more with a brush, but anyway.
So, consolidating is like basically...
Yeah, basically it is re-adhering. I am sorry. Yeah, using some type of adhesive to re-adhere
the paint layer to the paper below and that is something we spent a lot of time in the
lab doing.
In this case, it is a photo grade, it is a refined gelatin in a very dilute mixture with
ethanol and water.
No, gelatin...Well, because it is introduced in such a small and such a fine mist. One,
it goes underneath and this gelatin is very, doesn't discolor or brown but that
is a good point. We would want to find the right adhesive or consolidant that, one, did
not change the appearance of the image at all and something also that didn't cause it
to stain or cause more cracking.
If I put something in there that is too strong, it would dry and cause everything to shrink
and crack and so that is why you do have to find the right balance. And as we are working
we often will take shots under the microscope.
When we make our checklist of objects and we send it to conservation, they review each
and every object for its light exposure record and its stability. That is, stability determined
by a physical examination of the object. Much of the change that can occur to an object
is not visible to the naked eye, so they will do microscopic exams of anything that they
have the least bit of sense that has an altered surface.
In this case, they would have seen the lifting and separation under microscopy. They would
also proceed with the treatment, I think, with successive returns to the microscope
to see what the effects of the consolidation are.
So this is not something that is done quickly or at a distance. This is an incredibly close
and painstaking process where Rachel is probably working on an area. What's the size of your
area that you work on, area by area?
Well, if I am doing this by hand the first two times, and we actually had interns to
help us, thank goodness, is we may work on something like that for the day. But luckily
we were able to use a new tool. We have toys in the lab, which was the ultrasonic mist,
this Engelbrecht tool from Germany and we were able to do it much quicker. We did it
within a week.
If people have a minute we could go back and look at the Hassam. You want to do that? OK.
Let us do that. This is yours. This is a work by Childe Hassam. Hassam was probably the
best known and most successful American impressionist painter in terms of the amount of work he
produced; in terms of its real closeness to French impressionism as we know it through
Monet, in particular.
Hassam worked in watercolor actively throughout his career from the 70s until the time of
his death which was 1935. Hassam had a great long life, and he continued to be very active
and to sell well through the 1920s.
These are two works. This one and the one over there that were purchased. They were
both from 1912 and they were purchase in 1924. Very deliberate selection on the part of the
museum to buy Hassam watercolors in the 1920s.
And what you see is this is a real impressionist watercolor. Hassam almost always worked out
of doors by this point in time, and certainly by the 90's. And well through his career,
he would do on-site watercolors.
They tended to be very spontaneously done, very much about the kind of broken brushwork
that impressionism involved. A visual sense of process in that. You can see where he brushed
the water color. There is nothing hidden and I think Rachel is going to talk a little bit
about pigments in this case.
Yeah, I think this as Terry is saying, he worked very spontaneously and because this
is a watercolor medium, you can see exactly what he did. In this case, had some light
highlights and used the paper, again, as the whites of his composition. But you can also
see how he flooded the back with these washes and these dark strokes on top, subtractive
techniques in here to show the breaking of the water. But what is really bold about this
and very impressionistic is the way he used this mineral pigments very strongly and up
here and all across the front in his last strokes.
I think it is very interesting the way he has done that. You can see he gabbed them
on wet, they kind of run, you can see the edges of them. He's just really done them
very loosely and quickly.
You know them as mineral pigments by virtue of their color?
Yes, by virtue of their color and their nature; the way they go on. This may be an ultramarine
French blue. The red uses highlights are often vermilion. They are made from mercuric sulfide,
so they are a very heavy pigment. They are very different densities than the lakes and
the organic pigments.
I guess we will take some questions now.
Would this be suitable for the most fragile watercolors?
They tend to have shared standards so these are five to six.
These are five.
Five foot candles, which is pretty low. What we did in the gallery is design-wise, which
I think worked really well, is to use these dark colors as backgrounds and what happens
is that the light seems to be focused more on the object as a result and extraneous light
is absorbed. So I think we did really well in terms of using a really low light level.
I mean when you lend a work, and this is an international standard. Very few museums will
lend a work for exhibition over what six-foot candles. I mean, isn't that...
Yeah. It's generally light sensitive, so I would say five.. Five to eight or something
like this. Five.
And we also, increasingly here as well, have to know the number of hours the lights are
turned on because some museum don't turn off the lights at night. We count that as double.
They can't have the pictures for the same length of time if they are going to leave
the lights on at night.
Yeah. The same issue; the same controversy going on in late 19th century when they wanted
to have night hours at the South Kensington Museum. Some of these museums when they ask
to loan a work of art, the lights are on for 70 or 80 hours per week, and we ask them to
please adjust it or to cover it. That maybe a factor when the piece may go up again. So,
we may say it can't go up for a double. It has to stay off view for double the amount
of time that we would have ordinarily recommended.
And this exhibition first opened at the Frist Center in Nashville and from here in February
it is going to open at the Taft in Cincinnati. And so Rachel, or a colleague, will go to
the venue with the light meter and... We don't know what they do once we have left but it
is all in good faith and hopefully they are going to put extra spot lights on once we
have left the galleries. But they will literally test a light meter in front of every object
in the exhibition and record and negotiate with the designers and the curators if it
is too high and it sometimes is.
People complain that we don't exhibit these watercolors enough. It is a trade off. To
have them look as vibrant as they do, you have to restrict their exposure and that is
the long and short of it. That is all we can tell people, and that is also why we try to
do one of this big shows with some periodic regularity.
If we found something faded, it...
There isn't any going back. And speaking of auction galleries, auction houses and galleries,
you'll notice when you go in and see a Homer that is literally been bleached out. You will
notice because they don't look like that. Anyone else? Thanks for coming.
Enjoy the show. Good.