Skip to Content

Art Gallery of Ontario

Keyword Site Search

J.M.W Turner: Painting Set Free

Turner The Innovator

The only secret I have got is damned hard work

– J.M.W Turner

This exhibition looks at Turner’s mature years. But where did it all begin? The artist’s youthful watercolours show features that were typical of art from this period: muted tones, delicate brush strokes, attention to detail, picturesque subjects and gentle, rolling landscape compositions. In subsequent decades, Turner experimented relentlessly, pushing himself to invent novel forms of expression. His later works are vividly coloured and painted, with bold motifs and innovative designs.

J.M.W Turner, Lake Nemi with Gensano (detail), c. 1796, watercolour with selectively applied glaze over graphite on paper. 41.8 × 55.3 cm Art Gallery of Ontario. Purchased as a Gift of the Marvin Gelber Fund and as a gift in memory of Alan Flacks, 2001

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London, 1841, Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851, Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Photography © Tate, London 2015

Turner’s most radical achievements were in watercolour. Over his lifetime, he invented a host of new techniques that elevated a basic sketching medium into high art, and he approached watercolour with an unprecedented spontaneity that artists still seek to emulate. Turner laid new colours (brighter blues, deeper greens, radiant yellows) directly onto water-soaked paper, revelling in the element of chance. He was also known to blot his works with breadcrumbs, scratch their surfaces with a thumbnail sharpened “like an eagle claw” and layer them with transparent veils of wash. In all, Turner produced a staggering 1,800 watercolours. With their high finish and large scale, they could rival oil paintings as complete works of art.

Turner refused to be restricted by conventional artistic practices and instead followed his imagination, developing many innovative approaches to oil painting. A friend observed that he had “no systematic process,” but constantly varied his tactics until he reached a solution that expressed “in some degree the idea in his mind.” Turner experimented endlessly with paint application, using brushes, palette knives and even his fingers. He also tested unorthodox combinations of watercolour and oil as well as new products, which were not always beneficial to his work. One collector saw a maid sweeping up lost bits of paint off the floor as canvases cracked and flaked in response to Turner’s ceaseless trials. The artist’s works required restoration even during his lifetime.

Turner on Varnishing Days

William Parrott (1813-1869), J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) at the Royal Academy, Varnishing Day, Oil on canvas. The Collection of the Guild of St. George, Sheffield, UK / Bridgeman Images

“Varnishing days” were the short period of time set aside before exhibitions for artists to put final touches on their paintings. Turner was a keen supporter of the practice, and often revelled in the competitive jostling and repartee that occurred. In his later years, he would frequently submit canvases with only the roughest indications of colour and form, then speedily complete them on site. According to one eyewitness, Turner came “with the carpenters at six in the morning, and worked standing all day.” Another onlooker recounted, “He used rather short brushes, a very messy palette, and, standing very close up to the canvas, appeared to paint with his eyes and nose as well as his hand.” Turner’s artist friends responded to these virtuoso painting performances with admiration and awe.

Organised by Tate Britain in association with the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the J. Paul Getty Museum

Share and Enjoy: