A Peek Beneath the Paint

With work underway on a catalogue of LACMA’s exceptional collection of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, our team of painting conservators, scientists, and curators have been investigating the materials and techniques used by these highly skilled artists. Conservators often use research tools adapted from other fields when examining the techniques used by an artist, and one piece of equipment we routinely use when investigating paintings is a digital infrared camera. Infrared is more often associated with the military or security companies, who use it for night vision. In our labs, IR cameras help us see the initial sketches carried out directly on the canvas or panel support by an artist. These underdrawings, done with charcoal, ink, or a soft lead pencil directly over the prepared panel or canvas, were used as “guides” for the painting that would be done on top. Curators often use these underdrawings to help authenticate or date a painting or to show changes that an artist may have made during the creation of the work.

Underdrawings are for the most part invisible to the unaided eye, but using a digital infrared camera we are able, in a sense, to “penetrate” the upper paint layers and see the hidden drawing below. Here curator Amy Walsh (standing) and I are using LACMA’s IR camera to view the underdrawing in Salomon van Ruysdael’s Landscape with Deer Hunters (1630). The infrared image of the underdrawing is captured by the camera and shown on a computer screen.

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You can imagine our surprise when we discovered the remarkable underdrawing; looking at the painting you would never guess that such a loose and energetic drawing existed under the paint layers! No preliminary sketches on paper are known to exist for Ruysdael’s landscapes; he appears instead to have used underdrawings in his early paintings. Later in life he painted directly onto his panels or canvases without any underdrawing as a guide.

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Salomon Jacobsz van Ruysdael, "Landscape with Deer Hunters," circa 1630, oil on panel, Adele S. Browning Memorial Collection

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"Landscape with Deer Hunters," infrared image

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"Landscape with Deer Hunters" (detail)

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"Landscape with Deer Hunters" (detail), infrared image

In this detail from the infrared image you can see how Ruysdael first drew in the landscape—it was probably executed very quickly, perhaps in as little time as a few minutes. The tree on the left is suggested with swirling loops and the ground under the trees and figures in sharp zigzag strokes. Ruysdael has defined the landscape with just a few abbreviated strokes, while the painting on top is filled with details, light, and atmosphere. It is also interesting to note that the artist only drew in the landscape and trees—he did not sketch the figures at this early stage. These were painted in later over the underdrawing. As the paint layers were applied the drawing would gradually have become invisible, only to be revealed hundreds of years later with our equipment.

Elma O’Donaghue, Associate Painting Conservator

Photos: Yosi Pozeilov

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