John Marin: Part 2 Double Elephant

by Kathleen Huebener in Painting Tips

If you are assuming that the double elephant title of Part 2 might refer to John Marin’s artwork titled “Circus Elephants”, I say “Good guess.” Wrong, but a good guess. Although an indirect connection between the title and the painting may exist through the paper. “How so?” you may ask.

To begin, I have been studying John Marin’s Watercolors – A Medium for Modernism. After viewing Marin’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago, I was curious about the materials, both papers and paint, that Marin used. If you paint in watercolors, you too might be interested in what I discovered. As I have always said in my lectures and art classes, “Art is a Journey.” On Marin’s art journey, it started out with his painting watercolor on sketchbook pages.

Marin’s early paintings had evidence of being part of a sketchbook with uneven torn edges and the smooth surface of the seemingly weak paper. As any watercolor artist knows, sketchbook pages are not suitable for the production of finished watercolors. Why did Marin paint on such inferior paper with watercolors? Surprising as this may sound, Marin had no formal education in watercolor painting. He had no art classes nor workshops in watercolor. Marin simply picked up some watercolors one day and started painting on what was available to him at the time, which was his sketchbook.
Sketchbook paper especially does not hold up well for subtraction techniques of scrubbing, scraping, and wiping. Although Marin tried to dry mount the sketchbook pages together for a more firm paper, it would not work. He then began to sample papers made exclusively for watercolor.
Marin switched to a paper that was larger, more texture, and more weight, which means more expensive. This paper was a thick ivory paper of moderate texture with the subtle variations of handmade paper called Whatman double elephant paper. I say the word “was” because the paper is not manufactured any more. An unusually heavy and good quality sheet measured 40 X 27.5 inches. The double elephant was a reference to an early watermark. Marin would trim the sheets to 20 X 27.5 inches and then modify these sheets as needed.
The interesting fact was that Marin became so enthralled with Whatman double elephant paper that he bought an elephant-size amount that lasted for 25 years!
Why did he purchase so much paper? Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, artists believed that older papers were of superior quality because the papers were free of chemical additives that could harm pigments. In addition, they felt that the sizing had broken down, thus allowing the washes to be absorbed better. However, alas, Marin’s stash of paper ran out sometime in the 1940’s. John Marin painted “Circus Elephants” in 1941. There is a possibility that it may have been painted on one of the last sheets of Marin’s Whatman double elephant paper.
With his preferred paper gone, Marin began using contemporary watercolor sheets, moderate to heavy weight with pronounced texture. His favorite papers were from paper manufacturers Whatman and Arches. On this paper, tubes of paint, and not cakes of paint, were his choices of experimentation, because the tubes are moister and can be both diluted and mixed more quickly. Marin would also tab paint directly from the tube on the paper to produce a more opaque effect. Using these new tools, Marin’s approach to painting evolved,
moving toward an increasing freedom of expression.
The rest is history. Art history, that is.
Reflection on Marin’s materials reveals a forewarning for artists intrigued with staying on course. Perhaps an elephant-sized unknown is hampering our own progression on our art journey. Maybe it is the “comfort zone” of only painting in one style, only painting one topic, only painting in one method, only painting with certain colors or on certain paper. The lack of Whatman double elephant paper forced Marin to continue on his journey.
What will force each of us to move past our elephant and onward?
For lo, up ahead on our art journey, the freedom of expression waits!