Book Review — March 2022 Edition

How Turner painted book cover

How Turner Painted Materials and Techniques

By Joyce H. Townsend

Turner pushed the boundaries of landscape painting, creating works that still inspire artists today.

 Turner was all about experimenting with his materials and tools. In the end, his paintings paid a heavy price. Cracks, whole passages of paint falling off the canvas and fading colors have left many of his works damaged and far removed from what they once were. 

Turner’s genius was in his vision and use of materials. Though the effects were fleeting, he laid a foundation for future artists to build on. Turner focused his work on depicting mood and atmosphere, many of his later works were considered “ unfinished” by the standards of the times.  However, the Impressionists and later the Abstract Expressionists would use Turner’s work as a scaffold for their own explorations with color and mood.

Seascape with storm coming

Seascape with storm coming JMW Turner

The duty to paint what he saw led Turner to experiment with color and tools, often using his fingers to push paint, fingernails to scratch and scrape paint and any number of brush types from artists’ brushes to house painters brushes.

Turner was considered a child prodigy and became a member of the Royal Academy at age 26, compare that with his contemporary, John Constable, who was admitted to the Royal academy when he was in his fifties. His profound grasp of art principles  and materials cannot be denied and he knew very well that some of the paints and methods he used were not archival. I wonder if he cared? He seemed driven to manifest his vision and he did that.

With that context in mind, I read How Turner Painted by Joyce H. Townsend, a senior conservation scientist at the Tate, London. She has written several books about Turner and this one focuses on his use of materials and techniques.

Peace Burial at Sea

Peace Burial at Sea   JMW Turner

  • “ My business is to paint what I see, not what I know is there.”

    J M W Turner

The book is divided into seven chapters each dealing with  watercolor, oil paint, varnishing and finishing, his toolkit, paints and colors of the industrial age and how the paintings fared over time. A chapter is devoted to  a demonstration in the style of Turner by the artist Tony Smibert. 


So, we start a fascinating journey into the world of a leading artist during the industrial age. 

The beginning chapter on watercolor gives us an idea of how art materials were made and acquired. Of course in modern times we simply go online or to a local store to get art supplies, a vast array of materials and tools await. But in Turner’s day everything was made by hand and paper was geared toward writing or print, not the best quality for wet media. Being handmade, each sheet had variance that had to be accommodated by the artist during the creation of the work. Therefore, Turner had a variety of gums and sizings to apply  in various circumstances as required. In order to get a sketchbook, paper was first acquired and then taken to a stationer to be bound in a book. I can’t imagine how precious the materials would be to an artist and the thought of ruining them would stop me from ever starting! But, to experiment as Turner did? It reveals supreme confidence and dedication to his vision. Which is interesting, as later in the book, in the chapter entitled “ Changes in appearance with time”  we get a brief description of Turner’s studio. Which was not well kept! The author described primed panels that were stored in the studio for several years prior to use. The primed linen layer showed signs of pollution, coal dust and mildew, all before the paint was applied!

We are also given a glimpse at how Turner used color, his constant experimentation as new colors were being produced regularly during his lifetime. We watch as his canvas moves from fully detailed landscapes to swirling atmospheres of color, light and emotion in his later work. His work was often derided in his later years as it no longer conformed to the established standard of the day. But, it is this later work that held the most interest for later generations of artists.

Turner seems to be contradictory in some ways. Giving the utmost devotion to realizing his vision, yet with little regard to the fate of his work. The use of fugitive paint, poor storage conditions and even repaired canvases from studio “ accidents” certainty contradict the fact that Turner spent practically every moment of his life engaged in producing art. 

He did, however, specify that the work in his possession be given to the National Gallery and it remains the largest donation of artwork to that institution.

This book is an insightful look into Turner’s world. Photographs of paint boxes and tools, x-radiographs and ultraviolet light photographs of paintings give us a view that is usually reserved for conservators and sheds new understanding on how they tease out the facts behind the paint.

It’s easy to forget how difficult it must have been for past generations of artists to create their masterworks. We are so enchanted by the work we forget the obstacles they routinely overcame in pursuit of the art. This book  reminds us of our artistic heritage and the duty to paint what we see.

Fishing Boats with Hucksters Bargaining for Fish

Fishing Boats with Hucksters Bargaining for Fish JMW Turner