Joseph Mallord William Turner

Shields, on the River Tyne


Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 154 × 216 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCVIII V

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.

Helen Evans
October 2008

Revised by Joyce Townsend
March 2011

Peter Bower, Turner’s Papers: A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and Use of his Drawing Papers 1787–1820, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990.
Nicola Moorby and Ian Warrell eds., How to Paint like Turner, London 2010, pp.130–3.

Catalogue entry


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