Palettes of the masters - JMW Turner


The Fighting Temeraire

“Your business Winsor is to make colour. Mine is to use them.” This is Turner responding to gentle criticism from William Winsor who was concerned about Turner’s occasional lack of forward thinking when it came to using colour that would last. It must have been hard for a genius like Turner to pocket his pride and take a more considered approach, but Winsor’s point is as valid now as it was then: For the work of an artist to last they need to choose colour that will stand the test of time. This simple message remains one of the fundamental aspects of the work of Winsor & Newton today

Recognition From An Early Age

Joseph Mallord William Turner began his career at the age of eleven copying architectural drawings, colouring antiquarian engravings and painting landscapes in water colour. His first exhibited work was the watercolour ‘A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth’ in 1790 aged fifteen. This emerging artistic talent combined with driving ambition and entrepreneurial skill enabled him to become, in the words of artist and critic, Matthew Collings “About the most entertaining, if not the most profound, artist there has been.”

JMW Turner
 JMW Turner

A Taste For Experimentation

The story of Turner the man who experimented endlessly with new pigments and mixing methods is one of trial, success and occasional error. Dr Joyce Townsend is the Senior Conservation Scientist at Tate and an expert on Turner and his materials. She recently spoke with audiences at the National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition: Turner From The Tate: The Making Of A Master. Her research reveals that his medium was mainly gum arabic along with traces of gum tragacanth and varying levels of sugar or honey.  

Turner’s Water Colours

Pigments found within his water colours include Gamboge, Quercitron Yellow, Vermilion, various iron oxides including Ochres, Umbers and Siennas, Indian Yellow, "Green Lake", Prussian Blue, Indigo, Cobalt Blue, Blue Verditer, Rose Madder, other red lake pigments possibly Carmine, Bone Black, and Mercuric Iodide (genuine scarlet). He used water colours in a block form and there is evidence he made some, if not all, himself.

Turner's Oil Colours

Turner turned to oil colours in his early twenties to gain more professional standing and recognition – he exhibited his first oil painting ‘Fisherman At Sea’ at the Royal Academy when he was 21. In oil he used Genuine Ultramarine (Lapis Lazuli), White Lead and a very toxic yellow, Orpiment, also known as Kings Yellow or chemically, arsenic sulphide. By the early nineteenth century, he had replaced it with Chrome Yellow. There is evidence in the 1800 painting ‘Dolbadern Castle’ that he used the lead pigment Naples Yellow.

He also used unspecified lake pigments made by fixing a dye on a base compound such as alumina which turned a dye into a pigment.  This gave the pigments great transparency in oil but less so in water. The choice of dye and base influenced the lightfastness.  Turner used at least one red lake, a green and a geranium shade and all were prone to fading. Some early versions of Rose Madder had poor lightfastness but the process developed by the outstanding English colour-maker, George Field was and still is superior. This process is still followed by Winsor & Newton today.

The Fighting Temeraire 
 JMW Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839,
image source wikipedia

Mixing It Up

His love of both oil and water colour meant he experimented with using the same pigment for his oil paintings as he did in his water colours. He would have discovered that Gamboge does not work in oil nor White Lead (Flake White) in water. There is evidence that he used Linseed oil, Poppy oil and to a lesser extent, Walnut oil in his oil paintings, although in "The Fighting Temeraire" from 1839 Turner used only Walnut oil.

At The Cutting Edge

Documents at Tate show that Turner closely followed pigment development and used new pigments as they appeared. This interest led him to use new pigments in favour of earlier ones with inferior or unsuitable properties. For example he replaced Smalt, which was said to be ‘deficient in impure air,’ with Cobalt Blues that arrived after 1807.

The yellows that were discovered and used in Turner's time followed the isolation of the metal chromium. A French chemist, Vauquellin, worked on the process to isolate and prepare lead chromate pigments for over ten years, producing a range of yellow shades from Chrome Lemon to Chrome Deep Yellow. These were first made in England in 1816 and widely used by Turner in both oil and water.

Turner also used Scheele's Green (toxic copper arsenite) from 1806-1807 which he substituted with Emerald Green by the 1830s. Although chemically similar to Scheele's Green, this was an improvement as it was more intense and durable. When Viridian became available he combined it with Emerald in paintings from the 1840s.
 Rose Madder production
The Preservation of Great Art

Many of the pigments Turner used such as cochineal Carmine and the Chrome Yellow shades were known to fade in his lifetime. He used natural Indigo but this has faded dramatically, leaving behind grey or red skies having originally been mixed with black or vermilion.

Of course, along with light, the rate of fading in his paintings has been affected by other factors such as humidity and atmospheric pollution. Turner preferred absorbent grounds and tended to keep his canvases in extremely damp conditions. This combination led to mould growth, discolouration, embrittlement and flaking which would have happened in his lifetime.

Turner’s desire to experiment with materials and fugitive colour, and his passion to achieve an affect rather than care for the finished work did not help their preservation and illustrates well William Winsor’s genuine concerns with Turner who had become a friend and frequent visitor to Winsor & Newton. Even a genius needs a little advice now and again. Whether he or she uses it is another thing entirely.

*Lead image: JMW Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839, oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm, image source wikipedia


COMMENTS ON Palettes of the masters - JMW Turner

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  • Keith Pott Turner
    1038 DAYS AGO

    Keith Pott Turner

    Very interesting information, I have links to the great artist JMW Turner in my family history book called TURNER TREES by Keith Pott Turner, I cite Winsor and Newton and include my favourite actor/pirate Dorset born Robert Newton 1905-1956 in the book.

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