This composition was executed on white wove paper, which must have been very wet for much of the painting. The later, brighter washes of blue were applied to fairly dry paper, and they formed a hard outline as they dried. The neat, blank strips on both sides and the lower edges suggest that the paper was taped down on these sides during painting, and possibly along the top as well. Here paint has seeped in, as though from an adjacent sheet on the same board. Great numbers of works in the Turner Bequest have been trimmed, possibly by Ruskin: the survival of such evidence is unusual. It is possible to work with glue-sized linen-based papers such as Turner used without restraining the sheet at all, simply by placing it on a flat surface before wetting it with brush-loads of water. The whole sheet seems to be an experiment in overlaying a limited number of washes of different colours, while controlling the wetness of the paper.
Examination at moderate magnification, up to x40, made it clear that the blue washes were painted with Prussian blue, while the red paint trails are an (unusual) mixture of vermilion and Mars red, the latter being a manufactured earth pigment that is brighter in tone than any of the natural varieties, and in regular use by Turner in oil paintings. The identifications of these materials were in fact confirmed by removed tiny samples the size of a pin-point, and placing them in the sample chamber of a scanning electron microscope, under an X-ray beam. This beam interacts with the elements that make up each pigment, and the resulting spectrum makes it possible to work out which elements are present. Since it is already known that the washes are pure colours, it is then possible to work out exactly which pigment was used in each case. Examination at moderate magnifications also revealed a purplish red earth pigment which Turner used only intermittently, and which not have been easy to obtain. Yellow ochre and a black pigment were also used.
The white reflection of the moon in the rippling water was scratched out, while a simple horizontal scratch at the point where the shore meets the water instantly creates depth in the image. Washing-out would not have given such a dramatic highlight, in either case.
How to cite
Helen Evans, 'Technique and Condition', October 2008, revised by Joyce Townsend, March 2011, in Matthew Imms, ‘A Hulk or Hulks on the River Tamar: Twilight c.1811–14 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, July 2016, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, February 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-a-hulk-or-hulks-on-the-river-tamar-twilight-r1184402, accessed 22 June 2021.