Technique and condition
This composition is painted on medium weight white wove paper. The paper was not heavily sized with glue, to judge by its response to paint application. The predominant blue tonality could suggest at first glance that a blue paper was used, but the key compositional element, the moon, could not have been painted with the same technique, had this been the case.
The study was begun with blue washes applied to soaked paper, for the sky, water, and the steep shore on the right. Most of the sky was worked while the paper was wet. Then moon was created by washing out a neat circle in the blue paint, using clean water, and thereafter leaving this area alone, so that further working and wetting of the paper would not disturb its crisp outline. The more distant sails were worked on fairly wet paper too, and probably with the brush angled towards the paper to apply broad, even sweeps of colour, with one brush-stroke creating each sail. Quite possibly, the foreground illuminated by the brazier was washed clear of paint at a later stage, over a larger and more diffuse area. This ensured that the red paint for the firelight would show in dramatic contrast against the brown paint for the ships, which is largely painted over existing blue washes after the paper had dried. The masts nearest to the viewer, and also the nearest figures, were painted over similarly washed-clear paper, after it had dried, so that they would have a crisper outline. In this image, control of the wetness of the paper is more important to the overall effect than the selection of brush size or the degree of loading of paint on the brush. Such control can only be achieved when the artist is very familiar with the absorbency of the paper, and the way it changes and increases each time the paper has been wetted with another brush-stroke. Turner used such white linen-based papers frequently, and generally bought them in large batches.1 He would have been very familiar with the changing response of its glue-sized surface to water.
The principal blue pigment used was Prussian blue, an intensely-coloured pigment whose extremely fine particles would soak into and eventually become chemically bonded to the paper fibres, if it were not washed off very soon after application. In the sky a different and slightly redder blue pigment was also used: either smalt or ultramarine. Turner used both of these in oil as well as watercolour, using in both cases varieties with gritty, and intensely-coloured particles, of large dimensions never yet discovered in works by his contemporaries. The contrast in texture was surely deliberate here. The other pigments used are those typically found in his watercolours at this time: vermilion, brown earth pigments, a purplish-toned earth pigment that he used in selected works, and at least one yellow, probably yellow ochre. All of these are somewhat fine-grained, though not as much as the Prussian blue.
Modern papers have size applied throughout the thickness of the paper, and are made from cotton fibres instead of linen. The first brush-stroke on such a paper would ‘feel’ like one of Turner’s later brush-strokes on this sheet, when much of the glue size had been moved around or washed off by earlier wetting. Modern pigments are generally ground finer than Turner's pigments were, for all colours. Thus the techniques and materials used here lend themselves to copying and reconstructions with modern materials, more than is often the case with Turner’s watercolours. The painting process for a moonlit scene like this, with intensely contrasting light and dark areas, has been reconstructed, illustrated and described by contemporary artist Tony Smibert.2
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