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February 26, 2006

John Sloan Updates

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A while back I wrote about American "Ashcan" artist John Sloan (click here to read it). Recently I've come across a couple of items related to that post which I think I should pass along.

First, I ran a string of quotations from Sloan and made comments. In particular:

"I feel pretty sure that all the heavy, staccato impasto paint in the old masters' work is made with tempera."

This last remark is important. Sloan made the comment long before art restoration had become scientific -- magnified micro-samples photographed to analyze paint layering, for instance. And I've never come across a confirmation of his hypothesis; readers are welcome to set me straight on this. But he believed that the masters used tempera under-painting and practiced the technique himself, switching from direct application of color to oil glazing over tempera under-painting.

I find in A.P. Laurie's "The Painter's Methods and Materials" (another useful Dover reprint) that during the transition from egg-tempera painting to oils the following might have been the case:

The accumulation of evidence is in favour of the conclusion that these painters were painters in oil, but probably on a solid under-painting in egg; the extent to which this solid under-painting was carried being a matter for discussion. [Page 21.]

The matter of whether the tempera was in the form of impasto is not mentioned.

Secondly, I was pretty negative in my judgment of Sloan's work. But I came across a Sloan I like at Seattle's Frye Art Museum. It's titled "Blue Kimono" and dated 1913.

Blue Kimono - 1913.jpg
"Blue Kimono" by John Sloan, 1913.

My aging monitor doesn't show it in the colors I saw in the gallery -- the blues and greens seemed stronger there. Nor does the excellent brushwork around the face come through in the small-scale reproduction. This is yet another case of "ya hafta be dere."

I'm not sure who posed for the painting. However, the woman does resemble Sloan's wife.



posted by Donald at February 26, 2006


It's hard for me to imagine tempera as impasto, but maybe that's because I've never experimented with egg tempera. (I think of the simple pigment and water mixes that kids use instead.) Certainly I've know artists who worked by painting their values (dark and light) out with no color, or little color, and then glazed over it in layers, sometimes many layers, to get depth. Paul Dyck, descended from Van Dyck, paints this way and it's very effective in the kind of inspired, not quite abstract way he paints Indians.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 26, 2006 11:57 PM

The colorless underpainting is called "grisaille." Remington used it. The url above explains and gives examples.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 27, 2006 12:05 AM

Mary -- Grisaille underpainting was the norm in pre-Impressionist times. Not always literally gray, it might be Terre-Vert or more often a fast-dring color such as Burnt Umber in wash form. But the grisaille layer would be painted in oil, as would the colored glazings layed atop it. What interested me was use of an egg-medium in an underpainting combined with oil glazes -- I hadn't heard of it.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 27, 2006 12:53 PM

Check out this photo taken in John Sloan's studio:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 27, 2006 11:56 PM


I remember a book on artist's methods, written in the early 20th century (the title escapes my middle-aging mind, sadly) which suggested that such 'mixed media' combinations of tempera and oil were the original form that oil-painting took. According to that book's author, Van Eyck worked that way (on top of incredibly detailed underdrawings, to boot: those old guys were incredibly industrious). If I remember it accurately, the book also suggested that Durer painted in a whole series of alternating oil- and non-oil-based layers, which is how he managed to get such linear, draftsmanly effects such as single hairs in his finished paintings. What all this means for the traditional oil-painter's rule of 'fat over lean' isn't clear to me; my neglected oil-painting education never included much in the way of technical experimentation.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 2, 2006 9:42 AM

The book was by Max Doerner, "Materials of the Artist amd Their Use in Painting," London: Harvest, Revised 1984. If you go for that sort of thing, it's an interesting read. Doerner was a professor of painting at, I believe, a German university in the late 19th and early 20th century. He's pretty up-front about the fact that fairly little was known in his day (prior to modern high-tech analysis) definitively about old painting techniques. The written documentation is sparse and often hard to interpret. But he uses the results of many experiments in technique which he and his students had conducted over the decades and bases his theories on what seems to have reproduced the effects of old-master paintings.

Incidently, the use of egg tempera in at least some areas of 'oil' paintings continued at least into the era of Van Dyke. Modern chemical analysis makes it clear that certain color effects, presumably unobtainable with the oil paints of his time, were managed by careful insertion of egg-tempera passages.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 2, 2006 9:58 AM

Friedrich -- Thanks for the additional information. So the idea of "mixed media" isn't so very new.

Remaining is the question of where Sloan got the notion about heavy impasto from egg tempera. As for me, it's too trivial to dig it out. Besides, it led to some of Sloan's worst work; other artists seemed to have ignored the idea, so any impact on 20th century painting was nearly nil.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 2, 2006 11:11 AM

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