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Fingerprints and thumb marks

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Fingermarks are not readily associated with art, yet keen observers will be aware that they occur quite commonly in paintings. In this article, restorer Karen Bonne discusses some fingermarks in the work of James Ensor.

It is not unusual for artists to touch the surface of their paintings with their fingers, for example to stop the paint from running or to remove excess paint, or even to alter the structure of the paint layer. This presupposes a quick painterly approach, whereby the artist comes into direct contact with the materials used. Other artists may prefer to use a cloth, which will likewise leave characteristic wipe marks. Ensor, too, frequently used his fingers during painting, as is apparent from the marks discovered in several of his works in the collection of KMSKA. A number of fingerprints have for example been found in Woman with Blue Shawl from 1881. They appear primarily in the greyish white mantelpiece, an area where the artist applied the paint in several layers, working it with both a palette knife and his thumb.

James Ensor, Woman with Blue Shawl, 1881, oil on canvas, 75.3 x 60.3, signed and dated bottom left: ENSOR 81, KMSKA inv. no. 3384.
James Ensor, Woman with Blue Shawl, 1881, oil on canvas, 75.3 x 60.3, signed and dated bottom left: ENSOR 81, KMSKA inv. no. 3384.

In this instance, the fingermarks as such do not contribute to the eventual texture of the painting, so that they should be regarded as silent witnesses to Ensor’s work in progress rather than as deliberate touches for effect.
Most of these fingerprints are partial. They are most probably thumb marks, as this is the most suitable finger for working paint layers in this manner. Also, photographs of Ensor at his easel show very clearly how his entire left hand is occupied with holding his palette. As Ensor used to paint quickly, we may therefore assume that he generally used the thumb of his right hand to dab at the paint.

Woman with Blue Shawl (detail): partial fingerprint in the paint layer (NORM) Ensor at work, palette in hand  
LEFT: Woman with Blue Shawl (detail): partial fingerprint in the paint layer (NORM) - RIGHT: Ensor at work, palette in hand

There is one area in the painting where the artist applied the paint directly with his finger. This imprint of white paint appears over the greyish green background, with which it has partially blended. So clearly Ensor’s finger was already covered in white paint before it came into contact with the canvas. But how can one tell the difference between a brushstroke and a finger stroke? Well, this is illustrated quite clearly in the photographs below: it is apparent in the characteristic lines left by a thumb and in the manner that the paint settles in between those lines. Our fingerprints are made up of neatly aligned curved ridges that produce a very regular pattern in the paint, with small characteristic notches where the mark suddenly stops. By comparison, the hairs of a brush are more rigid, so that when they are forced in a particular direction they tend to overlap, creating a tangle of lines. The manner in which the paint settles in between those lines depends on the pressure applied, whereas in the case of a fingerprint the paint usually bulges slightly.

 

Woman with Blue Shawl (detail): partial fingerprint in the paint layer, raking light (RL)

LEFT: Woman with Blue Shawl (detail): partial fingerprint in the paint layer, raking light (RL) - RIGHT: Woman with Blue Shawl (detail): brushstroke, raking light (RL)
Woman with Blue Shawl (detail): brushstroke, raking light
 

In addition to paintings bearing such partial fingerprints, there is one in the museum collection where Ensor seems to have used his fingers much more deliberately, namely Woman on a Breakwater, from 1880. In this painting, Ensor worked much of the initial layer of colour with his fingers.

James Ensor, Woman on a Breakwater, 1880, oil on canvas, 30.7 x 22.6 cm, signed and dated bottom left: ENSOR 81, KMSKA inv. no. 1853.

James Ensor, Woman on a Breakwater, 1880, oil on canvas, 30.7 x 22.6 cm, signed and dated bottom left: ENSOR 81, KMSKA inv. no. 1853.

Here, the finger strokes are essential to the end result: they were clearly applied for effect. Ensor wiped the wet paint with his thumb, both in the undulating movements (red line) and in the straight movements (blue line). One can actually trace the movement of his finger in the surface of the painting.

Woman on a Breakwater (detail): direction of the lines (NORM) Woman on a Breakwater (detail): direction of the lines, raking light (RL)
LEFT: Woman on a Breakwater (detail): direction of the lines (NORM) - RIGHT: Woman on a Breakwater (detail): direction of the lines, raking light (RL).

A close-up photo in raking light (RL) reveals how the artist proceeded. He first applied the greyish brown paint layer (visible in the centre of the photo), which he subsequently worked with his thumb. He then used a brush to superimpose the white sunshade and the blue air. The fact that the underlying structure is still visible suggests that Ensor paused in between the two phases. Had he not, then the new layer would have erased the previous structure entirely. Under a microscope, the fluency of the finger movement is quite apparent. Ensor placed his thumb in the wet paint and moved it downward in a straight line, then paused for a moment before continuing in a different direction, hence the slight kink.

Woman on a Breakwater (detail): microscopic enlargement (x9)

Woman on a Breakwater (detail): microscopic enlargement (x9)

Karen BONNE

 

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