James Ensor was so skilled at palette knife painting that he was able to apply the technique to great optical effect. In this article, restorer Karen Bonne explores Ensor's quest for the perfect touch.
James Ensor often used a palette knife to apply his paints and to work them on the canvas. Drawing inspiration from his elder colleagues Guillaume Vogels, Pericles Pantazis and Louis Dubois –Belgian followers of the French Realist Gustave Courbet – he developed this technique to great effect 1. The paintings discussed in this article illustrate his quest for the perfect touch.
In the course of the 19th century, the palette or painting knife became an essential tool in many an artist's toolkit, playing an increasingly important role in their creative endeavours. Previously, it had served a purely functional role as a tool for preparing paints 2.
The Back of a Chair, an early work by James Ensor, testifies to a slightly hesitant, tentative touch on the part of the artist. At this stage, Ensor was clearly still exploring the possibilities of palette knife painting.
James Ensor, Back of Chair, ca. 1880?, oil on cardboard 21.5 x 16 cm, KMSKA long-term loan
Many of the strokes in the painting are composed of multiple touches. In this instance, Ensor used a fine, highly flexible palette knife to distribute the paints across the surface by means of brisk left-to-right movements, pressing the knife against the cardboard with every pause.
Microscopic detail (x12) showing the gradual build-up of the paint surface
Obviously Ensor was playing here with the various effects that can be achieved with a palette knife. For example, the paint may be applied in very quick touches, as exemplified by the darkish grey stroke at the centre of the image below, which was executed in a single movement. The more pressure one exerts on the palette knife, the more paint accumulates at the sides, which thus become accentuated. A palette knife can also be used to work wet paint previously applied on the canvas. This technique, too, is in evidence in the image below. The stripy effect in the top left was created by repeatedly moving the tip of a palette knife through the wet paint with some pressure.
Microscopic detail (x12) showing a layered build-up of the paint surface
This kind of experimentation with effects is characteristic of Ensor’s entire oeuvre. In The Oyster Eater he combined the palette knife technique with comparatively thinly painted areas..
James Ensor, The Oyster Eater (previously In the Land of Colours), 1882, canvas 207 x 105 cm,
KMSKA inv. 2073
In this instance, Ensor’s use of the palette knife for highlighting is quite deliberate and particularly effective thanks to the thickness of the paint. There is no evidence whatsoever of any hesitation. The knife behind the bread roll, for example, was painted entirely with a palette knife. The addition of red and blue touches on the metallic surface of the knife creates the illusion that it is covered in something. The same colours have been applied on the bread roll using a brush. The difference in effect is quite noticeable. The reflection of the light on the wine bottle is accentuated in a similar way.
The Oyster Eater, detail illustrating the layered build-up of the knife and the accents of
light in the background
James Ensor made extensive use of the palette knife in Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, a painting from 1887. The sheer size of the canvas made it ideally suited for the technique.
James Ensor, Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, oil on canvas 206 x 245 cm, KMSKA inv. 2072
Ensor used a rather broad palette knife to paint the entire background in quick, pasty touches. Again, there is evidence of a layered application of paints, whereby Ensor effectively mixed the colours on the canvas by placing them alongside and on top of each other. He subsequently worked the paints using a variety of stiff brushes.
Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, detail of pasty paint touches
Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, detail of optical mixing of colours
Once again, Ensor plays with the contrast of pasty touches and thinner strokes, occasionally scraping his palette knife along the canvas by applying greater pressure on the blade.
Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, pasty yellow touches over white areas
In his later work, Ensor made less frequent use of the palette knife, and invariably in combination with other tools. This change of technique was in line with a more general evolution in painting, as more and more artists were abandoning palette knife painting altogether. The following excerpt from a letter by Rik Wouters to Simon Lévy is illustrative of this trend.
"Je ne travaille plus de parti pris avec le couteau. Je l’emploie le moins possible. La brosse est d'ailleurs très agréable." - (19 July 1911) 4
Ensor succeeded in applying the palette knife to great optical effect. Apart from his lifelong experimentation with the representation of colour and light, Ensor also continued throughout his career to play with textural contrasts. Especially between 1876 and 1889, this often involved a palette knife. Later on in his career, he achieved similar contrasts by combining pasty touches with thinly painted areas and highly diluted paints.
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1 H. Todts,
Ensor – Wouters en weerom. Misverstanden omtrent het modernisme, in
Rik Wouters – Bronnen en werken, Paleis voor Schone Kunsten Brussel, 2002, p. 33
2 E. Geudeker, Het bestek van de schilder: penselen, kwasten, paletmes en schilderstok, in Mythen van het atelier – Werkplaats en schilderpraktijk van de negentiende eeuwse Nederlandse kunstenaar, red. M. Jonkman, E. Geudeker, RKD, 2010, p. 137
3 W.A. Radford, Radford’s Cyclopedia of Construction, volume 10, 1909
4 R. Avermaete, Rik Wouters, 1986, p. 78