JAIC 1991, Volume 30, Number 2, Article 2 (pp. 125 to 144)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1991, Volume 30, Number 2, Article 2 (pp. 125 to 144)




The techniques described in this section are those employed during the golden age of Persian painting that began early in the 15th century. The Persian method of painting can be properly described as a watercolor technique since an aqueous gum solution probably most frequently served as the essential ingredient of the pigment binder (see section 4.1). Western terms such as “wash” (in which the color of the paper creates the lights through translucent or transparent layers of paint) or “gouache” (in which opaque, sometimes thick, often textured and chalky layers of paint include their own highlights through the addition of white or light pigments) are not applicable to Persian technique (Cohn 1977). Persian painters aimed to produce slightly glossy, smooth, opaque layers of paint. And while creating the illusions of three-dimensional space and a natural light source constituted primary goals for Western painters, Persian artists did not concern themselves with these illusions. The beauty of Persian technique derived both from a harmony of colors and from a poetic interplay of line and pattern with the solid colors. At the same time, the paintings depict animals or figures in landscapes or architectural settings, illustrating the poetry with which they often appear.

Before the preliminary drawings for the paintings could be made, the paper required preparation. The paper support received a thorough external sizing, possibly with wheat or rice starch, egg white, or gelatin. The starch was cooked in water, probably diluted in the same, and applied in a thin coat to the paper's surface. The papermaker must have performed this part of the preparation (Hunter 1978, 194–95). The paper was thoroughly burnished on both sides with a crystal egg, polished agate, or other polished stone (Hunter 1978, 196; Brown 1924). The paper was placed on a smooth hardwood plank and burnished until front and back surfaces achieved the proper gloss. The preparation resulted in a slick, somewhat impermeable surface.

In Western watercolor painting, the paper must be stretched to prevent excessive cockling (Cohn 1977). This practice precludes reversing the paper during painting since all the edges must be attached firmly to a rigid support. In the Persian technique, in which reversals throughout the painting procedure were critical for burnishing, the paper was not stretched. The artist, seated on the floor, one knee raised to support the drawing board with paper clamped to it, began his work (Welch 1972, 26).

Preliminary drawings followed the preparation of the paper support. The great masters of the traditional technique may have made the initial sketch with a slightly wetted, finetipped brush or a charred twig of tamarind. The artist set basic geometric forms and lines with this sketch. He may have elaborated on the rough underdrawing with outlines made by a fine brush. Persian sources seem to refer to such an underdrawing as the tarh, which connotes diagram or program rather than sketch or study (Schroeder 1942, 10).

In the paintings examined for this study we found clear evidence of 12 underdrawings in a variety of colors. Two of those had brown underdrawings, two were partially red. The other colors (pink, purple-red) would likely have been combinations of pigments, possibly mixtures of leftover pigments in the painter's palette. The remaining underdrawings found were done in black. Only one of the underdrawings, a black one, had a white wash, or a translucent white layer of paint, over it. This type of preliminary wash over the entire drawing is common in Mughal paintings but not usually found in Persian works (Johnson 1972). An unusual example of underdrawing found in a painting of the Appearance of Sakyamuni (M.73.5.412) was executed partially in red and partially in black. Only one painting revealed a change from the original underdrawing in the final painting; instead of the boots shown in the underdrawing (revealed by ultraviolet examination), leggings were depicted in a painting of a Youth Pouring Wine (M.73.5.570). Although perhaps not an underdrawing, the drawing of a Lion Attacking a Dragon (M.73.5.12) is done in both brown and black.

Apparently even master painters employed tracings copied from other paintings or drawings as an aid in creating new compositions. In that way isolated elements could be repeated in the new compositions. In order to copy a partial or entire composition, a thin piece of paper (or translucent gazelle skin) was laid over a master drawing or painting. The design outlines were then traced; possibly with a piece of charred tamarind twig. The tracing was then carefully pierced along the traced lines. Charcoal powder held in a thin fabric (pounce) bag was then pounced through the piercings of the tracing onto a sheet of prepared paper (Martin 1912, 108; Chandra 1949, 39). Such pierced tracings could be used repeatedly for copying (Welch 1972, 26). Outlining concluded the copying technique. Lentz and Lowry (1989) discussed the repeated use of compositional elements, or even whole compositions, in 15th-century Timurid Persian art. They thought the repetition of images allowed Timurid artists to create a codified visual aesthetic.

Apprentices ground each pigment to its proper particle size (Brown 1924). The artist then mixed his pigments with vehicle. The paint also required proper dilution in water. For broad areas of color, the paint must have been diluted just enough to flow easily, but not as much as a Western watercolor wash would have been. For lines and details, the paint may have been somewhat less diluted. The outlines of the preliminary drawing determined the basic color areas of the painting. In each area, the artist applied one thin layer of the appropriate color at a time with a medium- or large-tipped brush according to the size and shape of the area. Layer was built upon layer, with each allowed to dry completely and burnished frequently until a slight gloss, opacity, and the desired intensity of hue were achieved.

Not all colors were burnished, however. Sadiqi Bek warned the reader about ultramarine blue (Dickson and Welch 1981, 266). This color should be “laid directly with the medium” and not polished to a lustrous sheen. Instead, the artist was advised to apply medium (possibly with a rabbit's foot) over the ultramarine and then gently smooth it with his hand. This step was taken to smooth any cracked surfaces in the paint. We found evidence of this technique in the illuminated colophon (M.73.5.518) dated 1564–65 from Bukhara. Neither was the ultramarine in Flaying Scene (M.73.5.437) burnished. This technique particular to ultramarine seems to have been used on both illumination and miniature paintings because it occurs in two pieces from the same manuscript produced in Shiraz in 1517, the Khamsa of Nizami: a chapter heading page of calligraphy (M.73.5.606) and an illustration of Majnun at the Kaaba (M.73.5.423). Another exception, gold pigment, was burnished directly if the artist wished to create a glossy finish or through a thin piece of paper when he wanted a more raw appearance (Behzad 1939).

The colors of the painting were applied over the underdrawings and often in sequence. That is, one color would be applied wherever it was desired throughout the painting and then the next color would be applied in the appropriate areas. The painter seems to have begun with the background colors and then moved to the animals and figures, applying the flesh tones first and finishing with the clothing (Binyon et al. 1933).

The sophisticated Persian painter apparently cut, or mixed, his colors, sensing that the interplay of pure hues would result in a garish effect rather than the desired harmony. A good example of this toning of colors for the sake of visual harmony is found in a 15th century painting from the Shahnama of Firdawsi, entitled Isfandiyar and the Simurgh (M.73.5.410). In this painting, two different shades of yellow were used in the Simurgh's body. The primary pigment in both these yellows is orpiment, but gold, vermilion, and white lead have been added to the yellow in the body to make a warmer tone. The yellow in the bird's wings, however, has ultramarine added to it to produce a cooler tone. Colors were never cut to the extent of creating an atmospheric perspective, however. Particular combinations of pigments for flesh tones, water, landscapes, and the like may have been favored by the Persian artists (Minorsky 1959).

Certain pigments may have required the addition of white to display their brilliance and to assist in developing opacity. In this study, white lead was found in many colors of the paintings. Even colors used for animals or clothing that appear to be black contained white lead. In the Flaying Scene (M.73.5.437) a horse, which appears black, contains white lead.

Adjustments or corrections were necessary. When two adjacent color areas required the same hue, the painter could render one slightly more brilliant or cut the other slightly. To brighten a color already applied, the artist simply moistened the area and, employing a brush loaded with a dilute solution of the same color, swept it in rapid strokes (Chandra 1949, 43). Besides cutting a shade by adding a little black or a complement, the miniaturist could also deepen a color by applying more layers of the same. To compensate for specks, unevenness, or other slight imperfections in a color, another layer could simply be added (Chandra 1949, 44). When removal of a color was desired, the area could be wetted and stroked with a dry brush, this procedure being repeated until all the color had been removed. If a color overlapped a previously fixed line, the final outline was adjusted to accommodate the change. The aesthetic demands of the overall color harmony determined the choice of colors for the details as much as representational or naturalistic considerations.

Two of the most important finishing procedures were final outlining and the shading and blending of colors. For these procedures, the miniaturist used the finest of his fine brushes, the tips of which culminated in no more than a few hairs. Employing a cut shade or an intense, closely related hue, he reinforced the outlines of the color areas. Black was often used for this purpose. The sweeping calligraphic strokes used to accomplish the final outlining demanded great finesse.

Persian painters also delighted in blending and shading colors for purely decorative effect and coloristic enhancement. A repertoire of essential techniques provided the artist with the means of achieve those ends. The techniques included stippling or dotting as well as parallel hatching. The effect of this hatching or stippling could be varied by altering the thickness and the spacing of the elements. Often, the elements were applied so that each remained distinct, but they could also be executed so that one blended into the next. Incredible precision and facility were absolutely necessary to execute the subtle variations in Persian technique successfully. In some cases, the work is so fine that it must be viewed with the aid of magnification to detect clearly the individual elements of shading or blending.

During our examination we observed some techniques not mentioned in the literature. One was delicate punchwork, or a pattern made of tiny impressions, that can be seen in the gold areas of some paintings. An example is Yusuf in Meadow (M.73.5.443) in which punchwork is seen in the gold of the flames and around the central figure's head. St. Laurent-Lockwood (1981) also noticed punchwork during her examination of Persian miniatures.

In a painting from a Khamsa of Nizami, however, another technique was used to depict the floor tiles on the smooth burnished paint. The outlines of the floor tiles in Laila and Majnun at School (M.73.5.417) were gently incised into the paint to create the image of rectangular floor tiles. Paint is used for the vertical and diagonal lines in the floor, but the horizontal lines in the floor are incised. A linear design on the floor is also incised in another work examined for the study, the Prince and Princess in a Garden (M.73.5.16) dated 1580 from Qazvin.

Another technique not in the Persian painting literature was used on two paintings, both possibly from the same Shahnama dated to the late 15th century. In these works, a layer of saturating medium was applied to some colors to tint and enhance them. This application was made around the edge of the pit in Army a in Pit (M.73.5.23), where the stronger pink perimeter was produced by a layer of semitransparent medium rather than a direct application of more pigment. The medium layer, when analyzed under the polarizing light microscope, did contain a few grains of pigment, but the dominant visual effect was caused by the saturation of the underlying color. The rosy cheeks of the soldiers were produced using the same technique. In other painting (M.75.24) the horse's reins were made shinier and darker by an application of a layer of saturating medium.

When a painting was complete, it was given to a binder. Marginal decoration may have been added to the painting before it was bound. Alternatively, the decoration could have been done at the time the preliminary drawing was complete. Qadi Ahmad gave a detailed account of the rulings that should be applied in Persian manuscripts (Minorsky 1959). One set of rulings observed in this study was done in this manner, a page of calligraphy with a delicate illuminated panel at the top, and rulings of black, gold, blue, and pale green (M.73.5.518). The rulings cover the edges of applied borders, so further examination is necessary to determine the completeness of the piece.

Copyright 1991 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works