MINIATURE PORTRAITS | ARTISTS/PAINTINGS | TECHNIQUES |
EMIL S. KERN BEQUEST | FRIENDS OF THE KERN MINIATURE PORTRAIT COLLECTION
Method & Technique
Preparation and Implements
The miniaturist painted on a slanting worktop. Working "ad vivum" (from Latin, "to the living"), he would often meet with his model for painting sessions in his own studio.

Painter at Table Easel
Lorenz Theweneti: Portrait of the Artist's Brother Painting his Wife, circa 1820
The artist working at a green-lined table easel with slanting worktop to which the support and paint-pallet are attached. (Tansey Collection of Miniatures, Celle)

Depending on the purpose, the painting was carried out using brushes of varying thicknesses - broader brushes for background and clothing, finer ones for delicate detailing. The finest brushes were made from sable hair or fashioned from the tips of a squirrel's tail. The so-called "scratcher" was a sharp blade used not only to make corrections but also as a creative implement, such as to etch single strands of hair into the head of the portrait. An indispensable tool was the magnifying glass, which helped in the painting of more difficult detail as well as for checking over the work.

Examples of various scraping blades, so-called scratchers, from Charles William Day's "The Art of Miniature Painting" (London, 7th edition, 1865)

Types of Support
The selection of the painting support (the material on which the work is painted) depended directly on the technique to be used. Due to their smooth surfaces, metallic plates of copper, gold, bronze or silver were types of support especially suitable for enamel and oil painting. On the other hand, smooth paper found its application in grisaille painting and for watercolour portraits. From the early 16th century until the end of the miniature portrait painting era in the middle of the 19th century, one of the most popular types of support was fine, smooth vellum (or parchment, from French velin, "from the calf").
From around 1700, ivory (mostly from Africa) gained acceptance as an ideal support for miniature portrait paintings. Ivory was painted mainly with watercolour and gouache paints. First, however, it needed to be degreased, bleached and finely polished in order to improve paint adhesion. As in their still unpainted state the half-millimetre thick ivory plates already possessed the waxen transparency of human skin, miniaturists fully utilised this characteristic by painting only a fine layer over areas of skin. They often attempted to increase the ivory's brightness further by underlaying the portrait with silver foil. To counteract the tendency of this strongly hydroscopic material to warp and crack, paper was often stuck onto the reverse side.

Ivory Plates
Left: Tangential cut of an elephant's tusk
Right: Round plate, cut to size and ready to paint

Backing paper peeling off ivory plate revealing silver foil

Painting Techniques
In general, the paints used for miniatures on paper, vellum and ivory corresponded to those used in watercolour and gouache painting (for enamel painting, see below), though for miniatures the pigments had to be ground much finer. The water-soluble resin gum arabic mixed with crystallised sugar was the most commonly used binding agent.

Binding agent and pigments
Above left: gum arabic
Above right: crystallised sugar
Below left: solidified cube of watercolour
Below right: paint in powder form

Watercolour is the term used for a painting produced by applying transparent paints. Gouache (from Old German Guasch, "puddle") is the term for opaque watercolours applied to the painting support as a thin layer. Gouache's opaqueness is achieved through the addition of white filler substances, such as chalk, that produce its characteristic "chalky" effect even in darker hues. Like medieval book illustrators before them, miniature painters throughout the centuries produced their works alternatively with watercolour or gouache paints, depending on the intended effect.

Grisaille (from French gris, "grey") painting, also known as grey-on-grey painting, is a unique monochromatic technique based only on grey tones. In this unique method the artist deliberately refrains from using colour in order to skilfully play up volume and light so that these tiny works of art assume a "veil of secrecy". At times grisaille paintings were intended to impart a slight impression of relief.
  

The technically demanding method of enamel painting is believed to have been developed in the first three decades of the 16th century by Léonard Limosin (Limoges, 1506 - 1575/77), and was especially popular throughout Europe in the 17th century. Enamel is a glassy mass made from pulverised quartz, alkali, sodium bicarbonate and lime, which was normally melted onto cambered, finely polished metal plates. An approximately one millimetre-thick white base-layer of enamel was applied to the plate, on which the design was then drawn in light colours. The process required the use of special pigments that through several firings became firmly fixed into the enamel. The most elaborate enamel works are often the product of numerous successive firings in which the kiln temperature, the duration of firing and the sequence of the individual stages all played a crucial role. The main difficulty for the enamel painter was that the unfired enamel was milky and virtually colourless. The resulting - often very luminous and rich - colours became visible only after firing, so that in order to accurately envisage the complete work much experience was required. The durability of enamel is extraordinary; the colouring seen in lockets and small boxes is as dazzling today as when they were first created.
(For further information, see Archive 2005, Beauties from the Fire - Masterpieces of Enamel Miniatures from the 17th Century to the 19th Century.)

Various Painting Styles
Jean Laurent Mosnier
Lady in Blue Dress, circa 1785
Hair, clothing and background are painted in opaque watercolour (gouache). The incarnatio is reproduced in fine strokes and stipples. (Tansey Collection of Miniatures, Celle)

Painting Process
Painting the tiny portraits demanded considerable precision and sophisticated artistic technique. Before the support itself could be painted on, the artist would often make a drawing of the model in order to capture its exact physiognomy and avoid the need to make later corrections.

Various Painting Styles
Samuel Shelley
Lady before Sky, circa 1790
Hair, face, clothing and background are painted in clearly visible hatching. (Private collection)

For backgrounds und clothing a two-dimensional painting style was adopted in which the paints were applied to produce a transparent or opaque effect. The painting of detail in hair, clothing or jewellery might require brushwork of shading, stippling or fine hatching that is often discernable only with magnification.

Various Painting Styles
Anton Friedrich König
Gentleman in Green Coat, circa 1760
Background and coat are underlaid with opaque paints and shaded using clearly visible stippling. The face is modelled in transparent stippling. (Tansey Collection of Miniatures, Celle)

The most delicate and painstaking painting involved so-called incarnatio (those "fleshy" parts such as the face and hands). Here, real precision work was called for to produced the fine dots and strokes so characteristic of miniature painting. The preferred brushwork had to be carefully chosen because on a smooth support, such as vellum or ivory, repainting in watercolour would soften and smear already-painted surfaces. The painting style was always different from artist to artist - a kind of "fingerprint" that varied little - and, as works were rarely signed, this provides a good basis for attributing authorship.

Framing
The form of framing was important for the aesthetic effect and protection of the delicate miniatures, which were usually framed in the artist's studio. Standard industrially produced models as well as custom frames crafted by goldsmiths were used. Miniature portraits were used as personal mementos mounted on small boxes, framed as pendants and bracelets, or as wall fixtures. While personal ornaments were subjected to considerable vibration and climatic fluctuation, miniatures used as wall fixtures were exposed to light over long periods. In England the most common form of framing was in metal lockets, while on the Continent wooden frames with a gold-plated inner casing were preferred. Leather-lined cases were popular everywhere throughout the centuries and gave miniatures relatively good protection from light and climatic fluctuation. As the delicate supports and fine layer of paint are vulnerable to external influences such as moisture and scratching, miniatures were always covered with a protective sheet of glass.
Left: Gilt metal case (England circa 1800), gold brooch (France circa 1860)
Right: Gilt metal frame (France circa 1780)

Left: Tortoise shell with gold framing (France circa 1790)
Right: Wooden case with leather lining and velvet padding (England circa 1820)

Left: Gilt metal ring in moulded wooden plate (France circa 1820)
Right: Pressed metal ring on wooden plate (Switzerland circa 1800)

The reverse sides of many miniatures contain hair preserved under glass. Whether as a tiny strand or a skilfully plaited lock, these samples of hair emphasize the individual character of a portrait. Although this practice may seem somewhat morbid from today's perspective, samples of hair were often viewed as a symbol of affection, belonging or other connection between the miniature's owner and the (absent) person it depicted.
  
Specialist Literature
Burack, Benjamin, Ivory and Its Uses, Rutland, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Vermont 1984.

Burton, Sue, The Techniques of Painting Miniatures, Batsford, London, 1995.

Coffin, Sarah and Hofstetter, Bodo, The Gilbert Collection Portrait Miniatures in Enamel, (Gilbert Collection at Somerset House), Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd., London, 2000.

Coombs, Katherine, The Portrait Miniature in England, (exhibition catalogue), Victorian & Albert Publications, London, 1998.

Foskett, Daphne, Samuel Cooper and his Contemporaries, National Portrait Gallery, London, 1974.

Heuvel, Marga van den, Malerei des 19. Jahrhunderts Sammlung Crous Aachen, 1st edition, Mainz, 2003.

Hofstetter, Bodo, Französische Bildnisminiaturen von Henri Albert Adam bis Jean-Baptiste Weyler, Facsimilia Art & Edition, Ebert KG, 2000.

Keil, Robert, Die Porträtminiaturen des Hauses Habsburg, 1999.

Moy, Patricia, Creative Miniatures: A Complete Guide to Miniature Painting, Enderby, Bookmart Limited, Leicester, 1992.

Otten, Dietrun, Pappe, Bernd, Schmieglitz-Otten, Juliane: Miniaturen aus der Sammlung Tansey, München: Hirmer Verlag, 2000.

Pappe, Bernd, Schmieglitz-Otten, Juliane, Otten, Dietrun, Miniaturen des
19. Jahrhunderts aus der Sammlung Tansey, München: Hirmer Verlag, 2002.

Pappe, Bernd, Schmieglitz-Otten, Miniaturen der Revolutionszeit 1789 - 1799 aus der Sammlung Tansey, München: Hirmer Verlag, 2005.

Pappe, Bernd, "Porträtminiaturen auf Elfenbein: Bewahrung und Restaurierung", in: Zeitschrift für Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung, Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft, Worms am Rhein, No. 1, September 1995.

Pappe, Bernd, "Werkstoffe und Techniken der Miniaturmalerei auf Elfenbein", in: Zeitschrift für Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung, Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft, Worms am Rhein, No. 2, July 1993.

Reynolds, Graham, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, Victorian & Albert Publications, London, 1971.

Walker, Richard, Miniatures: 300 Years of the English Miniature Illustrated from the Collections of the National Portrait Gallery, London, 1998.

Willies, Joan Cornish, Miniature Painting: A Complete Guide to Techniques, Mediums & Superface, Diane Pub Co, 1996.

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