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Sunday, May 15 • 4:00pm - 4:30pm
(Paintings) The Painting Materials and Techniques of J.E.H. MacDonald: Oil Sketches from 1909-1922

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J.E.H. MacDonald (1873-1932) was a distinguished Canadian artist of the early twentieth century. He was one of the founding members of the association of painters known as The Group of Seven and is recognized particularly for his paintings of the Algoma landscape. This presentation provides results from a research project on MacDonald’s painting materials and techniques. The information obtained from the project will lead to a better understanding of MacDonald’s working methods and will provide valuable reference data for paintings of uncertain attribution or authenticity. The results will also inform storage and display decisions and future conservation treatments of his paintings. MacDonald’s career can be divided into five major periods: Early (1908-1917), Algoma (1918-1921), Nova Scotia (1922), British Columbia and Georgian Bay (1924-1931) and Barbados (1932). A representative group of 32 works (21 oil sketches and 11 paintings) spanning his oeuvre was chosen for the project. All the works were examined under magnification and using ultraviolet illumination. Microscopic paint samples were analyzed by Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), x-ray diffraction (XRD), scanning electron microscopy/x-ray energy spectrometry (SEM/EDS), polarized light microscopy (PLM) and Raman spectroscopy. The presentation will focus on 13 of MacDonald’s oil sketches that range in date from 1909 to 1922. These sketches are particularly important in MacDonald’s oeuvre; they document significant changes in his method, from his earliest works, where he was developing his style and painting technique, to his more characteristic sketches produced during trips to Algoma and Nova Scotia. Results presented will include a discussion of the support, the use of preparatory layers and sealing layers, the choice of pigments and pigment mixtures, and aspects of his painting technique. MacDonald used various types of paperboard for the majority of his sketches. The dimensions of his supports changed over the 1909-1922 period; while his early sketches are of variable dimension, he began to favour a standard board size as his technique evolved. Although he used a ground layer on a number of his early sketches, he later abandoned this practice and simply sealed his boards with shellac prior to painting. The paintings from his early period show a multi-layered, wet on wet application and a muted palette. In the later works, he employed brighter colours, confidently applied with little layering, and left the support or ground layer visible at brushstroke edges. MacDonald used a limited number of pigments including viridian, ultramarine, alizarin lake, iron oxides, cadmium yellow and vermilion. The white pigment in almost all the sketches from the 1909-1922 period is a mixture of zinc white and lead sulfate. This characteristic white paint was also widely used by other members of the Group of Seven and its source has recently been established as the Cambridge Colours paint brand. A magnesium carbonate filler (hydromagnesite) was also found in some of MacDonald’s paints. Although common in Winsor & Newton oil paints, this is not a filler used in the Cambridge Colours, indicating that MacDonald employed more than one brand of paint during the period under investigation.

avatar for Alison Douglas

Alison Douglas

Conservator, McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Alison Douglas earned an honours B.F.A. from Queen's University in 1994. She also studied Paintings Conservation at Queens University and received a Master’s Degree in Art Conservation (M.A.C.) in 1996. As part of the M.A.C. program, she interned at the Royal Ontario Museum... Read More →
avatar for Kate Helwig

Kate Helwig

Senior Conservation Scientist, Canadian Conservation Institute, Canadian Conservation Institute
Kate Helwig has an honours B.Sc. in Chemistry from the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Physical Chemistry from Stanford University in California. She studied artifact conservation at Queen’s University and received a Master’s Degree in Art Conservation in 1992... Read More →


Dominique Duguay

Conservation Scientist, Canadian Conservation Institute
Dominique Duguay earned a B.Sc. (Hons) in Chemistry from Mount Allison University in 2007 and an M.Sc. in Inorganic Chemistry, specializing in carborane compounds for cellular imaging, from the University of Ottawa in 2010. She then worked in lithium-ion battery research and development... Read More →

Elizabeth Moffatt

Conservation Scientist (retired), Canadian Conservation Institute
Elizabeth Moffatt earned a B.Sc. (Hons) in Chemistry from Memorial University of Newfoundland and an M.Sc., specializing in organic chemistry, from the University of Ottawa. She worked at the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) from 1978 until her retirement in 2015. As a Senior... Read More →

Sunday May 15, 2016 4:00pm - 4:30pm EDT
Room 710 A