Looking beneath the surface: infrared reflectography and the making Tudor art project

Rachel Billinge, Conservation Research Associate, National Gallery, London

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstract of a paper presented at Tudor and Jacobean Painting: Production, Influences and Patronage
Funded by the British Academy and The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

Since the project started in April 2007, 110 paintings have been examined with infrared reflectography, the work being conducted by a team from Tager Stoner Richardson. Using a Hamamatsu vidicon the pictures have been examined and for those where underdrawing was revealed infrared reflectogram mosaics have been recorded, both of whole paintings and details of areas of particular interest. Infrared reflectography is primarily used to try to find underdrawing, although the technique can also give information about underlayers in the paint, changes made during painting and damage and restoration. 

Underdrawing is the term used for the preliminary marks used by the artist to place his design on the prepared support. By its very nature underdrawing was never intended to be seen, so until the development of infrared imaging techniques it could only be glimpsed in unfinished paintings or through the surface paint where it has become damaged or more transparent. It is important to bear in mind that underdrawing serves a very specific purpose – as a guide for the paint layers – and so even if a nice clear image of the underdrawing is produced, free from complications from upper paint layers, it should not be looked at as though it is a drawing on paper. It is also important to remember that the underdrawing in a painting of this period is unlikely to be the artist’s first ideas – by the sixteenth century paper was easier and cheaper to get hold of and so artists were able to try out ideas, plan compositions, and in the case of portraits record the likeness of the sitter elsewhere before beginning work on the more expensive wood or canvas supports.

A systematic survey such as this one for the Making Art in Tudor Britain project produces a wide range of outcomes: in some paintings it was impossible to detect any underdrawing with infrared reflectography. This does not necessarily mean that such paintings do not have any underdrawing, it might be that the paint on top is not penetrated and so the infrared radiation is not able to reach the underdrawing, but even if the drawing is not hidden by thick paint or impossible to distinguish from surface lines it could still be present but be in a material not visible in infra-red. There are plenty of materials available to the artist which do not register in infrared images, including iron gall ink, red chalk and silverpoint, all of which were common drawing materials in Tudor and Jacobean times and so might well have been used for underdrawing by the artists of the pictures we have been studying.

In most of the portraits examined for this project where underdrawing was found it was based on some kind of cartoon or tracing, at least for the faces. When we think of tracing these days we think of it as a method to copy an existing work – to make a reproduction of an original – and of course some of the portraits we have been studying are exactly that, such as the very interesting group of portraits after Holbein, some of which are direct copies. However, this does not mean that all works with a traced underdrawing are from a series or are copies. The use of tracings and pricked cartoons had become commonplace in artists’ workshops throughout Europe by the sixteenth century as a quick and efficient method of transferring a design (either whole or in a series of parts) onto a prepared support for final painting, and the same techniques were used for copying preliminary sketches onto a final support as were used for copying one finished painting to make another.

As a way of ensuring consistency of style and faithfulness to the master’s original design, the large workshops were routinely using such methods for major one-off commissions as well as more standard stock images such as the Virgin and Child. For portraits, where likeness, especially of the face, is key, these techniques enabled the artist to make a number of sketches and work up designs which could be shown to the sitter, and then by tracing the design onto the final support the agreed likeness would be ensured. This way of working has the added bonus of leaving the artist with a separate record of the sitter which could be reused if further portraits were required.  There must have been many such drawings kept in artists’ studios, both likenesses of specific sitters and more generic studies of details such as hands or important jewels, which unfortunately have not survived.