Technique and condition

Patrick Caulfield was interviewed by Tom Learner and Jo Crook in November 1998 as research for a chapter in their book The impact of Modern Paints, published by the Tate Gallery in 2000. Several insights were gained into his techniques in the early sixties. They may or may not apply directly to this painting, but observation of the work would tend to confirm much of what he recounted.

Caulfield had particular reasons for selecting hardboard as a support. He said, 'I used to paint on hardboard because it was cheap and I thought an anonymous surface, the nearest equivalent to a wall... I used to nail these bits of hardboard to wooden battens, that's one of the crudest elements of the work I did at the time'. The nails are visible in the front of Still Life with Dagger and are an integral part of the work, as they now lie beneath the paint film. The inner frame battens are held on by these nails.

The hardboard was prepared by sanding. 'I did sand it, not very thoroughly, it was roughly sanded, then I primed it. I would have washed it or brushed it off.' Although the painting looks glossy and flat from certain angles, in raking light there is evidence of the scoring of the surface of the hardboard, before the priming was applied. There are numerous complex scratch patterns visible in raking light. There are traces of debris within the paint layer and these could be the residue of this preparation procedure. There are broad brushmarks visible in the surface which seem to emanate from the priming. Caulfield said, 'I prepared the surface of the board as you might a door, with commercial undercoat'.

The design is very clear cut and precise. He had several techniques for transferring the image to the primed surface. 'I might have squared [the image] up or I might have done a tracing. I never projected anything. I drew onto the hardboard and just transferred it visually [and] fairly freely, making corrections until I got it'. Although there are traces of drawing, Caulfield took great pains to cover it up, 'I wouldn't have wanted them to have been very evident, or evident at all'.

Apparently the painting process took place with the hardboard flat to prevent the fluid gloss paint running and dripping. His choice of alkyd housepaint was " aesthetic decision, not anything to do with the technique. I wanted a very impersonal surface, I didn't want any obvious brushstroke work that was visible. It was more like a sign-painter's technique... Basically I would have been after a uniform effect. I wasn't into under-painting. For me that was a Post-Impressionist hangover'. The fact that it was painted flat would explain some of the strange pooling effects which appear in the jug for example.

According to TL and JC Caulfield's order of painting was similar for all his early works. 'I would have drawn the whole thing in black lines and then filled them in with colour, but then I would have to go over it again and touch it up. I was continually touching them up, I never got them accurate at the first go'. Brush marks are evident in raking light and seem to follow the shapes mapped out in red supporting the idea of his filling in the black lines and touching up afterwards. The glossy surface of the alkyd paint is not coated with any form of varnish and is generally quite susceptible to abrasions and scratches.

Rica Jones and Annette King
June 1999