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Practice Makes Imperfect: Reynolds's Painting Technique

Alexandra Gent, Ashok Roy, and Rachel Morrison 
Technical Bulletin Volume 35, 2014


Volume 35 of the Technical Bulletin is a special edition devoted to the techniques and materials used by Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the most successful of British portraitists and from 1768, first President of the Royal Academy in London. It was well known in his day that paintings by Reynolds were fragile and vulnerable to change, and that his flesh paints had a notorious tendency to fade. It was only later in his career that he attempted, with mixed success, to modify his technique to reduce the rapid deterioration of his works.

The material complexities of Reynolds’s work were the focus of a research project begun in November 2010 by the Wallace Collection, the National Gallery’s sister institution in London. In collaboration with the National Gallery’s Scientific Department, this project sought to undertake study and analysis of the twelve paintings in the Wallace Collection, and to make meticulous technical comparison with the five paintings in the National Gallery.

This extended essay brings together the observations made on these paintings – described in detail in the catalogue entries – in order to evaluate various aspects of Reynold’s painting technique. This essay sets the findings of this technical examination in a broader context, discussing the general features of Reynolds’s material practices and surveying his choice of supports, ground layers, pigments and paint binders over the course of his long career. Reynolds’s distinctively elaborate painting practices and their impact on both the present condition of his pictures and their often complex and unpredictable conservation needs are also considered.


Reynolds, painting technique, conservation, cleaning, varnish, drying oil, wax, pine resin, mastic, copaiba balsam, copal, canvas, wood, metal, preparatory layers, sketches, underdrawing, dead colour, paint defects, vermilion, earth pigments, red lake, cochineal, ultramarine, Prussian blue, smalt, orpiment, Naples yellow, yellow lake, patent yellow, Cologne earth, bitumen, lead white, bone black, charcoal

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To cite this article we suggest using

Gent, A., Roy, A. and Morrison, R., ‘Practice Makes Imperfect: Reynolds's Painting Technique’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin Vol. 35, 2014, pp. 12–31.

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