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Object of the month: March 2015

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, 'Studio Experiments in Colour and Media', c.1770

Published 3 March 2015

As a new exhibition of paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds opens at the Wallace Collection, we take a look at one of his more experimental pieces in the RA Collection.

  • Reynolds was well-known among his contemporaries for his bold experimentation with painting techniques and media, even to the detriment of the longevity of the finished work. The colour in his pictures was known to fade and his penchant for concocting mixtures of wax, eggs, Venice turpentine and varnish among other substances meant that often his works were not structurally sound, with a tendency for paint flaking and cracking.

    This canvas, onto which Reynolds has “arranged specimens of various pigments for experimental purposes” was bought by the RA in 1878. It was originally presented to Sir Thomas Lawrence by its previous owner, who had lived in Reynolds’ house in Great Newport Street and had preserved a number of these experimental canvases. It disappeared after Lawrence’s death, reappearing again in the late-nineteenth century.

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, Studio Experiments in Colour and Media

    Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, Studio Experiments in Colour and Media, c. 1770s – 1780.

    Oil on canvas. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

  • Making up canvases like this was an important part of Reynolds’ working method, to test out colours but also serve as a reference point. It seems as if he kept several pieces like this in his studio and continuously worked on them over an extended period of time. This canvas is possibly from the later period of Reynolds’ career, as the various pigments and media present are characteristic of that period.

    There are over 150 colour samples on this canvas, some overlapping each other, and more translucent colours together with thicker samples applied with a palette knife. Reynolds is trying out different paints made up of various pigments and vehicles. Some of the media identified includes gum varnish, gum oil, copal varnish, arabic and wax. Pigments include asphaltum, Prussian blue, orpiment, yellow lake and red lead. Alongside the samples are written notations indicating the various combinations of pigments and vehicles such as ‘Orp. White Y with the Varn’ (Orpiment, white, yellow with the varnish) and ‘Prussian Blue Cer’ (Prussian blue and wax).

    This canvas can be seen in the new exhibition Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint at the Wallace Collection from 12 March until 7 June 2015. You can also watch our video series which delves into the RA’s archive to learn more about the Academy’s founding president.