Whilst there exists a significant variety of style within the art of the Pre-Raphaelites, it is clear that there are common stylistic and technical threads which run throughout the entire group. This is reflected by the fact that many people are able to readily identify a work as Pre-Raphaelite, from its immediately recognizable visual properties. It is certainly true that the group shared similar ideological goals, even though they were never explicitly stated in a manifesto or treatise. I would argue that the methods employed in their paintings, from the early inception and sketching to the final varnish and finishing, were remarkably similar among the PRB. Since they all worked within regional proximity, it seems inevitable that the very materials and methods they used were closely united; indeed, they seem to have purchased their paints from the very same vendor. Their schooling at the Royal Academy would have set them up with a similar working method, despite the fact that they sought to rebel against the academy and their professors. They would have witnessed the same exhibitions at the Royal Academy, and revisited the same treasures at the National Gallery. A constant exchange of ideas within a small circle was perhaps the main reason this distinctive style emerged, and this is essential to bear in mind when examining their techniques.
One of the Pre-Raphaelite artistic concerns was to re-examine art from the period before Raphael, as is suggested in their appellation. In doing this, they firmly rejected hundreds of years of academic tradition, which had emulated Raphael and Michelangelo as the great masters. From their love of Fifteenth Century Italian art, they revived an interest in flat surface, luminous, even garish colors and simplicity of line. A painting which seems to embody this revival is Dante Gabriel RossettiÕs The Girlhood of Virgin Mary, which intentionally recalls an archaic tone in order to achieve a historicist effect. The delicate golden halo's are a motif directly derived from the art of the early Renaissance. Stylistically, the isolated blocks of chalky color, which display little gradation, recall Italian fresco. Despite the flatness, there is an extraordinary attention to detail, and it would seem that everything has been painted from life. When Hunt and Rossetti traveled the Continent, they encountered Fra Angelico's Coronation of the Virgin in the Louvre and were struck by its clear, sharp outlines and brilliant fresh colors (Barringer 36). They were also struck by early Flemish painting; Rossetti was impressed in particular by a Hans Memling triptych in the Hospital of St. John in Bruges. The Arnolfini Portait was bought by the National Gallery in 1842 and would have been readily accessible to the P.R.B, as the Royal Academy Schools were once located in Trafalgar Square (Barringer 37). This painting most likely embodies their highest technical ambition; to achieve figurative realism, which possesses an eternal freshness and vivacity of color, combined with elements of typological symbolism which meld smoothly with the painted environment.
The Role of Drawing
A solid understanding of the fundamentals of drawing was essential to the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic; their paintings always began with a pencil or graphite under-drawing, a method not dissimilar to that of the French academics. The Pre-Raphaelites made relatively few preparatory sketches in the planning of their work, but rather constructed their compositions directly onto the canvas. This required both a high degree of confidence and exceptional patience, as any errors would force them to erase and restart again and again. Since they worked directly onto the canvas there was no need for transfer methods, such as the use of a grid to transfer an image from a cartoon or sketch to the canvas (Townsend 51). Drawing played a far more direct role in painting than it had ever done before; as Elizabeth Prettejohn observes, “ some of the distinctive characteristics of the PRB drawing style, such as figural angularity and precision of detail, were adapted to become part of the group's practice in oil painting” (Prettejohn 140).
There was a more direct communication between the subject and the eye, which elucidates how they were able to achieve such a beautifully precise sense of reality. Graphite pencil was the most commonly used drawing tool (Townsend 52). The pencils (of the soft rather than hard variety) would have been very well sharpened, which becomes clear from infra red examinations of the canvas. Pencil was used for fine and careful delineation, but not for suggesting complex depth or form; they did not cross hatch in order to indicate areas of shade; excessive use of pencil would cause smudging during the painting process, which would destroy the purity of the white surface onto which they worked. Preserving the integrity of the white surface, as I shall discuss later, was absolutely essential in achieving a sense of luminosity.
John Ruskin proved to be a great source of inspiration for many of the Pre-Raphaelites, especially William Holman Hunt. His most significant contribution came with the publication of Modern Painters II, in which he expounded on the importance of the direct observation of nature. Ruskin “emphasized that the artist must betray - indeed, must experience - no sense of strain" whilst recording natural phenomena”(Werner 48). He criticized the Pre-Raphaelites for over emphasizing tiny painstakingly detailed areas, at the expense of an overall broad style and freedom of line. Ruskin himself was a brilliant draftsman. It was not uncommon for children of wealthy parents in the Victorian era to be taught drawing from an early age, and he was no exception. He made hundreds of exquisitely accurate botanical drawings, which reflected his interest in close empirical observation. He thought that a scientific knowledge and an understanding of the biological and geological principles of nature were essential in order to achieve accuracy in representation. He did not believe that the artist's duty was to replicate, but rather to combine observation with an imaginative element, combined with this understanding of nature.
As I have mentioned, the Pre-Raphaelites abandoned the well established convention of sketching in their figures using paint, opting instead to draw. This may have taken many attempts, and repeated use of a 'stump' (rolled stick of paper or skin) in order to erase completely and re-draw. We can see from infra red examinations of paintings that the paint work and underlying drawing are usually very closely united, suggesting that, if everything went as planned, there was little deviation between the underlying structure and the finished result (Townsend 53). This also suggests that they did not start painting until the entire drawing was complete and perfect; paint was used essentially to fill in' the lines. Some artists had a looser style of drawing, which was perhaps not intentional; Joyce Townsend writes of Hunt's Light of the World “ the final drawing retains evidence of initial uncertainty, perhaps because it was done in reduced light” (Townsend 53). He also observes that Millais also had a more casual approach to under-drawing as evidenced by the leaves in Autumn Leaves. Christ in the House of his Parents possesses a great deal of figural awkwardness, which perhaps suggests that he experienced difficulty in creating a unified multi figural composition; there is the sense that it is a fusion of individual figurative studies, because the figures are of varying degrees of quality.
Inspection of unfinished canvases often provides the best insight into working methods. F.G Stephens' unfinished Mother and Child (1854-6) reveals the use of the white ground, and the fine pencil outlines can be seen at the unfinished edges of the canvas, as well as through the thin areas of paint (Prettejohn 143). This painting illustrates how the PRB rarely worked on the entire painting at the same time, broadly considering various sections and building up detail methodically across the entire surface, but rather the isolated a particular section (illustrated in this case by the finished bed on the bottom left), and completed it before moving on to another area. As Prettejohn notes this painting also “ vividly demonstrates the pitfalls of the procedure” (Prettejohn 143), in that Stephens had made fundamental perspectival errors in the initial drawing which are evident in the final painting.
Supports and Grounds
The Pre-Raphaelite method actually had little in common with the techniques used in the early Renaissance and it seems that they were more interested in general stylistic tendencies and formats rather then direct adoption of their methods. More interested in innovation, they did not adhere to traditions and methods from the past. They did however experiment with the fresco-esque method of working on a wet and white ground. All significant Pre-Raphaelite paintings were done on stretched canvas, save a few of the smaller works which were on panel. On account of their desire for smooth and texture-less surfaces, the Pre-Raphaelites needed a very particular type of canvas and, as Townsend notes “Without exception their canvases were plain weave and of middle to fine weight” (Townsend 57). Due to the smooth results provided by the use of wood panel, it is perhaps surprising that they did not opt for this more often. Wood panels were indeed readily available, but considerably more expensive than canvas. When they did make use of wood panel, it was in their smaller works (such as Mariana and The Pretty Baa Lambs) due to its considerable weight. It is probable that their canvases were prepared for them; the supplier would have stretched canvas tightly over stretcher bars, wetted the surface and then coated it with a few coats of animal glue-size. Glue size served to prime the canvas, filling the miniscule gaps which exist across the surface; a well primed surface reduces the amount of oil ground needed. On top of the glue-size, a few coats of white grounds were layered, each containing a varying degree of lead or chalk, depending on the desired opacity of the white. Colored grounds have always been available and were indeed popular in portrait painting, as they allowed for the use of white chalk instead of darker graphite in the initial drawing, which can be useful in establishing highlights. Artists during the Renaissance frequently added their own color to the grounds, often closely relating the under-painting to the intended coloration of the final composition. However, colored grounds inevitably lead to the de-saturation of color, something which the PRB strove to avoid. They preferred to use as non absorbent a ground as possible, in order to prevent the paint from seeping into the canvas, which would cause it to lose its gloss and darken.
Intensely saturated color defines many Pre-Raphaelite paintings; the resulting garishness is often what repels people from their work. Indeed Ruskin, along with criticizing their awkward figure types, strongly disapproved of their use of intense colors (Werner 47). Of course, for many viewers their colors were exciting and innovative. The application of color was painstaking and very carefully considered. It started with the luminous white ground, which shone through the thin, transparent glazes of pure color. Luminosity was also achieved through “the avoidance of painting with dead-coloring” which results from the over-mixing of various pigments (Townsend 58). Since they worked almost entirely on white grounds, the palettes that they used were normally white, as opposed to wooden. This allowed them to see the colors on their palettes as they would be seen on the canvas. Despite the fact that most oil paints could be purchased already made, there were certain pigments which were better when ground immediately prior to a painting session. The following colors were ground by the artists themselves due to their high quality and price; ultramarine, cobalt blue, pink madder, Prussian and Antwerp blue, brown pink. The preferred method of grinding was to use a hand held stone over a slab or glass. Opulent colors were often used to paint beautiful costumes and textiles; for example, Millais used cobalt blue in painting the dress of Mariana. Popular colors in general were cobalt blue, natural ultramarine, madder and emerald green. The use of vibrant colors may have been in line with their goal to find beauty and in ordinary aspects of live, as well as the element of fantasy which is invoked in many of the Romanticized and medievalized works.
Painting Medium and Preparation of Materials
Prior to the 19th Century, most artists prepared their paints themselves in their studios, often with the assistance of an apprentice who would measure and grind the pigments and mix them with binders and mediums. However, due to the increased manufacture of artistsÕ supplies and a boom in commercialization, most artists at the time were able to purchase goods from 'colormen'. One of these suppliers, Roberson, has proven to be immensely useful in PRB research, as it is the sole supplier from which records exist. At certain points in the execution of a painting, it is helpful to add substances which increase the rate of drying (for example, in the build up of glazes), and these certainly would have been available in various chemical forms (Townsend 41). Drying time can also be reduced, by mixing in slow drying oils, prolonging the time in which wet paint can be worked into wet paint. Considering the fact that the PRB preferred not to blend or mix colors too frequently, the use of slow drying oils was probably rare. From close examination of The Light of the World it is evident that driers were used in this painting; small spots of lead acetate have emerged across the surface due to the excessive amount of drying agent added. Artists could also manipulate the translucency of oil paints by using mediums. 'Copal preparation' was a popular choice for Brown and Millais, and the rest of the PRB chose 'copal', the exception being Hunt, who opted for 'Robinsons Medium' (Townsend 48). Until 1841, oil paints were supplied in small bladder pouches, but the year saw the invention of the collapsible paint tube by Windsor & Newton. The tubes possessed none of the inconveniences of bladders and syringes, which frequently burst, or led to the complete drying out of paints. The collapsible tube also facilitated painting in the outdoors on account of their portability, which would have proven to be immensely useful to the PRB. However, these new inventions were surprisingly costly, and many PRB continued to purchase paint in bladders. (Townsend 41)
Figures and Portraiture
There existed a very distinctive Pre-Raphaelite 'type', and much of the appeal of these paintings lies in the beautiful execution of portraiture. More often than not, the group employed their relatives and friends as models, an obvious advantage being that there was often no need to pay them (Townsend 55). As Tim Barringer notes, the "insistence on painting from personal friends and acquaintances... resulted in scrupulous fidelity which particularizes each face" (Barringer 12). Popular models included Christina Rossetti, Stephens, Hunt, Millais, Effie Gray, and Emma (who later married Brown); rather unusually, the PRB sometimes combined heads and bodies of various figures in order to obtain an ideal. It would seem that they were a rather parsimonious lot, and surprisingly they often made use of 'lay figures' or padded mannequins in lieu of professional models (Townsend 55). These mannequins were probably not realistic enough that they could be used for any direct figurative studies and they were certainly not all life sized (except for the one Millais used for Black Brunswicker). We do know that Brown used one for The Pretty Baa-Lambs, after Emma posed first. Judging by the naturalism of their figures, I would imagine that the mannequins were used merely as 'stand ins' in the execution of their landscapes, so that they might be able to paint around a 'figure', or perhaps they were used in the initial planning of a painting and the establishing of composition. Indeed, Hunt and Millais first painted their backgrounds outdoors and then worked indoors on the figures, demonstrating a reversal of the traditional academic method.
It would seem that the PRB painting methods are generally more similar to those commonly used in watercolor than oil, using small and delicate hatching rather than bold strokes of pigment. They worked with very small brushes to produce layer upon layer of vibrant color; in this way, “They created a discordant equality of focus that represented an audacious departure from the hallowed practice of blending colors within a hierarchically organized composition” (Townsend 9). From an average viewing distance, the flesh tones usually appear smooth and unified, even though many colors were sometimes used in the depiction of flesh, especially evident in Hunt's Claudio and Isabella and Brown's Work. Close examination of The Pretty Baa Lambs reveals that Emma's teeth were actually painted bright green, reflecting the brightly lit grass. The popular pigment madder has a tendency to fade, which may have been a reason why so many people asked that the faces be repainted (Townsend 69).
Landscape and Nature
Before the Pre-Raphaelites popularized the practice, it was rather unusual for paintings to be worked on outdoors. Most artists during the Renaissance, and indeed the great British landscape painters Constable and Turner, merely made studies and sketches outdoors. Occasionally canvases would be brought on site, but usually for finishing touches or to check the effects of daylight on the finished painting. The PRB on the other hand, seemed to delight in painting on site, often working together and indulging in wholesome outdoor activities! They evidently took pride in this method, and "Millais and Hunt made it explicitly clear that they worked outdoors in 1851 on Ophelia and The Hireling Shepherd in order to capture the effect of daylight" (Townsend 67). As mentioned earlier, the use of paint tubes, as well as lightweight paper-mache palettes, would have facilitated excursions into the wilderness. Millais painted Ophelia on the banks of the Hogsmill River in Ewell, and then later added the figure, which was drawn from Elizabeth Siddal, back in the studio. Hunt also painted the landscape of The Hireling Shepherd in the fields in Ewell; innovation in this painting exists in his rejection of chiaroscuro, or a careful balance of light and shade, which was traditionally employed in landscape painting to provide an artificial underlying structure. Instead, he chose to paint the landscape as it would appear, bathed in strong light with shadows falling naturally (Barringer 63). Similarly in Our English Coasts, he replicated every color as he saw it, paying little attention to artistic convention; indeed, as Barringer writes “He insisted on painting every detail... in isolation, with its own particular color ('local color') irrespective of its overall effect” (Barringer 63).
Symbolic objects and animals feature in many Pre-Raphaelite works; it is likely that the artist situated objects directly within their landscape tableau and painted them as they appeared. alternatively, compilations of separate studies could have been made if, for example, the format of the unaltered landscape did not suit their purposes; Millais' Ophelia “involved a compilation of accurate renditions of plants that could never have been found in flower simultaneously” (Townsend 53).
The Pre-Raphaelite Glow: Capturing the effects of Light
Brilliantly illuminated outdoor scenes were sometimes worked on indoors, in winter, with unnaturally lit interiors. For nocturnal painting sessions, candles were the most inexpensive and accessible means of artificial lighting; sometimes light was enhanced through the use of mirrors or water bowls. Oil lamps would have also been available to people of a moderate income (Townsend 67). However, all of these methods of artificial lighting would have emitted a warm tone, which would have skewed the perception of natural light in the paintings.
It was far more common to work outdoors; obviously, there are difficulties which arise whilst working in nature, especially considering the unpredictability of the English weather. Wind, rain and cold would all have posed their various challenges. With the goal of replicating the stunning effects of moonlight, Hunt braved the outdoors in order to paint The Light of the World , laboring from 9pm to 5am during November, sheltered in a small hut for warmth. Millais' Autumn leaves was painted in similarly reduced light conditions. Working in the elements proved to be unbearable for some, and indeed Rossetti “soon abandoned the practice of working out in the open air, being deterred by the unpredictability of nature” (Townsend 19).
Ford Madox Brown, who studied in Paris in the 1840's, claimed that he was responsible for the formation of the plein-air method in France; as Werner notes, "his first attempts at recording true effects of light in those years seem to predate all others among his contemporaries" (Werner 250). Brown's highly dramatic Manfred on the Jungfrau was the first painting in which he worked outdoors, in an attempt to capture verisimilitude of natural light. Following this, The Pretty Baa Lambs was “an impressive early example of his plein-air painting which captures effects of pulsating heat and brilliant light with astonishing intensity” (Werner 253). In 1865, Brown wrote that “his only intention had been to render the effect of sunlight,” mentioning that this was his first attempt at outdoor painting (Staley 67).
The PRB worked with intense areas of colored glaze, which essentially acts as an optical filter; “When paint made from only one pigment is used over a white layer.. it is as its most efficient> (Townsend 65). Pigment grinding methods in the 1850's were not quite as advanced as they are today, but larger particles lead to a more saturated color than smaller particles, due to a higher degree of light transmission. Townsend notes that “nothing was more important than the choice of white, since it represented light and it set the tone for the whole work> (Townsend 45). Lead White was the most common pigment in oil painting, which seems to have unfortunately yellowed as it dried, an effect which many tried to counteract with the addition of minute amounts of Prussian blue.
The Final Touches: Varnish, Finish and Frames
Not surprisingly, the framing played a hugely important role in the final product. Unlike most artists before them, the PRB played an active role in the selection and design of the frame. Works were only framed in expensive frames after they had been sold. (Townsend 72). Early Pre-Raphaelite frames tended to be made of wood which was coated with a white substance and clays to remove the evidence of wood grain. Just as with the supports themselves, the goal was to remove texture. Later on, Rossetti invented the 'Rossetti thumb-print' style of frame, in which leaf was applied to untreated wood, leaving the grain highly visible. The smooth surface was then covered with gold leafing, in order to achieve a metallic illusion. Decorative motifs were sometimes added to the frame after this stage; they usually related to the subject of the painting itself (Townsend 73). The Gothic style frame of Arthur Hughes' The Eve of St Agnes is very appropriate to the subject matter, and the ivy which runs all around the frame serves as “a traditional symbol of everlasting life and hence the Resurrection”. The motif makes a direct commentary on the story, in that it highlights Madeline's choice between earthly and heavenly love (Upstone 76). Hughes, along with many other artists, also includes lines from the poem directly beneath the central panel.
Varnish serves not only to protect the surface of the canvas from the buildup of dust and dirt, but also to enhance the inherent glossiness of oils. Indeed the PRB strove to emphasize the qualities of oil paint in order to set it apart from less highly revered mediums, such as watercolor. Mastic varnish, which provided a strong gloss, was the most popular in the middle of the 1800's, but over the course of just a few decades, it would inevitably darken, yellow and become brittle. It could, however, be removed with the use of solvents. The Royal Academy had a particular stipulation that paintings be varnished just a few days before the start of an exhibition, in order to achieve the desired glossy surface.
It could indeed be said that the Pre-Raphaelites' system of pictorial organization was entirely revolutionary. Joshua Reynolds delivered his Discourses to the Students of the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1790, in which he proposed specific hierarchical notions of compositional elements. Reynolds' method proposed that the entirety should be considered before the minutia; in contrast, the PRB worked in the reverse - the image was allowed to develop out of small isolated areas of focus. (Prettejohn 136). Unusually, they painted using watercolor brushes when working with oils; WB Scott observed Rossetti working in this manner on the Girlhood of the Virgin Mary (Prettejohn 140). Considering that they worked thinly, using a delicate touch, one can imagine the amount of time and labor which would have gone into the completion of an entire canvas, especially considering the PRB tendency to cover the entire surface with detail and activity. If we look at isolated areas of grass, fur or hair, we can see how the PRB obsessively painted every single blade, and every hair. As Pettejohn observes, in Claudio and Isabella, Hunt painted every single strand on the fur trimming, and “thus there is a literal one to one correspondence between the artists' brushstrokes and the hairs of the fur they represent” (Pettejohn 144).
The PRB's close attention to natural detail, especially the botanical fidelity, reflects a particular way of looking at the world which evolved in the nineteenth century with the advent of photography. Prettejohn argues that the medium of photography encapsulates a way of seeing which places emphasis on what the eye sees as opposed to what the brain formulates, a vision which she believes is shared by Pre-Raphaelite painting. Even though they rarely used photographs as a direct source of information in their work, the influence of the medium is evident.
Although they looked to the past for inspiration, they also insisted on depicting scenes from contemporary life and examining social issues. They were able to wed this with a realistic style which made their work accessible and clear. Werner observes that “the Pre-Raphaelites' devotion to an empiricism directed toward both physical and psychological phenomena reflects the English scientific tradition of Newton and Locke, as well as the writings of the Utilitarians, whose evolved theories of poetry called for just that combination of direct observation and careful unaffected recording of fact and feeling desired by the Pre-Raphaelites” (Werner 267). This notion of observation is embodied by and represented in The Girlhood of the Virgin Mary , which poetically reflects the context in which it was produced; she is shown carefully examining a lily plant and replicating it on her tapestry. It is my impression that this painting embodies many of the ideals and truths which formed the basis of the entire Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic.
Barringer, Tim. Reading the Pre-Raphaelites. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999
Prettejohn, Elizabeth. The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000
Staley, Allen. Pre-Raphaelite Vision: truth to nature. London: Tate Publishing, 2003
Townsend, Joyce. Pre-Raphaelite Painting Techniques. London: Tate Publishing, 2004
Upstone, Robert. The Pre-Raphaelite Dream: Paintings and Drawings from the Tate Collection. London: Tate Publishing, 2003
Werner, Marcia. Pre-Raphaelite painting and nineteenth-century realism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005
Last modified 22 November 2006