Even the most ambiguous title can bring meaning to a work of art. It is also a useful way to identify a work, yet every so often an artwork’s title, among other details, may be missing, modified or mis-recorded. NGV Conservators use various scientific methods to aid the detective work involved in discovering and verifying important details of an artwork. An interesting example of this is Rain in West Pymble (1968), a painting by prominent Australian artist, Dick Watkins. A technical study that involved identifying the type of paint medium used in this painting offered additional ‘clues’ to help confirm the original title of the work.
In 2014 Rain in West Pymble (1968) was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) with a different title: Dusk at 97A, 1968. For over three decades, Rain in West Pymble was the title of a different painting by Watkins held in the Chandler Coventry Collection at the New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM). The stylistic similarities may have contributed to the switch in the titles of these two paintings decades earlier. Both paintings feature gestural forms and painterly lines of vibrant colour with cool undertones, over which stencilled dots have been applied in a grid-like formation. The use of dots in this manner is particularly distinctive to these two paintings and rarely appear in Watkins’s other works from this period.
Watkins is known for his diverse approach to painting using varied abstract styles such as colour field, assemblage and action painting. This was in part due to his wide-ranging influences, including iconic artists Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock and Kenneth Noland. After living in London for three years (1959 –1961), Watkins took up painting full-time upon his return to Australia, and quickly became a leading proponent of new abstract painting. He was a key participant in The Field, the first major survey exhibition of Australian colour field painting and hard-edge abstraction, which was presented by the NGV in 1968. This was the same year Watkins completed Rain in West Pymble and Dusk at 97A, working from his father’s house at West Pymble, Sydney. Another similarity these paintings share is the reference their titles make to this location, with the view of rain or dusk in this part of Sydney becoming a source of inspiration.
The NGV holds 21 paintings and drawings by Watkins spanning three decades of his career. Unlike his other works in the collection, Rain in West Pymble has no inscriptions on the reverse, which may have assisted in verifying the original title. Other inconsistencies found in exhibition catalogues and archival documents led to art historian, Dr Mary Eagle, to ask for help from the NGV in clarifying the title of the work, as part of her extensive research on Watkins’s oeuvre. For instance, the records show that Rain in West Pymble is 30cm larger in height and width than Dusk at 97A, which proved to be the case when comparing the dimensions of both works.
NGV Conservators are trained to use a range of scientific techniques that can assist with gathering information about a work of art to support documentary sources. Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy are two common techniques for paint analysis. Identifying the molecular compounds and chemical elements of a material helps to determine the binding medium and pigments present in an artwork. The results for Rain in West Pymble, (1968), revealed that our original recorded medium of ‘enamel and oil’ was not completely accurate. The painting was found to be primarily made with PVA (polyvinyl acetate) paints, while the stencilled dots were another synthetic paint called alkyd. This was an integral piece of evidence supporting what the documentary sources were indicating.
PVA paint became popular for commercial house paints in the mid-twentieth century. It produces a flat, matte surface finish that has a brightening effect on colour, due to the way light absorbs and scatters across the paint surface. Watkins also chose a bold colour palette for Rain in West Pymble, including chrome orange and quinacridone red: two intense synthetic pigments identified through the paint analysis. The softer pink-painted passages are made with red ochre, a natural and cost-effective mineral pigment used in house paints. 1
The blue dots have a gloss sheen that produces a subtle optical effect (like sunlight glistening on drops of rain, as per the painting’s title). They are made with a Prussian blue pigmented alkyd paint often referred to as ‘enamel’, a generic term applied to high gloss paints of all types. Paint drips and a spray halo are visible across the dots indicating that they were applied by spray can and stencil. Watkins used the effect for the first time in 1968. Four years later, in 1972, Daniel Thomas described Watkins’s 1972 use of enamel paints as a homage to Pollock, but he also explained how the
‘…enamel shines, lies on the canvas surface, and preserves the rapidity of the artist’s actions; the acrylic is matt, soaks into the canvas, and records the slower staining of the paint acting on its own.’2
This same effect can be observed in Rain in West Pymble. At certain angles, the dots reflect the light and shine, and create movement across the surface that is reminiscent of rain drops.
This conservation study demonstrates there is always more to discover about works of art that can offer us a fuller appreciation of how they are made and the artist’s creative legacy. The evidence acquired through scientific methods can be particularly significant, and in this case, was pivotal to verifying Rain in West Pymble as the original and correct title of Watkins’s painting in the NGV Collection. From a historical standpoint, a title is a meaningful part of an artwork and of equal importance for its preservation as its material form.
Raymonda Rajkowski is Conservator of Paintings at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Stuart Croll, Overview of Developments in the Paint Industry since 1930 in Thomas Learner, Patricia Smithen, Michael Schilling, Jay W. Krueger (eds), Modern Paints Uncovered, Proceedings from the Modern Paints Uncovered Symposium, 16-19 May 2006, Tate Modern, London, p. 23.
Daniel Thomas, Serious, ambitious and gifted artist, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Dec. 1972, p. 17.