Did JMW Turner REALLY use BREAD in his watercolor paintings?

J.M.T. Turner is a well-known English painter in watercolor and oils, as well as a printmaker. His paintings are often so soft and ethereal that it is hard to distinguish what is going on.

Yet, many of his paintings are of fire and smoke-filled scenes that he witnessed in real life. He sketched and watercolored the scene while rescue efforts were initiated.

In situations where we might grab our phone to document a scene unraveling before us, he grabbed his art supplies.

A self-portrait of J.M.W. Turner as a young man.
A self-portrait of J.M.W. Turner as a young man.

The book below was the source of many of the photos and much of the information I have shared with you here.

Turner in his time, written by Andrew Wilton
Turner in his time, written by Andrew Wilton

This is the segment of the painting by Turner of the burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia.

Note to create this painting, Turner sat nearby with a sketchpad and his watercolors and created many "notes" of the scene to use when he re-created this fire on his canvas in his studio.

He was described by John Ruskin, a famous (and infamous) critic and art historian of the day, as an "artistic genius." Many experts think of his style as a through-line connecting turn of the century art to modern 20th Century abstract painting in the Western world. In his career he moved from the specific and realistic into the ethereal and abstract.

One of the things that has always delighted me about Turner is his "however-he-wants-to-do-it-is-fine" attitude.

He sometimes used oil paints in a nontraditional way, diluting them down to almost a watercolor-like density.

I am amused that he did not care if his paintings lasted into the future. He was concerned about the present. He experimented with a wide variety of pigments, and against the advice of his peers, he used "fugitive" paints; hues that he KNEW were not lightfast.

As opposed to Turner, I get sort of obsessed with archival standards. I want anyone who buys one of my paintings to have it last for hundreds of years. Maybe that's why I find his nonchalance so charming.

He wasn't worried if his paintings disappeared due to fading by the sun. And indeed, many of his paintings (oils and watercolors) have faded so badly that it is difficult to visualize what they might have looked like as they came off his easel.

JMWTurner_the picturesque View of England and Wales, 1825. A very subtle, almost light yellow pastel painting with indistinct features.
JMWTurner's "The Picturesque View of England and Wales, 1825.
A very subtle, almost light-yellow and tan pastel painting with muted features. Has this painting lost color due to fading in the sun? Is this an image Turner perhaps intended to convey a misty day before the fog burns off?

Some of his most delicate, ghostly paintings were shockingly odd for the era, as judged by critics and his peers, not because they may have faded at that time, but because they were so formless, so indistinct.

Yet, Turner was also a master at capturing the details and drama of a scene.

In the watercolor below, Turner painted from watercolor notes and sketches he made as he was escaping from this train that had been derailed. He captures this intense moment as the train is prevented from toppling over by the massive amount of snow it leans against. We can hear the screeching metal, perhaps the screams and hollering of passenger and conductors. We can smell the odd aromas of coal and other oil-based products burning. We can feel the crisp frigid night mingling with the heat of the derailment and the confusion and anxiety by everyone on the train tracks. It is powerful.

J.M.W. Turner, Messieurs les voyageurs on their return from Italy (par la diligence) in a snow drift upon Mount Tarrar — 22nd of January 1829, a watercolour with bodycolour (gouache). People are fleeing as a train is about to topple over the edge of the railway.
Turner created this watercolor painting to document his travels.
Messieurs les voyageurs on their return from Italy (par la diligence) in a snow drift upon Mount Tarrar — 22nd of January 1829

There are a couple of watercolor techniques that Turner used rather differently than his peers-or than any other watercolorist I know.

Finger Painting?

For example, in the watercolor painting below by Turner, he used his fingertips to created the arc-shaped strokes. He also added white paint (gouache) on top, possibly again using his fingertips. Usually white paint is applied with more visual intentionality. And, obviously, usually a brush is used to apply paint.

The following paragraph is from the Catalogue Entry at the Tate Museum which holds the painting in its collection.


In this sketch, a yellow horizon gives way to rain clouds which scatter showers over the sea. Having flooded the page with water, Turner alternated dark grey and blue glazes to create a sea and ‘lifted off’ passages to describe its textures. Meanwhile the clouds assume an almost solid mass as the rain falls in thick curving lines. The artist Mike Chaplin discovered that Turner achieved this heavy rainfall effect with his fingers. In these distinctive strokes, Robert K. Wallace perceived the ribs of a butchered whale carcass and connected it to Turner’s current interest in whaling imagery.

“Rain Falling Over Sea ?near Boulogne” delicate blue and yellow painting with curved brushstrokes to indicate the rain.
“Rain Falling Over Sea ?near Boulogne” features blue-gray and gray-blue strokes and a yellow wash over a blue-gray wash indicating the water.

As a clarification of the catalogue entry for the Tate, he didn't actually "flood the paper with water;" he wouldn't have had enough control to separate the yellow area from the blue area.

But point taken, he does use a wet-on-wet technique to get these uneven, almost hodge-podgy washes moving through the center of the picture plane.

The catalogue entry mentions that Turner has lifted some paint from his painting. "Lifting" is a commonly used technique, even today in watercolor.

Generally for me and with my students, for lifting, we will use a tissue, a paper towel, a corner of a clean rag. or even a brush that has been wiped dry, to lift damp paint from a painting to lighten an area.

A Hunk of Bread Can be Handy too

Turner sometimes used a hunk a bread he was eating to swipe it across the paper and lift some paint. I love visualizing this scene as if I were painting: Maybe a tankard of ale, a chunk of cheese and the end of a baguette for my lunch. As I eat while painting (which I never do in real life—very bad practice—but I digress), I need to lift some paint, so I grab my bread and smear it across the watercolor paper. Oh my!

How shockingly avant-garde!

How spontaneous and fun! So free spirited!

Below is my impression of a bit of bread that may have resembled his "mop" for lifting paint.a photo of a piece of rustic bread with big air holes in it.

A hunk of bread was apparently the perfect tool for Turner to use to lift paint from his painting.
A hunk of bread was apparently the perfect tool for Turner to use to lift paint from his painting.

This technique of using a hunk of bread to lift paint from the surface of a painting is something that I have never tried. But now that I have a piece of very stale bread, I'm going to try it.

Curators have found remnants of bread crumbs on the surfaces of some of his watercolors. Some of these more obscure techniques for his watercolors are found in a book, "How to Paint Like Turner," Nicola Moorby.

I used to often think of most artists I learned about in art classes or art history as they were shown in photographs: old white men with long hair, beards, and very formal British attire. It tickles me to imagine them at the height of catapulting into their artistry as young creatives exploring the edges of their art. A time of being almost recklessly creative.

(As an aside here.... let's be real; most of the artists that we studied in the US in the mid-century when I was in school were white men. Of course, it also tickles me to imagine young creative women, Native artists, indigenous artists, artists from an Eastern discipline, or African, or Polynesian, and everyone in their own magical artistic trajectory when anything is possible and it is your quest to test and explore it all.)

We are all in this together.

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