Sunday, March 19, 2017

Menzel's Painting Mediums

"Traveling in beautiful nature" by Adolph Menzel, gouache, 11x15 inches
A question came in: "James Gurney, can you tell us what medium(s) Adolph Menzel used when he painted?"

He used them all: oil, gouache, watercolor, and pastel. His friend Paul Meyerheim observed that Menzel’s technique was always different from other artists of his time because he was not a product of the academy.

Painting in oils did not come easily for him, and he didn’t care very much for technical finesse. He used children’s watercolor pigments, exhausted bristle brushes, and a palette made from a toothpaste dish. After 1887 he declared that he would retire his oils in favor of gouache. He felt gouache was more suited to capturing certain natural effects. 

According to Meyerheim, “It didn’t appear right to him to present dry stone, a sandy path, or a woolen sheep as if all of those things had been drenched in oil and varnish. . . . He expressed his greatest truths in pastels, watercolors, and gouache.”
The painting above appears in color in my recent book Adolph Menzel: Drawings and Paintings, and my answer is adapted from my introduction.


Susan Krzywicki said...

Given that he used materials that were casually acquired, has his work suffered any changes with age that can be traced back to the actual quality of the paints?

I'd always been taught that this is why you must use "professional" quality supplies: so that your works could stand the test of time.

Peter Drubetskoy said...

I wonder: is there in the history of art another example of a basically complete autodidact (except for less than one year in the Berlin Academy of Art) achieving such level of technical (academic) skill? There were many great autodidact artists, but in my experience one won't find them possessing and employing a very advanced academic skill. Say, Balthus - an artist with a very unique style, but not what one would call an academic one. Andrew Wyeth never studied at an art school, as far as I know, but he had his father teach him. But Menzel - looks like he got everything basically by himself, which seems very unique to me.
(except for maybe James Gurney? :-) )

Warren JB said...

"After 1887 he declared that he would retire his oils in favor of gouache. He felt gouache was more suited to capturing certain natural effects."

I have to admit, at first glance I would have assumed 'oil' for the featured painting. Aside from seeing the original, 'drenched in oil and varnish' or not, are there any telltale signs for a novice to pick up?

Peter Drubetskoy said...

In response to Warren, in a somewhat the opposite direction, even oil, when used very transparently, can look like something else. Some of James' Dinotopia illustrations look like (not-too-wet) watercolor to me.
I think holding the work in hand would probably give most of the clues needed but just looking at a reproduction - almost impossible to tell which medium was used.