Joseph Mallord William TurnerThe Scarlet Sunset c.1830-40

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Artwork details

The Scarlet Sunset
Date c.1830-40
MediumWatercolour and gouache on paper
Dimensionssupport: 134 x 189 mm
Acquisition Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLIX 101
View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Technique and condition

This composition is painted with a limited range of colours, arranged to give strong contrasts between primary colours. It also incorporates the pale blue wove paper so that it makes a significant contribution to the image. Artists who try to copy a Turner watercolour in order to understand his methods often seem to be drawn to this work, and a description of one way to go about it, using modern materials, has recently been published.1
Turner quite often used blue paper, especially at this period. It was usually of medium or heavy weight, made predominantly from linen fibres, and like all his papers it was prepared by the manufacturer with an animal glue size on both sides. This was done by dipping it in a gelatine-based solution when the paper was first made and dried, and it makes the paper fairly non-absorbent. Soaking it in water before painting would have washed out this size and made the paper extremely absorbent. Assuming it was not pre-soaked, the first brush-load of watercolour paint on this paper would dry with a fairly hard edge. A brush-stroke painted on top would begin to dissolve the size, and the paint would spread further into the paper, and dry with a softer edge. Each successive wash would make the paper less absorbent, and cause the same brush and colour to dry differently on the paper. This gives many possibilities for a detailed subject. These contrasts in the mark made by the brush were less obvious if the paper was placed on a flat surface before painting, then damped all over with a large, flat brush full of plain water, or a wet rag, before painting. However, this was not Turner’s painting process here.
It takes some time to grow used to painting on glue-sized paper made from linen fibres. Today very few artists do, since it is difficult to obtain, in comparison to the cotton-based papers of the present day, which are sized throughout their thickness with a synthetic material, and which are absorbent from the first brush-stroke.
For the pale bluish grey paint used for the bridge and buildings, Turner used lead white and a little natural ultramarine, painted onto dry paper and left to dry. This paint conceals the paper colour, but all the later washes are transparent, and allow the blue to shine through. In the gaps between washes, the paper acts as a blue tone in the composition. For the sunset, Turner used vermilion and chrome yellow. The red and yellow washes overlap only in the water, which has a fuzzy reflection of the pure yellow sun, itself painted into a reserve deliberately in the red paint of the sunset, and overlapping some red paint. This would be successful only with very opaque pigments such as these. The spit of land on the left has details in warm brown ochre applied over the same yellow paint used elsewhere, applied over thin washes of the same red used elsewhere. It would be possible to create many versions of this composition, with different brown ochre marks to represent figures, buildings and boats. The most difficult part would be to create the yellow reflection in the water, in one assured brush-stroke.
Another description of painting The Scarlet Sunset is given by watercolour artist Charlotte Caspers,2 who used small amounts of Turner’s studio materials to create three copies designed for trying out non-contact analytical techniques at Tate. She used Prussian blue and chrome yellow from the studio materials, as well as vermilion, Indian red, burnt umber and yellow ochre from a Reeves watercolour box from the 1860s, which included original blocks of colour, and modern zinc white. (This last was substituted for the lead white which Turner used, for reasons of health and safety. Lead white is very poisonous.) Her description of the first version included: pre-wetting of the paper with a brush made from squirrel hair, followed by the application of thin washes of chrome yellow and vermilion; a purplish wash as applied next on the still humid paper, to indicate the buildings in the background. Then bright and yellow areas were painted next for sky and water, while the area for the sun was reserved unpainted. Some of the buildings in the distance were reinforced a little, and the horses and cart were painted in burnt umber. The sun and its reflection were added last in a more opaque paint consisting of chrome yellow and zinc white.
For the second version, the working order and pigments used were similar, except that the tone for the buildings in the background was applied first. A thin purplish wash was applied first, followed by the somewhat brighter red and yellow washes, avoiding these buildings. An extra pigment was used: Indian red, added to the warm browns. It appears that Turner painted quite roughly and daringly in the sky, however there are a lot of soft transitions present in the sky and water and in this reconstruction attempts were made to capture them.
In the third version a different pigment was used for the initial red washes, and instead of vermilion the initial red and pink washes were executed in Indian red. Vermilion was used for the red highlights only. Special care was taken to copy the way Turner organized the clouds and their reflections. Also the ‘paint texture’ was copied carefully: soft transitions, more opaque and rough highlights and ‘beaded’ paint probably applied with quite a dry brush. Thanks to the experience gained while painting the other two reconstructions, this was the most successful one in her judgement.
The different sequences of working all gave rise to a composition which could legitimately be described as a realistic reconstruction of Turner’s working processes. He himself had a large repertoire of techniques at his disposal, and did not follow the same sequence of painting in different works.

Joyce Townsend
March 2011

Nicola Moorby and Ian Warrell eds., How to Paint like Turner, London 2010, pp.116–19.
Charlotte Caspers, ‘Reconstructing 19th-Century British Watercolour Paint’, unpublished thesis for postgraduate course in conservation of easel paintings with specialisation in ‘Historical Reconstructions and Painting Techniques’, Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg (SRAL), Maastricht 2008, pp.151–2.

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