I have fond memories of my early attempts at the visual arts. Fingerpainting appealed to the squidgy, primitive side of me. My big box of crayolas was a regiment of reassuring order. And then there were poster paints. So bright. So vivid. Purple houses. Green — I mean GREEN — fields. Red cats.
When I run out of red, I use blue.
But settling down to talk about history.
Regency visual artists were about half way along the technological journey between the Neolithic Cave painters and one of those high-tech computer painting programs. The fine work, the beautiful work, the Regency artists created was accomplished with the most simple tools and a limited array of colors.
Let me talk about pastels, because one of my characters, Pax, uses pastels. I think of it as a portable and democratic art form in Georgian and Regency times.
Portraits in these readymade crayons offered tangible advantages over oil for the artist and the sitter: they required fewer sittings as there was no drying time; less paraphernalia; the materials were easily portable and the costs were lower.
The Rise of Pastel in the Eighteenth Century, Margery Shelley
They called pastels 'crayons' in the Regency — so confusing — because the waxy colored sticks we think of as 'crayons' wouldn't be invented for another century.
These pastels were made by grinding natural white chalk — something you can pick up off the ground in places like Southeast England — into a fine powder. You mixed this with pigment and a binder like gum arabic. You rolled the mixture into thin cylindrical sticks or long square sticks and dried them. These were 'soft pastels'. They were just super concentrated colors that transferred readily to the paper.
You had a potential for vivid color, but in a medium likely to crumble and come apart in your hand and smear. So the pastel sticks were fitted into a sort of metal holder that protected them and provided control and precision for the artist.
Because pastels were intended to be inserted into a holder, they were thinner than the ones we use today. A square shape gave them stability in the holder.
ETA: I've not yet found an illustration of someone drawing with plain naked pastels, but it's very possible this is how it was actually done. It's the way pastels are used today, so why not in 1800?
The first pencil, or rather crayon, that I possessed, was given to me by that right worthy cronie of my uncle Zachary, William Hogarth. It was one of those which may be still remembered by 'men of my standing'. One end was of common commercial black-lead, the other red-chalk, ready pointed, and inclosed in a case of need.
Literary Gazette and Journal, V 4, John Mounteney Jephson, 1820
The most exciting recent innovation for our Regency pastel artist would have been the Conté crayon, invented in France in 1794. These were made from kaolin clay and graphite and fired in a kiln. They were much harder than the chalk-based soft pastel sticks, and came in a smaller range of colors. They could be sharpened. They were good for tight, crisp lines and fine detail, and often used to lay down the first sketch on paper.
Our Regency artist dealt with the fragility of those pastels by 'fixing' the finished art with dissolved Isinglass. Isinglass, as you doubtless know — doesn't everybody? — is made from the dried bladders of fishes. This was dissolved in alcohol and distributed in a fine spray of droplets over the paper.
Which brings us to a consideration of color …
Oil paint came in only a few colors. Oils were a couple decades from living in metal tubes. In the Regency, they came in bladders that had to be pierced for each painting session. They dried up quickly and had to be used fast, so artists didn't keep a wide range of colors handy about the atelier. They mixed what they needed from ten or a dozen basics.
This to the left is Constable's paint box with its paint bladders. About twelve of them.
Watercolor came in more shades.
Regency watercolors looked surprisingly modern — little squares or oblongs with about the texture of today's watercolor, stamped with the maker's name. The binder contained honey to give a softer, gummy texture.
Since colors could be mixed as needed on a ceramic palette, even a very fancy watercolor box held a dozen or twenty colors. Ackermann — yes the same Ackermann who made prints and produced Ackermann's repository — offered 68 prepared color choices in 1801.
(So many of these watercolors were so very poisonous. I'm sure there's a good Regency mystery here somewhere.)
Pastels, on the other hand, came in myriad shades. In the Regency these were available commercially and had been for a century.
As those students who attempt the art of crayon-painting may be readily supplied by the shops with every kind of crayon, we shall not enter into the manner of their preparation
Pantologia: A New Cyclopaedia, John Mason Good, 1813
These dozens of prepared colors were not just convenience, but a necessity arising from the way the medium worked. Pastels could be 'smudged' on the paper to create a blended hue or added in layers for subtle shading, but the artist had to start with a wide selection of excellent colors.
No great success in this mode of Painting can be expected, unless you have procured Crayons of brilliant tints, that are tender, corresponding with those in Nature.
A Treatise on the Art of Painting, and the Composition of Colours, M. Constant de Massoul. 1797
What startles and amazes is how few pigments they had.
This is the palette they worked with, mostly from ground, natural stones:
From this — everything.
All the art. All the pastels and oil paintings and watercolors.
I am so amazed.
Paint box with oils: John Constable (English, 1776–1837), Paint Box, 1837. Tin box with
hinged lid housing eleven bladders, tied with string and filled with
pigment, a piece of white stone, and a glass vial of powdered pigment, 2
x 13 x 3 3/8 in. (5.1 x 33 x 8.6 cm). Sterling and Francine Clark Art
Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts (photo by Michael Agee)
If you were a Regency artist, what medium would you have chosen? What would you have painted?
Some fortunate person from the comment stream will win one of Joanna's books — their choice.