AIC 44th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, May 15, “The Painting Materials and Techniques of J.E.H. MacDonald: Oil Sketches from 1909-1922” presented by Kate Helwig, Senior Conservation Scientist at CCI, and Alison Douglas, Conservator at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Conservation scientists at the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) continue to examine artists’ works and contribute each year to the growing database of information on Canadian artists’ working methods and materials.
One of their latest projects is the characterization of the materials used by painter J.E.H. MacDonald (1873-1932). The study looks at the supports, grounds and paint formulations MacDonald used during the period 1909-1922. This study compliments an important retrospective of the artist’s work planned for 2018 at the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art.
MacDonald was a founding member of the famed cohort of Canadian landscape painters known as the Group of Seven, and was closely associated with the celebrated painters, Lawren Harris and Tom Thomson
In all, 32 works from Ontario museum collections were examined, comprising 11 oil paintings and 21 oil sketches. The goal of this study is to gain a better understanding of the artist’s working methods and materials, and to assemble some reference data to help attribute works of uncertain date or origin. This particular presentation focused on observations and results from 13 of these works.
Throughout the period under study, MacDonald used a variety of rigid painting supports, including fiberboard, pulpboard, laminated pulpboard, and thin bookbinder’s board, which may have been his preferred support.
The study reveals that there was a shift in the size of the support he favoured through this period. Early works before 1914 were varied in size, often small, less than 7 x 9 inches. Through the years 1914-1917, he often chose a standard 8 x 10 inch format, and after 1918 he chose a slightly larger size, 8.5 x 10.5 inches, which was also the size favoured by his friend Tom Thomson, who died mysteriously in 1917.
This change in size of the support was also paralleled by a gradual change in his preparatory layers and painting technique. A variety of materials were found in the grounds of his early works. Sometimes he employed coloured double grounds. After 1918, he abandoned traditional grounds, preferring simply to seal the board surfaces with shellac. It was noted that this layer could prove to be solvent-sensitive during future varnish removal operations.
There was a gradual shift in his painting technique as well: his palette changed from muted colours, layered wet into wet, to a bolder paint application. By 1918 in his Algoma paintings, the brushstrokes are more confident and vigorous, often applied using complimentary-coloured paint strokes. An interesting feature of these works is the fact he often left the support or underlayers visible at the edges of his brushstrokes. Bold outlines of oil paint underdrawing are also sometimes seen through the brush strokes of the upper layers of paint.
Paint pigments and fillers were also characterized for the paintings and sketches studied. MacDonald’s paints were generally complex mixtures made of multiple colours,  composed of 2 or 3 main colours, adjusted by the presence of small amounts of 2 or 3 more colours. A distinguishing element of his favoured palette include a characteristic mixture of lead sulfate and zinc oxide for his whites – a mixture that was commonly used by Tom Thomson and members of the Group of Seven. This particular white is likely the new “Flake White” paint manufactured by the renowned British colourmen, Madderton & Co. (founded by A.P. Laurie) used for its Cambridge Colours paints that were sold worldwide in the first three decades of the 20th century. Viridian was the only truly green pigment the artist used, while various blues and yellows were also combined to make other shades of green. Yellows, blacks, reds and blues were also characterized. Of interest is the bright yellow paint, likely a Winsor and Newton tube paint, since it contained chrome yellow and a magnesium carbonate filler, materials not found together in the Cambridge paints line.
The publication of this information on MacDonald’s materials will be a welcome contribution to the advancement of our knowledge of the artist’s working methods. This information will also be essential as scientists begin to examine and ponder the materials used in a controversial group of small oil sketches that were purportedly buried for decades on the artist’s estate, before they finally entered (in recent months) the collection of a major Canadian institution. Tip of the iceberg indeed…