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Grounds, or preparatory layers, form the basis of nearly all artistic oil paintings. They have an enormous impact on the ‘success’ of a painting, influencing both its aesthetical qualities and its longevity. For this thesis, a large collection of recipes was investigated, consisting of c. 700 historical recipes for ground preparation and c. 300 related quotes from historical sources.
Dr. M.J.N. (Maartje) Stols-Witlox

Assistant Professor

Study of recipes for preparatory layers provides unique insight into historical painting practices. For example, authors wrote about ground colour and the devastating effect a darkly coloured ground could have on the long-term stability of a painting. They discussed materials, application methods, ground texture and their effects on the degradation of paintings. While Kingston wrote in 1835 that ‘a perfect ground is the very soul of the art’, discussions in historical sources demonstrate that no such ground existed: artists struggled, trying to reach the best compromise between desired aesthetical qualities and long-term stability of materials.

By examining a large collection of recipes, as was done for this thesis, it becomes possible to place individual recipes in a context. Their value for actual painting practice can thus be established more firmly. By analysing large numbers of recipes, investigations can be made into trends and developments over time. Developments in use of material and in ground colour can thus be followed.

Reconstructions of recipes play a crucial role in this dissertation. With reconstructions, the working properties of the materials mentioned in the recipes are examined and the actual effects of the procedures are investigated. Reconstructions furthermore reveal important information about the ageing characteristics of the grounds advised by historical authors.

An important question in recipes research is that of the relevance of written recipes for actual painting practice. Also here, reconstructions can be used. Effects seen in reconstructions can be compared to actual paintings and thus reconstructions lead to a more profound understanding of both paintings and the recipes themselves. Reconstructions are executed with carefully sourced materials that resemble those materials available to artists in former centuries. This new approach enables more direction comparisons with historical paintings than possible with modern materials.

Chapters discussing the role of recipe books and the influence of commercial ground preparation on the character of historical sources further examine the relation between written recipes and actual working practice.

Appendices include an annotated bibliography of historical sources and a recipe database (on CD).


Prof. dr. Frans Grijzenhout
Dr. Leslie Carlyle