This lecture was part of the Divine Disorder Conference on the Conservation of Outsider Folk art that was organized and hosted by NCPTT. The conference was held February 15-16, 2012 on the campus of Northwestern University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
A Creative Obsession: Materials and Techniques of the Self-Taught Artist James Castle
Identifying the materials of works of art and determining methods of execution through technical study deepens our understanding of an artist’s body of work. Conservators, scientists and historians often have endeavored to identify the materials and techniques of mainstream artists and to develop precise language to articulate their findings. However, this approach rarely has been undertaken for self-taught artists, such as Boise Idaho’s James Castle (1899-1977), who used primarily unconventional and found materials. This paper discusses the first systematic examination of Castle’s art in terms of technical connoisseurship and the scientific investigation of his materials.
Castle’s art—drawings of soot and spit, complex constructions, idiosyncratic books, and whimsical color renderings—embodies a deeply personal vision and artistic language. Previous descriptions of his materials and techniques have been based on his family’s limited recollections of watching him work or on scholarly inference, but these descriptions are incomplete, since Castle—who could not hear, speak or write—left no written records and rarely allowed visitors into his studio. A 2008 retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art allowed for a detailed study of his work and provided new insights into his unique creations.
Close examination of the physical qualities of Castle’s design materials, the tools with which he applied them, and the drawing supports and other paper products he incorporated in his work, revealed his unconventional choices of materials and their properties that were integral, even essential to his artistic result. He developed his own mediums by innovatively using whatever was at hand, including soot mixed with his own saliva, discarded pieces of paper and cardboard, and dyes extracted from colored papers. Practically every material he employed was found in his home environment, from the common household product laundry bluing (a prominent colorant in his art), to the family’s discarded ice cream cartons, to an enormous array of commercial paper products that most likely were obtained from the Castle family’s post office and community store.
Scientific investigation using a complement of microanalytical techniques: MFTIR, GCMS, LDMS, HPLC-PDA, SEM-EDS, TEM, PLM, and XRD, confirmed that in addition to his better-known drawing medium of soot and spit, Castle’s palette included soluble dyes extracted from colored paper and commercial laundry bluing, and revealed more conventional drawing materials such as wax crayons and dry pigments typically found in watercolor or tempera. A total of twenty-two colorants were identified including xanthene, disazo and monoazo reds, which first were developed in the later 19th or early 20th century, and would have been available to Castle in such common materials as colored tissue, textiles and magazines. Several of the organic synthetic pigments detected were not marketed until later in the 1930s to 1950s, and are valuable as markers indicating the earliest possible dates for Castle’s works for which no reliable chronology exists. Similarly, the wealth of commercial printed information present on Castle’s found supports (such as food containers) may prove useful in dating individual works.
Scrutiny of his techniques revealed that Castle understood and deliberately exploited the distinctive qualities of the materials he chose, for example, how well the surface of a particular paper would repel or absorb fluid application of his soot and spit ink or the soluble dyes he extracted from certain colored papers. Aspects of his technique can be interpreted within the context of traditional artistic practices, for instance his development of a drawing medium utilizing stove soot is wonderfully personalized yet links him to centuries-old tradition of producing and drawing with carbon black inks. At the same time, his fascinating artistic output is replete with the kind of experimentation and diversity of materials that might be expected from an artist unconstrained by established conventions. As such, the examination of Castle’s art underscored the challenges of deciphering—and describing—complex mixtures of mediums and idiosyncratic techniques, and points to the need for serious and continued technical study of his work, as well as that of other self-taught artists who have expanded the artistic landscape over the past century.
Nancy Ash is Senior Conservator of Works of Art on Paper at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her prior research includes a systematic study of watermarks in Rembrandt’s etchings and since 2000 she has worked with a programmer to develop the Conservation Tracker System, a stand alone database for conservation records. She served on the AIC Ethics and Standards Committee that produced the 1994 Code of Ethics and in 1984 was a founding member of the Paper Conservation Catalog. She is a graduate of the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. Her previous work experience includes positions at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, Philadelphia and the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.