Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Andrew Wyeth’s Techniques in 1942

Andrew Wyeth, The Coot Hunter, 1941
In 1942 American Artist Magazine introduced the 25-year-old Andrew Wyeth as “One of America’s Youngest and Most Talented Painters." The article describes his painting methods, providing a valuable document, because Wyeth was mysterious about his technique in later years. Here is an excerpt:

Watercolor technique
"He works on a medium rough watercolor paper which he has made up in blocks (22x30 in). He objects to stretched paper, says he believes it loses its capacity for brilliant effects. All his painting is done with three sable brushes, Nos. 5, 10 and 15. The never uses those broad flat brushes so many artists employ for large, covering washes.

Andrew Wyeth’s palette and the three brushes
with which he paints all his watercolors.
"In view of the gusto with which Wyeth works, one is surprised to see such a small palette in his hand, especially since in his rapid painting he must require a quantity of “runny” washes on short order.

"In beginning a watercolor Wyeth very rapidly lays in the large masses in their approximate colors, but without detail definition. This may or may not have been preceded by a slight pencil indication.
Wyeth often makes rapid ink sketches like this,
on the spot, and then does the watercolor in his studio.

"Thus the paper is entirely covered in the first few moments, except for white areas which are untouched by the brush—Wyeth never uses white body color. Occasionally white, or near white, is obtained by a heavy stroke of the brush-handle in a still-wet wash.

"Working back into the wet areas he develops his picture, pulling definition out of the blurred color masses, working all over the picture while it is still moist.

"The technic of watercolor—that is, in the fluid method—presupposes rapid and skillful execution. Yet working within the limitations of its properties some artists proceed with a degree of deliberation. It is quite possible, technically,—and without sacrificing freshness—to work on a picture over a considerable period, even to come back to it the next day. Many artists spend at least two or three hours on a picture. Wyeth’s practice is to skim off the white heat of his emotion and compress it into a half hour of inspired brush work. He is the first to admit the presumption of this kind of attack, and is ready to confess that it fails more often than it succeeds.

Andrew Wyeth, Pennsylvania Landscape, egg tempera on board, 1942, 35x47 inches
Egg Tempera Technique
"Mindful of the dangers inherent in practiced facility with his watercolor brushes he has put them away in moth balls for a season and, during the past year, has been devoting himself to tempera painting, employing a technic that imposes strict disciplines.

"In his temperas Wyeth’s objective is to cover up his brush strokes and obtain a sense of freedom through pattern rather than technic. He paints these pictures with a single sable brush not over 3/4 of an inch long.

"These are done on Masonite upon which three coats of whiting mixed with casein glue are applied as a ground. The pulverized glue is heated, in water, in a double boiler. Wyeth sandpapers the final coat to a very smooth finish. The panel is made rigid by a framework attached to the back. He paints with dry colors mixed on his palette, as he works, with distilled water and egg yolk.

"His procedure is to make a monochrome underpainting in black ink. The colors, applied over this black and white, have a quality of weight and depth preferred to the result of direct painting in color. This is in accordance with the traditional method of old masters who used this medium.

"This turning from the freedom of watercolor to the exactions of tempera illustrates the intelligent purpose of a young artist in seeking strength and breadth as foundation for the work he hopes to do later on. Through his tempera paintings he is acquiring the habit of accuracy and is seeking an intimacy with nature which he feels he cannot attain with his watercolor brush alone. Thus fortified he believes his watercolors, though painted in a burst of enthusiasm, are more likely to be informed and interesting in every detail.

"‘Too often,’ he says, ‘a watercolor appeals solely by virtue of tricks and fortuitous beauties inherent in the medium itself. My aim is to make every part of the picture alive, interesting.’

"The casual observer, turning from Andrew Wyeth’s impulsive watercolors to his tempera paintings, executed in the spirit of old master craftsmanship, might well be puzzled. They appear in temperament as well as in technic like the work of two separate individuals. They are, in the sense that the well-rounded man is a different man at different times, as he takes devious directions to arrive at a goal that cannot be approached by a single paths. Only the artists himself can see the map whereon those divergent paths finally meet in the ground strategy of a single purpose.

"We shall watch for the meeting of those paths in the work of Andrew Wyeth."
Excerpted from "Andrew Wyeth, One of America’s Youngest and Most Talented Painters," American Artist Magazine, 1942.
You can also get vintage copies of American Artist Magazine online.


Steven James Petruccio said...
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Steven James Petruccio said...

The thing that first drew me to Wyeth was his father N.C.. I was totally into N.C.'s work because I was an illustration major at SVA. I knew that he had created some murals for the Met Life building which was few blocks away from the school so I went to see them. I discovered that N.C. was in the process of completing two more large paintings for Met Life at the time of his death and that his son, Andrew had completed them instead. Those paintings hung in the lobby...and so began my interest in Andrew Wyeth. What impressed me about his work was the ease with which he moved from flourish of washy watercolor to meticulous detail in tempera. I've always felt that the subject dictated the medium. While studying illustration I moved from pencil to ink to paint - from comic book style to realism - but instructors always emphasized the need to develop a singular look which would make art directors know exactly what they were commissioning in terms of style. So in my fine art work I continued to sketch in pencil and charcoal and paint in watercolor or acrylic on board as I felt the need. Wyeth was a technical master using both media (in addition to his awesome pencil drawings) and I've always taken advantage of the opportunities to view his originals...much different than seeing them in reproductions. I actually have a copy of this 1942 issue of American Artist magazine and when you see the original paintings you really understand the explanation of technique described in the article.

Staffan Alsparr said...

Thanks for posting this, James! Very interesting to see the differences in the two approaches, like the author said, almost like two separate individuals. Way too often I find myself trying to box myself into finding the one perfect process that should always work, that I should always follow, when really I want to do different things depending on my mood. Seeing this makes it clear that you don't have to specialize in that way, Wyeth shows that one can embrace all the seemingly contradictory parts of oneself and let them develop together, perhaps they even help each other grow.

Glenn Tait said...

Wyeth's granddaughter said there were two sides to him. "Andy" who did the watercolours and "Andrew" who did the tempera paintings.

There is one video of Wyeth painting a portrait of Tom Hoving. It doesn't show much in terms of technique but Hoving does add some insights into Wyeth's approach to portrait painting as well as seeing a bit of Wyeth the man.


Jared Cullum said...

I love this statement:
"...to skim off the white heat of his emotion and compress it into a half hour of inspired brush work."
This is really fascinating. I was just googling Wyeth, Turner, Homer and Sargeant's watercolor palettes out of curiosity but I didn't see this picture. Just the one of him with his gear on the hood of a car.
The A. Wyeth watercolor exhibit in DC that ran a while ago was really breath-taking to see up close. I regret only making it up once to see it. One thing that struck me was that there were a lot of white highlight areas that were comprised of tiny tears that I assume he was raking away with a razor or palette knife. That seems insanely brave to me. Maybe that is a common watercolor practice and I'm too novice to know. It looked beautiful. I've seen Joseph Zbucvick (sp?)use his fingernail for a similar effect in demonstration.
The intensity of his process reminded me of how Sargeat was described doing watercolors in a biography I read about him that said he would curse and mutter under his breathe about how it was failing or working and failing and working over and over until he was done.

ZERESHK said...

Hi. Thank you Mr Gurney I love learning about techniques.Would you please consider writing about Albert Bierstadt's painting technique? I couldn't find any decent post for it.

P said...

I hope you will write more posts on Andrew Wyeth. I would be very interested. He was a revelation to me when I first discovered him. His way of seeing the world resonated strongly with something in my melancholy soul as a young man. But his technique was a mystery to me. I only new of watercolors in pans, and I could not make them do anything like what he did. Though i now know of tubecolors, it is still a mystery. He also seems to go against most other watercolor painters in that he is not afraid of using a lot of black. Since this article he developed a kind of technique he calls drybrush. How does he do that? I have never seen his originals but only reproductions in books.

Unknown said...

Thank you Jim for this article and to Petruccio for your personal Wyeth experiences. Every painter should see Wyeth originals their surfaces are seductive. I have enjoyed all three generations of Wyeth painters. Though I have to add that I was appalled when I saw Andrew'S "Helga" exhibit. My thought was HOW COULD HE (Andrew), allow everyone to see his "working" drawings filled with errors! I was horrified. Years later I told to my painting students do not be fearful of making errors, sometimes making mistakes is only way we remember NOT to do "that" again. And, to take a look at Andrew Wyeth'S "Helga" series for validation. Amazing how much more relaxed students became after seeing those works. Andrew Wyeth will continue to inspire artists, especially with Gurney'S great blog writings.

Unknown said...

Great post. I've read an account, must be later in his life, where the author said he took a wide flat brush and in a second, by turning it on its side, made a perfect vertical line. In the book The Two World's of Andrew Wyeth he talks a bit about his technique and in the biography of his life there are bits and pieces. At the end of the biography it mentions he was continuing to experiment and that he had been painting casein white then painting transparent watercolor over it. The only reason I can find is to either change a passage or because the applied white was lighter than the paper.

Again, love the post.

Byron Weber said...

Good and informative as the post is, I'd like to point out that Wyeth emphasized painting for him was all about "drawing." I take it, also as evidenced by his quick ink sketches, that establishing values as one does with a pencil dictates the dynamics of his painting and color played a secondary role. He sort of had the skill of the adobe ps threshold adjustment to define dark and light. This is totally contrary to the formalized watercolor technique of working light to dark to build values. In my humble opinion, that is what separated him from the rest of us less than genius watercolor artists.