Penschilderijn*, also known as “penpaintings“, involve drawing an image in black ink on top of a substrate prepared with a white lead oil ground. The technique originated in seventeenth century Holland and was popularized by one of its most skilled practitioners, Willem van de Velde the Elder. The artist’s painting, Dutch Ships Near the Coast, became the first penschilderij in an American public collection when it was gifted to the National Gallery of Art in 1994. Treatment of the painting began in 2010, which gave conservators the rare opportunity to conduct an in-depth study of the materials and techniques utilized in its creation. Kristin deGhetaldi headed the treatment of the painting and presented the current study findings and treatment results to the Paintings Specialty Group.
Willem van de Velde the Elder built his career on pen paintings but his beginnings were much more humble. He was born in 1611 as the son of a skipper and spent most of his early years on ships, giving him a natural familiarity with navigation and the sea. He was also an excellent draughtsman and became skilled at sketching maritime scenes. As his skill improved he was sought for victory images and his clientele of wealthy patrons increased. He gained significant notoriety with his penpaintings as early as the end of the 1630s and it was said that his penschilderij were considered more popular and valuable than his other works.
Penpaintings were often done on panel or vellum primed with oil. Working atop these surfaces with pen and ink made it difficult to make corrections to the composition. Van de Velde was a perfectionist who was easily dissatisfied with the quality of his work. If he did not like a sketch he would go over the basic outline in wet ink and quickly press the image to another substrate and begin again. He also utilized both fine line drawing and washes to create his images, with washes becoming more prominent in his work by the 1650s. Washes provided the advantage of covering large areas quickly without the need for intricate underdrawings. This allowed the van de Velde workshop to generate larger penpaintings at a faster rate in order to meet teh demands of the market.
A visual analysis of Dutch Ships Near the Coast was conducted in comparison to van de Veldes other known works and some characteristics stood out. Although it is dated to the 1650s, the work is smaller than his other penpaintings and it lacks the expected fluid washes in favor of fine linear strokes. The penpainting does have an underdrawing, though it remains unclear whether it was sketched in silverpoint or graphite. In addition, the ground layer composed of calcium carbonate instead of the slightly darker ground that is common in his similar works. Finally, unique raised lines are present where the ink is applied and in other areas of the white ground.
Scientific analysis was conducted in an attempt to clarify some of these discrepancies. Cross-sectional microscopy revealed two layers of lead white, with the topmost layer containing particles that were more finely ground. The presence of only carbon black in the ink design confirmed that iron gall ink or bone black was not used by the artist. Analysis using GCMS was conducted in an attempt to identify the binding medium of the ink, though the tests were inconclusive.
Conservators decided to create a reconstruction of the penpainting to gain insight into the identity of the oil binder and find possible causes for the raised lines. Linseed oil was used in the reconstruction but it yellowed quickly, leading conservators to believe a slower drying oil was used in order to avoid the discoloration. Next conservators tested reed and quill pens dipped in gum based ink to determine how the ink was likely applied. Reed seemed like a good candidate but they produced broader and less precise lines than the sharp, fine lines created with quills. Goose quills were ideal but quills from raven and crow feathers were also acceptable. It was hypothesized that the sharp quills may have scratched the ground before it was totally dry and created the fine lines. However, that did not account for the raised nature of the lines or the fact that they existed in areas where ink was not applied. At that point conservators wondered if the lines could be the result of engraving techniques.
The Dutch artist Experiens Sillemans was a contemporary of van de Velde and also created penschilderijn. Sillemans was known to use printmaking practices such as engraving in the creation of his works. The technique involved pressing a freshly inked engraving on to a primed support. To create raised lines, however, van de Velde would have had to press his inked copper plate into the soft preparatory ground of the support. Given the art historical evidence, it still seems unlikely that van de Velde used this practice as no two of his penschilderij are alike. In addition, there are no prints in his oeuvre to suggest he was a practiced engraver.
Ultimately the technical study of Dutch Ships Near the Coast left more questions than answers and conservators are hopeful that future study will lead to greater understanding. At that point it was time to address the treatment of the piece.
Examination of the painting revealed fills and overpaint, discoloration, flaking, and crumbling around the fills. The abraded surface was almost ghost-like in some areas and the face of one man in the foreground was completely lost. The painting was stabilized using sturgeon glue. During removal of the varnish layers, Kristin did not have to worry about solubility issues.** Once the painting was given an isolation layer of MS2A varnish, losses were filled using a mixture of Aquazol 200 and Modostuc. To begin the inpainting process Kristin isolated the painting with MS2A and then used pigmented micropens under magnification to conduct a painstaking recreation of the abraded areas. The damaged background was reinforced with thin HB micro graphite sticks.
A question and answer session followed Kristin’s presentation and someone asked what additional theories she may have regarding the cause of the fine lines. Kristin said she has a few weak theories. One theory is that the penpainting was put in the sun to bleach and dry, during which time the black ink may have absorbed more heat and created the lines. Her second theory was that a slower drying oil like walnut or poppy may have left the grounds soft and created uneven drying which could have led to the raised lines. She stressed that more study is necessary.
I thought this was a very interesting presentation and look forward to hearing about future developments in the study of Willem van de Velde’s penschilderij.
* A past study by David Freedberg, Aviva Burnstock, and Alan Phenix refer to these works as penschilderijen. Since I am not fluent in dutch, nor an expert on penpainting, I deferred to the spelling used by Kristin deGhetaldi.
** The question of solubility was raised during the question and answer session, to which Kristin replied she detected absolutely no solubility issues in the materials of the penpainting, especially since the painting had already been subjected to harsh overcleaning in the past.