Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Some observations on the technique of Thomas Moran

Thomas Moran 1837-1926 The Cliffs of the Green River

I was visiting the Amon Carter museum in Fort Worth-Dallas last week and saw a wonderful show of Hudson River school paintings. The painting that really caught me was a Thomas Moran. Here are some things that I noticed about the painting that I DID see.
  • The painting only appeared to be "tight". On closer examination it was broadly painted, more so than I would expect from a Hudson River guy, although he was of the second phalanx, the Luminists.
  • Portions of the painting appeared to have been done with a knife. Particularly this was evident in the cliffs and rocks (the painting I saw was of the Green River cliffs).
  • There seemed to be an enormous amount of oil in his paint. It appeared to me that the paint went down much thinner and oilier than that we get out of a tube today. It almost looked as if he may have mixed his tints in little cups beforehand. I am guessing at that of course. But the paint was really flatted like a great deal of oil causes.
  • Their were little figures riding along one side of the painting and they had been reduced to their simplest shapes. the heads were just ovals of flat color. From a distance they worked very well. up close, there was nothing there.
  • I was surprised by how much of the painting looked as if it could have been done in earth colors and chromium oxide rather than cadmiums although they were there too. Still for such extravagant color effects I would have supposed a brighter palette. So many 19th century painters seemed to have worked in a few earth colors and then decorated their pictures with a few bright cadmium notes.
  • The foliage looked to have been mostly painted with a knife and had little details of leaves added with a fine sable. Again it was very broad when observed closely.
  • Moran made lots of pencil drawings on several trips to the west, and then painted from them back in New York for the rest of his career. But rather than this being a disadvantage to him, it worked in his favor. He was free to install color as he pleased. He did a lot of watercolor sketches too, and I think he relied on those and some color annotations on the sides of his drawings to color his paintings in the studio.
  • His color was influenced by the sunsets and brilliant effects he invented, That allowed him to paint great passages in yellows and reds that would have been much more ordinary if painted on site from observation.
  • This distancing from the actual subject also freed him up to install layered steps back into the painting. The unit above has that. He is continually silhouetting a dark passage in the fore or middle ground against a brightly lit passage behind it. He was making visual poetry rather than a journalistic accounting of what was actually sitting before him.


Brady said...

Is this the one?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I did find an image of that finally. I then changed out the one on the post. It still doesn't show the detail that I was observing.

Libby Fife said...

Thanks for the mention of this particular artist and the rundown of what you saw. I like the idea of the cad colors as accents against the more earthy colors. I am not sure I would have picked that out so easily.

Lori said...

Stape, I saw a similar Moran while in Scottsdale. It was the showpiece for the Scottsdale Art Auction. The canvas showed absolutely no cracking - very smooth paint application.

Thanks for informing about the pencil and watercolor on site studies. Now I don't feel so lazy. ;-)

Sounds like you had a marvelous trip!

Philip Koch said...

Good post Stape! Especially liked your comments on Moran using his pencil drawings and watrercolor studies as sources back in his studio.

On site plein air painting has the great advantage of giving the artist zillions of surprises, and remarkable compositional ideas no one would ever have been able to "think up." At its best it's a mind blowingly beautiful way to make paintings.

On the other hand, sometimes reality's natural colors inhibit the artist's choices. So to with the ability to radically move things around. When you're looking at a real landscape before you it can make you too consrvative.

We sometimes forget in the glare of the Impressionist movement's immense popularity, that their practice of doing lots of plein air work hasn't alway been the practice of so many artists we admire. That includes all the Hudson River School oil landscaps for example.

I think a painter today would do well to do a ton of plein air work. It just teaches one so much. But aso try working in the studio from studies, Some will be at their best with one method, other with the other.

Jesse said...

In the Hudson River paintings that I have seen in person, I've notice the same things. The SAM has a few Church's that are very nice. From 8 feet, it looks like he has painted every leaf. From 6 inches there is a broad mass of tone, with loose abstraction of detail, it looks like with a rigger of some sort.

One thing I noticed about the figures that appear in Hudson River paintings: although they are very simply done, they are invariably clunky. They look more like a doll will fixed movement in the limbs. I think someone like NC Wyeth could have schooled them in the art of the figure to a better result.

Thomas Kitts said...


Tho. Moran is one of my favorite American artists, and one who became important to me personally as a landscape painter during the '90s. I spent a lot of time studying his process from some originals I had access to during that decade.

While you are quite correct in your assumption that Moran used a lot of oil in his paint, he also used a fair amount of varnish (Likely a copal or amber) in his medium to set the fine striation of his brushstrokes. And it is that striation -- meaning, the way he applied it to his advantage -- that lends a sense of loose but natural detail to his passages.

He also would applied thick passages of lead white with a palette knife (as you point out) and then let it partially dry before striking some of it off, or flattening it with a knife again. And then he would glaze over that area with a dark earth color, and wipe it off, to create that crevice-like effect his rocks.

TM wasn't as much a direct-painter as you and I may be, but he would combined direct effects with multi-session techniques to accomplish his goals. Some of which, in the end, ran counter to the longevity of his work. (see below)

He was also known to use a fair amount of zinc and lead white, and their weaker tinting strength allowed for the thin gray veils he liked to use to transition from his foregrounds into the distance, and in his dramatic cloudscapes. An ethereal effect which is difficult to mimic with modern titanium.

Tho. Moran did far more than sketch in the field. He executed many detailed watercolors and oils en plein air that most of us today would consider finished pieces, and yes, refer back to them back in his studio with a sense of heightened exaggeration. (Moran and Church and Bierstadt often depicted mountains as high as 40,000 feet or more, a chunk of rock geologists inform us would break through the earth's crust and drop into the mantle.)

We have Tho. Moran to thank for Yellowstone, for it was his work from an expedition there in 1871 that convinced Congress and the east coast public to set aside the area as our first National Park.

One final thing to appreciate about TM is that the present condition of his work (and I have seen around 400 of his studies and paintings altogether) is largely due to the fact they have been meticulously restored, as many of his paintings began to disintegrate during the '20s (He died in 1926, honored, but not in much in demand anymore as the art world had moved on to other things.) Not a bad thing, per se, but certainly a testament to his experimentation.

In fact, you could have picked up a decent, easel-sized TM, before restoration, during the late '40s for about $25 a painting because his art had fallen so out of favor. Not so now.

That would have been nice, eh?

Thomas Kitts

Thalia Kahl said...

I wish I could see some the detail that you mentioned in your post. You can certainly see the luminosity of light in this painting. And the previous post from Thomas Kitt is a font of information regarding his methods of painting which reinforces all your observations. I particulary enjoyed the fact that he did pencil drawings and watercolor studies then went back to the studio to paint his oils. Thanks for sharing to both of you.

Thomas Kitts said...

Here are a couple of large scans, although not as large as some that are being done for better known artists.,_1900,_by_Thomas_Moran_-_SAAM_-_DSC00847.JPG

Thomas Kitts said...

This is the one I was looking for. Early for Moran, but shows his paint handling nicely in a close up:


Thomas (not the 'Moran')

Stapleton Kearns said...

Remember I am guessing, He may have only had chrome yellow and vermilion. I am going to do some more research and will return to Mr. Moran.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks, I had a great and productive trip, but it was long in distance and time.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I too think painters should balance both studio work and plein air studies.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I can't imagine NC Wyeth teaching the luminists, but I will ponder that!

Stapleton Kearns said...

You are the hero tonight! Thanks for all of the information. I have ordered every book on Moran that Amazon had and intend to study him a bit more. There are lots of applications to resolving some of the stuff I started at Big Bend.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The repro doesn't give an idea of the surface and the illusionistic hinting that he does so well.Perhaps your local museum has one you c an go see in the flesh.