Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Scarlet Sunset


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour and gouache on paper
Support: 134 × 189 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLIX 101

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.

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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