Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Menzel's Technique

Traveling in beautiful nature. 1892. Gouache.
[11 x 15 in.] Neumeister Auction House (NAH)

Menzel's friend Paul Friedrich Meyerheim observed that Menzel’s technique was always different from other artists of his time. 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 Festival of the White Rose 1829. The tournament begins.
Gouache. 1854. 44.0 x 58.0 cm. [17.3 x 22.8 in.] NAH 
Some of his most ambitious gouache paintings were commissioned as a gift set to commemorate the visit to Berlin of Alexandra Feodorovna, the spouse of Russian Emperor Nicholas II. 

The Festival of the White Rose was an elaborate and highly romanticized public spectacle that enchanted aristocratic society. Menzel presents the complex panoramas as seen through extravagant framing devices. 

The whole 3D illusion is painted in gouache. The book has 10 color plates from this Festival of the White Rose series, all reproduced for the first time. 

Standing elderly man, half-nude, seen from behind, 1894.
Pencil on paper. 28.5 x 41.0 cm. [11.2 x 16.1 in.] KK 
For the last ten years of his life, Menzel used only the pencil and the stump, which is a leather-coated or wrapped paper wiping stick used to soften or blend the strokes that were first laid down with the pencil. 

Menzel advised the son of a friend to “use the stump to correctly establish the shadows, after which one has to draw as necessary into the softened shadows.”

Woman with a dead bird in her raised hand, half-figure to the left.
1881–1882. Pencil on paper. 7.7 x 5 in. KK. © bpk/ Kupferstichkabinett
Many unfinished drawings show this base layer of blurry tones over which a gravelly texture was directly applied with the pencil tip. His final drawings are often dominated by stump work, which lends them a hazy, atmospheric quality, like figures emerging from smoke. 

In his pencil drawings, Menzel seemed to give little attention to the composition on the page. Images run off the edges of the page. Figures appear in fragmentary form, with parts of the pose redrawn whenever they could be improved. If a part of his own drawing displeased him, he ruthlessly crossed it out.

All the images in this post are included in the new book Adolph Menzel: Drawings and Paintings. The book contains 130 images, including 32 pages of color.

The book is available now signed from my website. Here's the link if you'd like to order a signed copy (I can ship to addresses in the USA only, because of the high shipping rates overseas, sorry).

I've been packing and mailing lots of your orders. Amazon doesn't release the book until August 17.

Adolph Menzel: Drawings and Paintings signed copies from


Jim Douglas said...

Since Menzel drew constantly and lived 90 years, is it possible he drew more than any other person in history? This may be a trivial point, but I would love to know what lessons Menzel continued to learn after literally making tens of thousands of drawings and paintings. I assume even he couldn't exhaust Nature's teaching.

leifpeng said...

"He used children’s watercolor pigments, exhausted bristle brushes, and a palette made from a toothpaste dish." Incredible. If anything is a testament to a true artist's abilities, it's that he or she needs only the most rudimentary of materials to make something beautiful. Thanks Jim - a terrific post about an artist I was unaware of.

Unknown said...
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Steve said...

Jim's comment reminds me of the famous quotation attributed to the Japanese master, Hokusai:

“From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I'll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign my self 'The Old Man Mad About Drawing.”

Meanwhile, I'll be scouring eBay, searching for 19th century toothpaste dishes.

Mario said...

“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". So true. That's why I love gouache so much, the paint is drenched with color (I hope that makes sense in english). But I don't understand how he could achieve such soft and subtle gradations (in the flesh of the lady, for example), especially with "exhausted bristle brushes". Maybe he smeared with his fingers (but gouache doesn't like finger grease)? Or maybe he put some pastel touches on top of gouache? This leads to another question: do you think the gouache used in XIX century was the same we use today, with gum arabic as binder?

Unknown said...

Hello James.

So this book is not just a book full of Pictures?

There are also some Storys included, like you wrote in this post?

Would be very interesting for me.

Best regards

James Gurney said...

Patrick, I wrote the Introduction for the book, and the recent posts have all been excerpted from that introduction. There's more in there that I haven't excerpted. But it's not a long intro. We also have another essay by Menzel expert Claude Keisch about Menzel's studio. But still the book is mostly pictures.

Drake Gomez said...

James, thank you for writing this book. It's high time more people learned about Menzel and his exquisite drawings. I have one question: you say Menzel used only the pencil and the stump in the last years of his life. What kind of pencil did he use? From the looks of the drawings, I'd guess charcoal rather than graphite. I ask because if it is graphite, I'm surprised that he'd emphasize the stump. In my experience, blending graphite tends to result in a fussy quality that denies the beauty of the mark on the paper. Your thoughts?

James Gurney said...

Drake, he used a carpenter's graphite pencil, inspired by what he saw them using in the factories. I know what you mean about the smudgy qualities. That's the way it looks when I try it, but it worked for Menzel.

Peter Drubetskoy said...

According to the Wikipedia page, he was mostly an autodidact ("In 1833, he studied briefly at the Berlin Academy of Art, where he drew from plaster casts and ancient sculptures; thereafter Menzel was self-taught") which, besides being incredible given the level of his mastery, might add to the explaination of why his output looks so much different from everybody else's.
One small point I want to add: in the States, I have heard many pronounce his name as MENZEL - which Z sounding as in Zebra; I used to do so myself, until corrected that it should be properly pronounces MENTZEL with TZ as in "TZar".