Sir David Wilkie – A Note On Wilkie’s Methods

THERE are some interesting remarks written by John Burnet, the engraver of many of Wilkie’s paintings, in one of his ” Essays on the Fine Arts,” from which we learn that many of Wilkie’s early pictures were painted on canvas, but that he preferred to work on panels which had been rendered absorbent by being rubbed over with drying oil and turpentine. He always made a small oil sketch of the intended picture, or in pen and ink : and sometimes he would try the general effect when enlarged, by sketching the outline of the figures on the back of the panel in white chalk. He then proceeded to paint the heads and hands from life, and until these were completed left the rest of the picture in outline. In his early pictures he used only drying oil and mastic varnish. Later on he used megilp and wax, mixing the latter with the oil paints and mastic varnish. As we have seen, this method was fatal to the existence of many of the works belonging to his second period and manner, as was also the case with some of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s which were glazed with wax and megilp. Burnet says that Wilkie used to colour the little clay figures he made for models, placing them in a box much of the shape of the interior he intended to paint, grouping them as he wished the figures to appear in his picture, a small opening in the side of the box giving the effect of light as from a window. Burnet thinks that Wilkie’s pictures may be classed in three manners. To the first belong The Blind Fiddler and The Chelsea Pensioners; to the second, The Rabbit on the Wall and The Highland Whisky Still; and to the third, Columbus and John Knox Preaching.

M. de la Sizeranne, in his ” English Contemporary Art,” refers to a statement made on the authority of Holman Hunt, that Wilkie painted on an unprepared white canvas, and finished his picture bit by bit like a fresco, without a preparation of neutral tints. The learned critic is disposed to doubt, however, whether this is in every way an accurate statement.