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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka Clear and Transparent as a Piece of Coal... Part 2

Summary: John Steuart Curry and Reginald Marsh corresponded with Jacques Maroger in the 1940s to obtain the long lost secret of Old Master painting medium. Sadly, both artists found that the medium they sought undermined their artwork and caused many problems.

We mistakenly rely on art schools to teach and work out the techniques that create successful, long-lasting works of art. I can almost hear the former art students among you snickering in agreement. With the vacuum generated by the void in knowledge about making art with sound materials and techniques, it is no wonder that online art forums are so successful. They serve as a “crowdsource” classroom for people who hunger for information. It does not have to be good information. It only has to sound convincing. As of late, we know the power social media has to spread misinform the public. Artist forums are not immune to the mounds of bad advice that is disseminated.

Both Marsh and Curry, eager to experiment with materials, became associated with Maroger at the most inappropriate time in the careers of all three individuals. Marsh and Curry were approaching their prime and the use of these mediums, while inspiring at first, became a nightmare for both artists as their paintings failed. The correspondence between the artists and Maroger became increasingly confusing and agitated.

The hunger expressed by American painters to learn Old World techniques and past practices was satisfied by Maroger who claimed to have discovered and know the Secrets of the Old Masters. Aided by books written by Doerner, Vibert, and Laurie were available to artists during the early 20th century, artists were keen on learning the “secrets” that would create great paintings. Maroger stepped forward to “ride the wave” and claimed to have The Secret of the Old Masters. But inconsistencies in proving the validity of the secret formula Old Masters used revealed themselves through confusion and changes voiced by Maroger. Modifications of the formula over time in his story about the secret of Old Master mediums exposed his shortcomings.

It was the classic mistake of the modern world believing that great knowledge was somehow lost. Rediscovering the secrets would allow artists, once again, to make amazing paintings. Anyone who could rediscover the secret would be hailed and followed. However, Maroger’s secret medium kept evolving.

Why would the ‘secret’ evolve? Maroger’s medium in 1940 was a two-part system of 50 percent gum arabic in water and a second part composed of dissolving damar in linseed oil using heat. Maroger instructed the user to mix the gum and damar mixture vigorously to create a unified painting medium. A bit later, Maroger proposed that the gum and damar mixture should have a companion medium. A solution of 10 percent litharge by weight cooked with linseed oil was described to create a substance known as “black oil.” Maroger instructed that the black oil should be used on the surface of the painting to create the monotone underdrawing. The gum and damar mixture would be applied with the paint on top of the black oil underpainting.

Soon enough, Maroger changed the recipe again to have colors ground in black oil except for the whites and yellows. By 1942 Maroger recommended the use of white lead instead of litharge to make black oil. The amount of lead went from 30 percent, down to 20, then to 3 to 4 percent. When Maroger moved to Baltimore, Maryland, he concocted yet another modification of the secret painting medium. It was a solution of mastic dissolved in turpentine or linseed oil (walnut oil could be substituted as well) mixed with his black oil medium. I suppose he was so absorbed in his work and unaware of art material history that he failed to recognize that he had just reinvented the 18th-century medium, MEGILP. Is anyone surprised? Given the limited number of historical art materials that Maroger was manipulating, it was inevitable that Megilp would emerge from his numerous experiments.

After all these changes, adjustments and revisions, Marsh and Curry finally realized that Maroger did not possess any of the “Secrets of the Old Masters.” He was merely experimenting and trying to gain undeserved notoriety during a time when knowledge in the techniques of the Old Masters would have propelled anyone to fame and possible fortune. Hence, in hindsight, we can see that Maroger was just another snake-oil salesman desperate to come up with a formulation to simulate a painting technique that we now know by scientific investigation, never relied on any secret medium created in the past.

Over the last several decades, conservation literature has addressed the “secrets,” but not in an obvious way. Modern painters observed the translucency of Old Master paintings and wrongly assumed that it was a special medium that achieved that appearance. However, it was only the natural propensity for oil paints to become somewhat transparent over time thus revealing under layers of paint. So it was both time and the method of constructing a painting that created the glow and mystique of the Old Master paintings.

Some cosmic justice did come from Maroger’s experiments. Mayer and Myers examined paintings by Maroger and found, just as they did with works by Marsh and Curry, the same kinds of traction crackle, wrinkling, and uneven yellowing were present.

Overall, Maroger zealots will not find evidence to assuage themselves in the article written by Mayer and Myers. Any reader should be convinced that the addition of natural resins and drying oils to paint will cause eventual damage. The resin amplifies the natural brittleness that oil paint evolves into as it ages, causes yellowing and making paint highly soluble to solvents.

This essay is not delving deeply into the issue of metallic driers, but one can be assured that you will not find a materials scientist that is comfortable with the chemical action metallic driers produce that compromises the overall stability of an oil paint film.

Leslie Carlyle wrote a thesis and subsequent book on mediums that contain metal driers noting the adverse consequences of adding these materials to paint. Marion Mecklenburg of the Smithsonian spent considerable time writing and speaking on the threats of metallic driers. They are dangerous and do unusual things to the structure of paints. You get quick drying time at a price that many artists who want their work to last a long time should be unwilling to pay. Selecting the “best” oil paints and abiding by carefully layering paint is inconsequential in the long run if adding a substance like Maroger medium is included in a paint film. In the end, the entire system will fall victim to degradation.

You can’t have it both ways with Maroger medium: good working properties and no ill effects to your paintings. As I stated previously, oil paint is prone to becoming brittle, yellow, crack and flake even under the best of circumstances. The introduction of natural resins will make the paint even more brittle and yellow than unadulterated oil paint and promote an increase in flaking and cracking. Metal driers like lead will only compound the woes I have already mentioned.

I was not kidding about the religious nature of Maroger. Jacques Maroger’s studio still exists and at first glance, it looks like a small chapel. It is said to be a copy of a Parisian studio, its high ceilings, windows, and entryway make it look just like a chapel. For those of you who would like to make the “pilgrimage,” it is located on the campus of Loyola College of Maryland, in Baltimore. It is still used today as a studio teaching space.

The Syntax of Color

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