Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Frederic Church's Oil Sketches

The largest collection of outdoor paintings by Frederic Church (1826-1900) is held by the Cooper Hewitt museum in New York City. They acquired about 2000 of them back in 1917 when Church's son, Louis Palmer Church, was cleaning out the attic.
Frederic Church, Palm Trees and Housetops, Ecuador, May 1857, Cooper Hewitt
Church's field studies are notable for their precision, delicacy, and uber-photographic clarity. He made them not to sell, but as references for his epic studio canvases.

Frederic Church Trees with Vines, Jamaica, 1865, Cooper Hewitt
Church's field studies were painted on paperboard, and are fairly small. This tree study is just 9 x 12.


As finicky and precise as these paintings look, they are painted very efficiently. The sun and clouds moved through the sky as fast for Church as they do for us! 

The paint is applied thinly over a graphite preliminary drawing. Sometimes the drawing is visible through the paint. 

This unfinished sketch of Jerusalem from 1868 shows how he covered the pencil drawing in an "area-by-area" method, thinly, from top to bottom. 


Because of the way oil paint can retain its brush character when it is scrubbed on, he suggests a lot of detail with a bristle brush. The foreground trees seem to have their full complement of leaves, but the light leaf textures are the light-toned board showing through. The line of trees at the bottom probably went down in a matter of seconds.

Find out more
• The Cooper Hewitt is currently exhibiting some of the sketches at the Metropolitan Museum through a special arrangement, since the Met doesn't own any of his studies.
• Currently there are a few of his paintings at an exhibition "Passion for the Exotic" at the Cooper Hewitt, which is on the upper east side of Manhattan.
• There's a book: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch (National Gallery London)
• You can survey the sketches online at the Cooper Hewitt's Frederic Church Sketch Collection. They deserve credit for making the images available to students and scholars. 

10 comments:

Melle Ferre said...

Thank you for this post! It's inspiring and really interesting to see the technique.

ANDROID said...

Does the oil paint deteriorate the paper board over time if there is no layer of gesso?

Patrick Irwin said...

I notice in your instructional videos you work thinly and build the overall value structure before rendering details. Are there times when window painting is more efficient?
Or is it a technique that requires more experience to achieve proper chroma and value balance in a short period?
When I try to finish one area of a painting at a time I encounter great difficulty in matching colors. On that note do you have any tips for remembering/documenting paint proportions for accurate remixing of colors used in a part of the painting that might have been finished during a previous painting session?

Steve said...

These are wonderful. Thank you for posting them. Mind-boggling to contemplate 2000 in the collection. When I was a University of Michigan student int he late 60's, I was fortunate to have two History of Art classes with David Huntington. He was passionate and deeply knowledgeable about Church. He sent many Church appreciators out into the world. He also spearheaded the campaign to preserve Church's estate, Olana.

I'm prepared to be the only one who sees this, but I feel the photo of Church (by Matthew Brady) in the Wikipedia entry bears a resemblance to a younger James Gurney. Add mutton chops, a wave in the hair...

Gavin said...

I've seen a number of old paintings (at least 100 years old) that have been sketched incredibly thinly and do not seem to suffer for it. I have also seen finished works, sometimes with reasonable heavy strokes, where it's evident some layers have faded revealing drawing or other elements beneath.

Is it simply a case of the permanence of the oil paint used that determines how well certain paintings have stood the test of time?

If I could lay a line of trees down in a few minutes like Church, I'd be a happy man!
Nice post.

James Gurney said...

Steve, you were lucky to have him for a teacher. I never saw that photo of Church before. Hard for me to say if there's a resemblance, but maybe I'll need to grow mutton chops.

Gavin, the lightfastness and stability of the paint is a factor on how paintings last, but also the support and ground and the whole combination. Thin paint on its own should not be a problem.

Android, I kind of wondered the same thing and am trying to find out more about how the Hudson River guys prepared their paper and paperboard for oil studies.

Patrick, window shading (or "area-by-area painting") works best for me when I've got a pretty solid plan for the composition and values—or I'm working on location— so I know exactly where I'm going. To match previous paint patches that have dried, you might try retouch varnish. I generally don't mix batches of paint in any recipe or system, just mix as I go.

Melle, glad you enjoyed it.

ANDROID said...

Perhaps when the paint is applied thinly on thick board the linseed oil cures fast enough it doesn't have much time to penetrate the board? Or maybe they sprayed something over their pencil drawings. Or maybe they just didn't care and we're lucky enough that nothing happened.

seadit said...

Great post James, thank you! Church was an amazing artist. The thought of traveling as much as he did back then to such diverse locations and environments, and painting plein air to boot is beyond impressive. I'm sure he inspired numerous artists including modern adventure photographers (whether they know the history or not!).

Also, the Cooper Hewitt Collection is extensive and a wonderful resource for inspiration and understanding his approach and methods - thanks for the link!

I agree with Steve - you do bear a resemblance to Church :)

Steven Thor Johanneson said...

If you don't place a barrier layer (size; acrylic gesso; etc.) between the paper and the oil paint layer, the paper will deteriorate, sooner rather than later. Therefore Church's oil sketches on paper will have some sort of barrier layer coating the paper before he applied the oil; he is too much of a good craftsman not to have done, and the very fact that his oil sketches still exist, and in such good condition, is the proof.

ANDROID said...

He must have applied the gesso as he went section by section