Willem de Kooning is widely known for his masterful yet highly idiosyncratic working methods. Less recognized is the extent to which he employed unconventional as well as traditional materials in his paintings to achieve specific visual effects. Focusing on his famous images of women executed over three decades, this research project was undertaken to determine the degree to which the artist’s important shifts in style corresponded to changes in his technical procedures. Queen of Hearts, 1943–46,is an early representation of the female subject. Woman, 1948, embodies the type of painting that de Kooning produced from the late 1940s into the early 1950s. Woman, Sag Harbor, 1964, typifies the artist’s treatment of the figure after 1960.
Queen of Hearts, painted over three years between 1943 and 1946, is a transitional workthat both evidences de Kooning’s rigorous training and heralds his signature Women of the late 1940s and 1950s. Examination and technical analysis of the painting demonstrate that it evolved through a series of clearly discernible stages that reveal a fusion of traditional approaches to picture-making with less conventional materials and practices characteristic of much of the artist’s later work.
Over the preliminary drawing, de Kooning blocked in the rectangles of the background, applying the different colored paints around the reserved area of the figure. A cross-section from the upper left corner reveals that the artist arrived at the final color scheme only after significant revisions. He first rendered this area in two layers of yellow, followed by a layer of pink, and finally, a layer of blue-green paint. From this sample and others taken from the painting, it is evident that de Kooning worked on the background over an extended period of time, building up the paint layers in distinct stages
Medium analysis indicates that the binding medium of the paints in Queen of Hearts is a drying oil, probably linseed. That identification, in conjunction with pigment analysis, supports conjecture that the paints in this picture are artists’ tube paints. Examination of this painting with a microscope indicates that de Kooning painted the figure only after completing the background, and here he took a very different approach, ignoring conventional techniques of painting in favor of a more immediate handling of the materials. For the woman’s disconnected arms and head, he used the broad sharp blade of a tool such as a metal scraper to apply a layer of white lead paint directly over the white gesso ground, followed by a thin wash of pink paint. The figure’s yellow dress does not reveal the careful buildup of distinct paint layers used for the background, but a paint cross-section shows how fibers from dense underlying scribbles in charcoal were mixed with the dilute wash of yellow paint when it was applied.
The network of charcoal lines that partially contours the figure’s body and scrawls across the paint surface is of crucial importance both here and in de Kooning’s other paintings of this period. In Queen of Hearts,the charcoal lines suggest multiple and alternative positions for the figure’s eyes, shoulders, arms, and breasts. As such they seem to imply that de Kooning’s method involved early but still visible revisions, with each body part drawn in charcoal, painted, redrawn, and repainted several times. In fact, close examination reveals that all of the visible charcoal lines were inscribed either directly on the surface of the paint or just below the translucent upper layer. As he worked, de Kooning moved the position of the woman’s eyes and breasts, retaining evidence of the earlier versions, and this clearly was an intentional decision.
With Woman, 1948, de Kooning was embarking on a significant initiative of freer paint handling. Yet, while this work appears to be a rapid, spontaneous rendering with the appearance of messiness or deliberate crudity, technical examination shows that de Kooning worked on it in stages and selected from a variety of non-art products whose properties he enhanced and exploited to underscore his imagery.
De Kooning initially conceived Woman as a black-and-white abstraction, adding the anatomical elements later on. A paint cross-section taken from the woman’s skirt confirms a heavy buildup of paint, in layers limited to a range of warm whites, grays, and black, below the upper layer of pink. This sample and several others taken throughout the painting show that the colored paints used for the figure, and the off-whites around the star in the upper left corner, were added only in the final stages of the painting’s composition.
The encrusted surfaces of Woman and other works of this period are due in part to the types of paints that de Kooning was using. Unlike Queen of Hearts, where the artist used the smooth side of the fiberboard to achieve a smooth finish, he now employed the rough side of a fiberboard panel without a ground layer to diminish the board’s prominent screen pattern. Medium analysis of the paints in Woman, 1948, proves that de Kooning was no longer using artists’ paints, and instead had turned to a range of commercial oil paints available to the public during the 1940s. The white and off-white paints, as well as the intense pink paint of the woman’s skirt, are a mixture of linseed oil and colophony (pine resin), suggesting an oleoresinous commercial paint that probably was sold as enamel. The black paint is house paint, an oil-modified alkyd.
The somewhat coarse gritty surface of this painting is also the result of the artist mixing granular materials into inexpensive commercial paints. Examination of the surfaces with a stereomicroscope, for example, reveals that he blended quartz, probably sand or small pebbles, into the gray paint near the lower right corner, and fragments of brown glass into the white and pink paints around the seated figure. Shards of this material are evident on the surfaces and embedded in cross-sections. In addition, de Kooning mixed significant quantities of plaster of Paris into the off-white paints used to render the figure’s torso and the perimeter of the star in the top left corner, and he added palette scrapings to many of the final paint layers. As with other works of the period, de Kooning also mixed and rubbed charcoal into and onto the paint surfaces, deliberately smudging the brighter colors.
The pronounced texture in Woman, however, is as much due to de Kooning’s methods of applying his paints as it is to the paints and their additions themselves. In this work, he manipulated paints of vastly different consistencies, applying them with a combination of brushes, palette knives, and scrapers to produce passages that almost overwhelm the details of the subject. The woman’s schematically rendered breasts, shoulders, and multiple arms, for example, as well as the star in the upper left corner, are conceived in opaque off-white paints combined layer upon layer in almost sculptural masses. By contrast, de Kooning diluted the black alkyd paint that outlines the figure’s breasts and torso to the consistency of watercolor, letting it flow down the picture surface in runnels so that it stained the lower paints with a gritty black. The artist’s more gestural method of paint handling may be seen as moving toward the methods he would develop in the 1960s.
Between 1964 and 1966, de Kooning painted a series of large female images on hollow-core doors, one of them Woman, Sag Harbor, 1964. These works confirm a shift in his technical methods that had begun around 1960. Using supports primed with smooth, opaque white grounds, pigments mixed with large amounts of white, and an increasingly fluid paint medium, he exploited the potentials of his materials to create paintings evocative of the water-surrounded environment of Long Island.
Photographs and anecdotal references suggest that by the time de Kooning painted Woman, Sag Harbor, he had discontinued his use of house paints and instead was adding safflower cooking oil to artists’ oil paints. He bragged to a visitor to his studio in 1964 that he had found a salad oil that he could use in lieu of expensive artists’ oils. In 1978, he told an interviewer that he used safflower oil because it “stays wet a long time, it doesn’t dry like linseed oil, I can work longer.”
At the time of Woman, Sag Harbor, de Kooning was preparing his paint mixtures from Bellini artists’ tube colors according to recipes that he had developed. Once he had thoroughly combined a number of his tube paints on a glass palette, he would scoop the blended paints into a bowl and then add safflower cooking oil, water, and a solvent, whipping the ingredients with a brush to a fluffy consistency. Medium analysis corroborates this report: seven paint samples from this painting correlate with naturally aged samples of safflower oil mixed with artists’ tube paints. This is also true of several samples taken from Woman, 1964–65, also in the Hirshhorn collection.
The increased liquidity and slipperiness of de Kooning’s binding medium, and his use of a smooth white support, allowed him to move his brush more quickly across the face of the painting. While quick brushstrokes are certainly also characteristic of his earlier works, the greater speed with which he applied the more fluid paint of the door series is apparent to the eye following the rapid movement of the brush where it hit the panel, skidding, twisting, and often abruptly turning when it was lifted. De Kooning’s slower-drying, medium-rich paints of this period produced works with more complex surfaces than before. The paintings of this period are panoplies of textures and colors worked wet-into-wet, with later brushstrokes dragging and blending with earlier ones.
Color plays a significant expressive role in the door paintings. When de Kooning moved to East Hampton, he said that he was so moved by the light and color of his new location that he began to make his own mixtures of colors in order to incorporate the feeling of the outdoors. Identification of the pigments in Woman, Sag Harbor reveals that de Kooning’s paints are not elaborate mixtures but a rather restricted palette of a few colors and their pastels. The painting’s intense colors are cadmium red, orange, and yellow. The paler pinks, oranges, and yellows are cadmium colors mixed with significant amounts of white.
Remarks that de Kooning made in 1964, the year of Woman, Sag Harbor, suggest that in paintings of this period he was continuing to search for a way to convey the very substance of his new environment, and that the images of this period relate in some way to his watery surroundings: “Now I go on my bicycle down to the beach and search for a new image of the landscape. . . . When I see a puddle, I stare into it. Later, I don’t paint a puddle, but the image it calls up within me. All the images inside are from nature anyway.”
Analysis of the pigments and binding media of these three paintings confirms that de Kooning forged his unique artistic vision by manipulating both conventional and non-art materials in extreme ways, whether he was using artist’s paints straight from the tube, coarsening retail house paints with charcoal and ground glass, or applying a flurry of oil paints, cooking oil and water onto has canvases.
Susan Lake, Willem de Kooning: the Artists’ Materials, The Getty Conservation Institute, 2010