JAIC 1999, Volume 38, Number 1, Article 3 (pp. 21 to 32)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1999, Volume 38, Number 1, Article 3 (pp. 21 to 32)

THE AMERICAN ARTIST'S TOOLS AND MATERIALS FOR ON-SITE OIL SKETCHING

ALEXANDER KATLAN

ABSTRACT—During the 19th century, a plethora of inventions and new artists' materials, such as millboards, academy boards, canvas boards, and related paraphernalia, including paint tubes, brushes, and Japanned boxes, were designed for portability and ease of assembly. These new tools of the artist's craft provided American artists with the means and capability to do on-site oil sketches.

TITRE—Outils et matériaux utilisés par les artistes américains pour les ébauches à l'huile faites sur place. RÉSUMÉ—Lors du XIXe siècle, une panoplie d'inventions et de nouveaux matériaux d'art fut perfectionnée de façon à faciliter leur portabilité et assemblage. De tels exemples sont les cartons toilés (millboard, Academy et canvas board) et tout l'attirail s'y rapportant, dont les tubes de peinture, pinceaux et boîtes laquées simili-japon. Ces nouveaux outils dans le domaine de l'art donnèrent aux artistes américains les moyens et la capacité de créer sur place des ébauches à l'huile.

TITULO—Materiales e instrumentos usados por los artistas americanos para hacer bosquejos al óleo en el lugar. RESUMEN—Durante el siglo XIX, una enorme cantidad de invenciones y nuevos materiales para artistas, tales como cartones gruesos, cartones académicos, cartones entelados y utensilios afines, incluyendo tubos de pintura, pinceles y cajas estilo japones fueron dise ñados para facilitar su traslado y ensamblaje. Estos nuevos implementos proporcionaron a los artistas americanos, la capacidad y los medios necesarios para hacer bosquejos al óleo fuera del estudio.


1 INTRODUCTION

Although on-site oil sketching was practiced in the 18th century (Conisbee et al. 1996), it became very popular among professional and amateur artists in the 19th century, especially as railroads made access to the countryside easier. Having had negative experiences with poor-quality materials, artists sought materials of the highest quality. It is not surprising that American artist's colormen firms—firms specializing in selling art materials, preparing canvases, and grinding pigments—often felt obliged to defend their materials and pigments.

Although colormen firms had been established for some time in Europe, in the United States they began in the late 18th century on the docks of New York City, where they sold their wares from the unloaded cargo of trans-Atlantic sailing vessels (Gottesman 1954). In the 1830s and 1840s, these firms were more formally organized, as suggested by the stencil marks and labels of such companies as Edward Dechaux, Theodore Kelley, Goupil & Co., and William Schaus.1 These firms provided a uniformity of art materials, a manufacturing capability (Gottesman 1965),2 and a quality control that was sometimes absent in the 18th century. Take, for example, William Schaus, who was first sent to New York City in 1848 as an agent and representative of Goupil & Co. of Paris to scout out the market and possibly look for painters to be represented by the new American firm Goupil, Vibert & Co. Schaus “discovered” William Sidney Mount and had his paintings engraved in Paris. By 1852, Schaus had established his own firm dealing in fine arts and artists' materials. He Americanized his name from Wilhelm to William. The firm specialized in engravings from French, German, English, and Italian sources, but the majority of its materials and supplies came from “the most celebrated of markets in London and Paris,” generally not from German sources (Katlan 1987, 23).

The American firms offered a more diverse selection of materials than the individual artist would have been able to obtain on his own, especially materials from European suppliers. The colormen introduced new materials and new inventions to the artist. When cheaper and lighter materials became available, they were rapidly adapted, developed, or patented by these firms. American artists, aware of these technical advances, quickly began using the new tools of their craft. They even depicted them in their paintings, as seen in Albert Bierstadt's (1830–1902) painting Cho-looke, The Yosemite Fall(fig. 1) and Sanford Gifford's (1823–80) painting The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert Maine (1865) (collection of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz, Jr.).

Fig. 1. Albert Bierstadt, detail Cho-looke, The Yosemite Fall, 1864, oil on canvas, 86.25 × 67.8 cm (34 1/2 × 27 1/8 in.), Putnam Foundation, Timken Museum of Art, acc. no. 1966:001

The artists proudly and intentionally depicted the tools of their craft, possibly to indicate their newness and also to show that they were modern and up-to-date painters. These art materials liberated both American and European artists from the constraints of their studios and gave them the freedom of the outdoors, which became the studio for the oil sketch.

In defense of the quality of American pigments, in 1886 the colormen firm of Janetzsky & Weber, Philadelphia (later Frederick Weber & Co.) felt it necessary to publish “The Artists' Manual of Pigments showing their composition, conditions of permanency, non-permanency, and adulteration; effects in combination with each other and with vehicles; and the most reliable tests of purity” (Standage 1886). Janetzsky (Standage 1886, v-vii) states their justification for such a publication in the preface:

Of Late years the question of the deterioration in hue of Modern English pictures is one that has occupied an important position in art circles. These pictures are found to be unpossessed of that permanency of colouring so noticeable in the works of old masters of foreign schools. The “Why and the Wherefore” for these changes are not far to seek; they may be attributed to the ignorance of the modern artist as regards the actual nature of the materials he employs.

Earlier complaints and rebuttals can be found in the personal letters of American artists and are not limited to American colormen firms. In a letter to Asher B. Durand from London in November 1856, Cropsey (1856) defends Winsor & Newton, an English colormen firm, and states:

I learn that you … have experienced great annoyance from bad or “fat….” At home I was often annoys in the same manner. The colours that I most generally used were Winsor & Newton's, but often found occasion to condemn them for their “fatness.” I was at loss to know what cause to attribute it to…. Mr. Newton is a chymist and super-intends this matter himself—so far as I can learn they are considered the best colour makers in London. Their prices are slightly higher than others. Since I have been here I have used their oils, and colours, and have not the least complaint to make—They are well ground, of beautiful tones, dry well.

The negative experiences of American artists did not prevent them from quickly capitalizing on new developments and technical inventions. Even the language for these new materials changed radically in the 19th century. The French term pochade, meaning a rapidly executed small oil sketch, or “rough sketch,” was expanded to include sketches done outdoors. Later, the term often referred to a final painting (Mayer 1969). This term appears in the American trade catalogs of Edward Dechaux in the 1860s (Dechaux 1860). Even the small Japanned boxes that served as oil sketch boxes were often called pochade boxes. Today we sometimes call these oil sketches “thumb-box oil sketches.”

Another example of a linguistic change is the word “stretcher,” which appears to have developed in the 1800s and is probably an Americanization of the English terminology “stretching-frame” or “canvas-frame.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the term “stretcher” in relationship to paintings occurred in English literature in 1847; the word appears in the U.S. patent issued to H. Bryant on September 25, 1849 (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. H. Bryant, Canvas stretcher, U. S. Patent #6,731, September 25, 1849. U.S. Patent Office


2 IMPORTANT TECHNICAL INVENTIONS


2.1 THE COLLAPSIBLE PAINT TUBE

What 19th-century technical inventions changed the artist's craft? The collapsible paint tube, invented in 1841, made on-site oil sketching an easy reality. It replaced the traditional leather bladder pouch, which was difficult to maneuver. John G. Rand, a minor American artist in London, devised the first collapsible paint tube, initially marketed by Thomas Brown, a London-based colormen firm (Harley 1971). Rand was issued two patents by the British patent office. The first (March 6, 1841, #8863) was for “Improvements in preserving paints and other fluids,” and the second (September 29, 1842, #9480) was for “Improvements in making and closing metallic collapsible vessels” (Harley 1971).

By 1842, the tube was being sold exclusively by the firm of Winsor & Newton as “Rand's Patent Collapsible Tube” (Faibairn 1983). By the 1850s, the Winsor & Newton Collapsible Paint Tube (note that “Rand” has been dropped) was being advertised in the trade catalogs of New York firms such as Goupil & Co. and Masury & Whiton (New York City Directory 1858) and also in Paris in the earliest of the Sennelier catalogs of 1887 (Ahearn 1997). Other technical advances include the portable easel (Goupil & Co. 1857), which appears in the Bierstadt painting Cho-looke, The Yosemite Fall; the portable stool seen in this painting, also listed in a later catalog, is from the firm of S. & H. Goldberg (successors to A. Sussmann) of the late 1890s (S. & H. Goldberg & Co. ca. 1890)(fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Trade Catalog, S. & H. Goldberg & Co., ca. 1890, Warshaw collection


2.2 THE METAL BRUSH FERRULE

Perhaps the most important and underrated development was the change in brush ferrules from quill, thread, or wire-bound brushes to metal ferrules, making paint brushes sturdier and less subject to damage. Probably introduced in the 18th century, the metal ferrule gained popularity in the 19th century. Mechanization eliminated the time-consuming and expensive operation of binding the hair to the handle by hand. Initially, the metal ferrules were glued to the handles, and as moisture penetrated the wood handles the brush heads simply fell off. This prompted the development of the crimp, the indentation in the ferrule that secures it to the handle. In the 19th and early 20th century, some metal ferrules were nailed onto the handle, while some had single or multiple crimps (Pinney 1998). The round metal ferrules could be flatened, allowing for the manufacture of flat bristle brushes instead of rounds. Artists, especially the French impressionists, used these flat brushes to create a new paint stroke called the tache, a broad, flat, even stroke (Bomford et al 1990). Flat-bristle brushes were available to American artists (F.W. Devoe & Co. ca. 1886)(fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Trade Catalog, F. W. Devoe & Co., ca. 1886. Private collection


2.3 PAINTING SUPPORTS

The major 19th-century technical advance was the invention of alternative painting supports. The traditional canvas or wooden panels were heavy, clumsy, and inconvenient to transport. Canvas could be punctured and panels could be scratched in transport. New lightweight, inexpensive supports were developed, such as millboards, academy boards, canvas boards, oil sketching paper, and oil sketching blocks. Japanned tin boxes and kits were created to hold these new supports (C.S. Samuel & Co. ca. 1884).


2.3.1 Solid Sketch Blocks

The solid sketch block (M. Knoedler & Co. ca. 1870) was an unusual development in the 1840s and 1850s and was originally developed for on-site oil sketching and drawing. These blocks consisted of a number of sheets of paper compressed and in some cases glued or pasted around the edges. A single sheet could be separated by passing a knife under the edges of the paper (Goupil & Co. 1854). This type of sketchbook became very popular and was offered by both European and American firms. Winsor & Newton listed it in its catalogs (Winsor & Newton 1851, 1863, 1886), and William Schaus offered it in his catalogs (William Schaus & Co. 1857, 1868) stating that each block contained 32 surfaces (William Schaus & Co. 1868). Bound and Japanned tin cases were designed to hold these blocks and to facilitate their portability. They were sometimes called “solid sketching portfolios” (N.D. Cotton & Co. ca. 1844–52).

In two known cases, American artists painted in oil on this solid paper block partially because they liked the smooth tooth of the paper. The Doctor (1873, New York State Museum, Albany, N.Y.) and The Arno Florence (1863, National Academy of Design, New York, N.Y.), both by Edward Lamson Henry (1841–1919), were executed on this support. Albert Bierstadt commonly used paper supports for his oil sketches, although he or his dealers subsequently mounted the paper onto canvas, panels, and stretcher supports. The uniform size of some of Bierstadt's oil sketches possibly suggest that they were done on solid sketching blocks. The trade catalogs list sizes ranging from 5 × 7 in. to 14 × 20 in. (12.5 × 17.5 cm to 35 × 50 cm) (William Schaus & Co. 1868). Many of Bierstadt's oil paper sketches measured 14 × 19 in. (35 × 47.5 cm), suggesting that these papers were slightly trimmed during the mounting process.


2.3.2 Academy Boards and Millboards

The more important lightweight sketching supports in the 19th century were academy boards and millboards. According to Gettens and Stout (1966, 221), “Millboard is a generic term covering a wide range of hard, pressed, flexible paste boards. Millboards were first introduced in the late 18th century by English colormen firms although their popularity was in the 19th century. Millboards were shown to be in existence in the early trade catalogs of Charles Roberson & Co. in 1819.” Designed as cheaper alternatives to wooden panels, they utilized mill and paper waste and were offered in various thicknesses. Sometimes the terms “stout” and “extra stout” also appear in the literature. The Winsor & Newton catalog of ca. 1835 uses the terms, “Boards of Ordinary Thickness,” “Boards of Extra Thickness,” and “Boards Very Thick.” This distinction does not appear in later Winsor & Newton catalogs. However, a George Rowney & Co. catalog of 1892 continues to indicate thickness, stating “Prepared Millboards for Oil Painting. No. 1 of Ordinary Thickness, No. 2 of Extra Thickness, No. 3. of Double Thickness” (fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Trade Catalog, Winsor & Newton, Ltd., ca. 1835. Archives Collection, Winsor & Newton, Ltd., Reckitt & Colman Leisure, Ltd., London

Inconsistency in the use of coating on the back of millboards and academy boards has resulted in confusion when differentiating the two. Such differentiation may not be possible on the basis of preparation, composition, or thickness. Millboards and academy boards were both coated on the front surface and back by the colormen firms manufacturing them. The front surfaces were sometimes smooth and sometimes stippled. Millboards became thinner toward the end of the 19th century, with the choice of “stoutness” no longer available, while academy boards became more robust and thicker. The gray protective priming on the back of wooden panels, millboards, and academy boards seems to have been fairly common practice with such colormen as Brown & Davy, Winsor & Newton, and George Rowney. Differentiation by priming and composition is not possible due to trade variations from numerous manufacturers, while differentiation by size might be possible because academy boards were initially made only in smaller sizes. However, by mid-century, academy boards were much larger in size. The American colormen firms were not as consistent in manufacturing millboards and academy boards as the English firms. For the English colormen, millboards were considered to be a higher-quality product, containing rag and linen fibers and having better-quality preparations. This quality distinction appears to have been lost among most American firms.

By 1857, Goupil & Co. was offering “English” and “French” millboards. The “French” millboards were available in “graduated tints” and “plain” surface, while the “English” millboards were available only in “plain” surface (Goupil & Co. 1857, 12). This trade catalog is evidence of the American supply firms' interest in tinted preparations on millboards and the beginnings of texturization of surface; “plain” can imply a flat or smooth surface as well as an uncolored, white surface. The white surface gessoes became more popular in the mid-19th century. The tinting of the ground is purported with the French-type board.

Greater confusion exists with academy boards, especially in trying to define exactly when they were invented. Gettens and Stout (1966, 221) state:

Reeves & Son, Ltd. and Winsor & Newton Company Ltd., London, first listed this board in 1850. The records of George Rowney and Company, Ltd. London, carry it [academy boards] back as far as 1852. When it reached the continent cannot be stated exactly. The old firm of Lefranc in Paris, founded in 1775, has no records concerning it. It was manufactured in America by E. H. and A. C. Friedrichs Company, New York, in 1868.

The statement that academy boards were introduced in England ca. 1850–52 and in the United States by ca. 1868 is inaccurate. Research shows that academy boards were available from Winsor & Newton as early as ca. 1835 and were probably available when the company was founded in 1832 (Winsor & Newton ca. 1835). Academy boards probably were available in England at the turn of the century and definitely by the 1820s (fig. 5).

Although academy boards were manufactured in the United States by E. H. Friedrichs & Co. in 1869, the A. C. & E. H. Friedrichs Company did not exist before 1900, although the Ernest H. Friedrichs Company did exist in 1869 at 177 Bowery Street, New York, New York (Katlan 1987, 105). Other American colormen firms offered academy boards to artists at a much earlier date. The Edward Dechaux catalog of 1860 lists this board, although the ca. 1840 catalog does not list it. The early Goupil & Co. catalogs of 1854 and 1857 also list academy boards, the source being Winsor & Newton of London. It is also listed in the early William Schaus catalogs of the 1850s, with no source given.

As its name implies, academy boards were an inexpensive, thin, semirigid support created for students in schools, academies, or universities. They were not originally intended for the professional artist's use in quick oil sketches and studies. The popularity of academy boards grew as art became part of the public school curriculum. They were a cheaper, disposable alternative for an oil painting support than prestretched canvas or wooden panels. Academy boards probably were made of pulp board and coated with a thick priming on the surface, generally a pale gray or white ground of lead pigments to stiffen the board. In most cases the boards were coated on the back with the same gray priming. Pulp boards were a variety of thick cardboard of inexpensive grade, made of pulp rolled into sheets, as opposed to pasteboards, which are formed by pasting sheets together. The surfaces of the academy boards were generally not covered by fabric, although artists in the early to mid-19th century sometimes covered these boards with fabric. It is not known whether an early colormen firm might have applied fabric to an academy board surface.

Academy boards were initially made in smaller sizes—6 × 9 in. (15 × 22.5 cm), 9 × 12 in. (22.5 × 30 cm), 12 × 18 in. (30 × 45 cm), and 18 × 24 in. (45 × 60 cm), and they were rarely offered in a variety of thicknesses. By mid-century, “extra sizes,” or larger sizes, were commonly sold: 22 × 27 in. (55 × 67.5 cm) and 23 × 30 in. (57.5 × 75 cm). According to the Winsor & Newton Company catalog (1851, 13), academy boards were “for studies or sketching,” not finished paintings, and were available from this firm in only two sizes, 24 × 29 in. (60 × 72.5 cm) and 9 1/2 × 12 in. (23.75 × 30 cm) (“half size”). In many cases the “half size” was simply a 24 × 19 in. (60 × 47.5 cm) board cut down upon request, explaining why many labels on the backs of boards are cut. In the early 1800s, these boards were thin, but by the 1850s they were thicker (“stout”), making it harder to distinguish them from millboards (George Rowney Co. ca. 1864).

The American colormen firms might have purposely blurred this distinction in order to offer academy boards at higher prices. At first they were sold by the dozen, as seen in the Goupil & Co catalog (1857). By the 1890s, academy boards were being sold individually, although still in limited sizes, from such geographically diverse firms as Frost & Adams of Boston and A. H. Abbott of Chicago.

Academy boards were widely accepted by the professional artist with the increasing popularity of on-site oil sketching. However, artists began to notice problems with the support. With the heavy layering of the preparation and then a heavy layering of the oil paint, the thin paperboard tended to warp and sometimes even twist. Mechanical damage and dents easily caused the thick ground layers to crack and flake, leading manufacturers to coat the back of the board in an attempt to thicken and stiffen it. Because of these problems, academy boards were gradually being replaced by canvas boards by the end of the century; in fact, Winsor & Newton's London-Oil Sketching Board (a canvas board) was advertised as “superior to academy boards” (Frost & Adams ca. 1895).


2.3.3 Canvas Boards

Similar confusion exists about the invention of canvas boards. The interest in the texturization of the board surface explains the development of canvas boards, that is, to achieve a canvas weave on a board. Gettens and Stout (1966, 221) state: “Canvas board, a paperboard with primed canvas fastened to one face, was put on the market by George Rowney and Company. Ltd. in 1878. It appears in the records of Reeves and Son, Ltd. and Winsor and Newton Company, Ltd. in 1884. C. Roberson and Company, Ltd. thinks that it was introduced between 1875 and 1880.” Although it is possible that canvas boards were introduced in England in ca. 1875–80, there are indications that they were introduced in the United States at a much earlier date. This confusion about the dating is probably due to the great popularity of the American Russell canvas board, which was widely marketed first by Janetzsky & Weber Co. and later by Frederick Weber & Co. of Philadelphia (Gettens and Stout 1966, 221).

However, on August 25, 1863, a good 15 years before the Rowney catalog listings and before the “Russell board,” Albert G. Collins of Washington, D.C., patented an “improvement in painter's panels” (Collins 1863)(fig. 6) that consists of canvas applied to pasteboard in order to prevent the panel from “warping, cracking or wrinkling.” Obviously, by 1863, academy boards and millboards were beginning to exhibit warping problems due to the thinness of the cardboard supports and the hygroscopic glue sizing. Collins (1863, 1) states:

I take a heavy pasteboard,…saturate it with linseed or other drying vegetable oil, with brush or otherwise. I then paint the board with white lead or Spainish whiting as thick as ordinary paste. I then cover the board with canvas—cotton is preferable—while the paint is yet wet. The first side is covered with a piece of canvas exactly the dimensions of the board or panel, and the opposite side is to be covered by a piece of canvas an inch larger than the board all round, so as to lap over upon a wet surface of white lead. Both sides of the board thus enveloped are to be painted, as before, with white lead or Spainish whiting and rubbed with pumice stone and a spatula or trowel, in order to form an enamel.

Fig. 6. Albert G. Collins, Improvement in painters' panels, U. S. Patent #39,632, August 25, 1863. U. S. Patent Office

The Collins patent relates to a panel, similar to an academy board, with a smoother surface than the later texturized canvas boards with which we are more familiar.

The Russell canvas board was first patented on March 18, 1879, and assigned for marketing first to John W. Shepherd and later to the firm of Frederick Weber & Co. (Russell 1879, 1). The Russell patent differed from the Collins patent in that it “consists in first pasting canvas or other suitable textile fabric to straw-board or other pasteboard, then drying the same under pressure, then painting the surface of the tablet with any desired pigment, and finally stippling the same to form a grain” (Russell 1879, 1). Russell was aware of the inherent instability and problem with straw-boards and he states, “Although straw-board of itself is liable to warp, the fabric applied to it with cement and under pressure renders it rigid and permanent, especially if the fabric be secured to both sides” (Russell 1879, 1).

This patent indicates that by 1879 in the American market, precolored (pretinted) and texturized surfaces were beginning to be applied to panels. On the one Russell canvas board that I have examined, the back is covered with canvas and red paint. The front is covered with a slightly texturized gray surface. The extensive popularity of this board is suggested by the numerous trade catalogs that sold the Russell board (C. S. Samuel & Co. ca. 1884; A. Sartorius 1890–94; A. H. Abbott 1900). Frost & Adams (1895) describes the Russell board as “very desirable for outdoor sketching in oil,” while Frederick Weber & Co. (1929) says it is for outdoor sketching as well as studio painting. A. H. Abbott (1900, 18) simply states, “Prepared Linen on Heavy Board.”

Numerous imitators of the Russell board began almost immediately. Winsor & Newton (1886, 84) advertises “canvas boards,” while George Rowney of London (1892, 156) states: “These boards present a surface of the best primed canvas, and from their neat and portable form are undoubtedly the very best kind of sketching board ever introduced.” The James Newman firm of London (1910, 163) describes the board as, “Best quality millboards covered with prepared canvas.” Interestingly, the American firm S. & H. Goldberg of New York (successor to A. Sussman) advertises a canvas board in 1884 (S. & H. Goldberg 1884). However, it is unclear whether this board is of their own manufacture or a Russell board.


3 CONCLUSIONS

Some of the 19th-century inventions such as millboards, academy boards, and canvas boards and the related paraphernalia such as brushes, Japanned boxes, stools, and easels were designed for portability and ease of assembly. The popularity, the new linguistic terms, and widespread acceptance of these materials (by both the professional and the amateur artist) are reflected in the trade catalogs of the time. These tools of the artist's craft provided the means for the American artist to do on-site oil sketches.


NOTES

1. The term “stencil mark,” not “canvas mark,” is used, as these colormen marks have been found on stretchers, panels, and frames as well as canvases. Although it is correct that the majority of these marks have been found on canvases, I believe that the term “stencil mark” is a more descriptive term as it describes the process of application onto the canvas, stretcher, panel, or frame. “Canvas mark” implies only canvas.

2. American manufacturing of artists' pigments appears to have begun in the early 19th century when Cholwell & Mercein had a “manufactory” of watercolors located at 178 Front Street, New York, N.Y.



REFERENCES

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FURTHER READING

Katlan, A. W.1992. American artists' materials, vol.2: A guide to stretchers, panels, millboards and stencil marks. Madison, Conn.: Sound View Press.

Turner, J.1992. Brushes: A handbook for artists and artisans. New York: Design Press.


AUTHOR INFORMATION

ALEXANDER W. KATLAN is an independent painting conservator in New York City. He holds a B.A. from Lake Forest College, an M.F.A. in painting conservation from Villa Schifanoia in Florence, Italy, and an M.A. in art history from Queens College, City University of New York. His research has emphasized 19th-century American art materials. Address: 56-38 Main St., Flushing, N.Y. 11355

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Copyright © 1999 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works