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.

Discriminating Palettes:   The Painting Materials of Clementine Hunter and Her Imitator


Church:    Next we have Joe Baraby, Senior Microscopic Analyst for McCrone Institute, if I can get this to turn off. Thank you.  Alright. Thank you, Mr. Baraby. There you go.

Baraby:    Good morning. It’s a real pleasure to be here and it was a real honor to assist in this investigation. It was an extremely interesting case that began in ( ? ) of 2009, and I finally delivered my report, which was really long about a year later.

Our main project on this, let’s see here, let me introduce my company a little bit first. We are the McCrone Group and we are in Westmont, Illinois and it was started by Dr. Walter C. McCrone, who is actually quite noted in the paint analysis field. He examined the Shroud of Turin in the 1970’s and also the Vineland Map and those are still quite controversial cases. Some years later, the company was purchased by Donald Brooks and moved to Westmont, Illinois where we still are at, and we have three different companies. I work with McCrone Associates.

We also have an educational branch called the Hooke College of Applied Sciences, and we also have McCrone Microscopes & Accessories, which sells instrumentation. McCrone Associates is the analytical branch of the company and we have lots of interesting instrumentation. The corps of that is what I would say is the light microscope. You saw the picture of Dr. McCrone working with the light microscope and all of the scientists have light microscopes and it remains a very important part of what we do.

The forensic inquiry that we were involved with was defined very nicely by Alex Van Hook and also by Agent Denton. We worked with, it was very structured, we had five known authentic pieces that were purchased by our first speaker, Mr. Whitehead. We had five suspected pieces and we also had five works that we examined and photographed, but we did not do a physical analysis on. But the original five of Mr. Whitehead’s and the suspected ones, we did full analysis plus visual analysis on these as well. We photographed them and did some of that work.

When I say visual analysis, we should be a little bit careful. I am not an art historian. We also looked at signatures, but I am not a forensic document examiner, so take these portions with a grain of salt, but what we did was photograph them each, front and back, took close up photographs of signatures of interest and other areas of interest. Usually the eyes, I found were extremely interesting. We sampled each of the materials, roughly about ten samples per painting and analyzed them using some of the instrumentation that we have, and we ended up by comparing and contrasting the various kinds of data that these analyses generated.

In an investigation of this sort, now Clementine had a very long working creative life, so it was important, if you’re going to be comparing, it’s important to compare like to like.  So, the prosecutors chose very wisely in that they chose all from one time period. In the field of forensic document examination, if you’re comparing right, it all should be as close to contemporaneous as possible with one another. So all of these were centered around this period of around 1970, plus or minus five years, and that’s one of the ways that they are able to show that is because her signature evolved considerably over the years. Don’t forget too, she was a illiterate, so when you use the word signature, you have to take that with a little bit of a grain of salt and that actually plays in later on we will see.

This is us working, and one of the reasons I like this picture is that it emphasizes the fact that there is no analysis of this sort that is done by one person. It’s all teamwork. At McCrone Associates, one of the things that’s wonderful about working in a laboratory like that is I have colleagues with whom I can collaborate on projects and that’s really important and everybody here, you can see we’re working art and we’re working as a team.

Besides those fifteen paintings that we originally discussed, we were also provided with an artist palette. I did not actually sample that myself but that was actually sampled and documented by Jason Church, and we also received those many confiscated paints and I’ll talk a little bit about those later as well.

Let’s talk briefly about the analytical methods that we employ. As I mentioned each of the analysts at McCrone has a polarizing light microscope, which is this instrument here and also a stereo microscope here. In the picture of me working, of the team working, here in Natchitoches, you saw a different kind of stereo microscope but they’re all working the same way.  ( ? ) for lower magnifications, and we primarily use them for initial inspections and for sampling and for sample preparation. But this is a photograph through the microscope and it gives you a little bit of an idea of what kind of information the light microscope provides.  The fact that we have all of these bright materials, bright shining things in here tells us that these particles have more than one refractive index and that gives us some really good information about them that correlates with the chemical information.

All of the samples that I examined, we looked at through the polarizing light microscope and all of them were also examined with this instrument, a scanning electron microscope with energy dispersive x-ray spectrometry, which ( ?) which is a big word for basically saying it provides us with elemental information. What are the elements that make up the sample. This one, for example, has calcium and phosphorus and is a signature for bone black. We also used Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy or FTIR, very commonly used instrumentation and it provides information about organic materials which of course, if you’re doing elemental analysis that’s not going to give you much information. But this gives you a spectral signature and this allowed us to identify, for example, that all of the paintings that we examined, both the Clementine Hunter’s and the questioned ones, they were all oil paintings. So again, we were dealing with apples and apples and not a mixture of different kinds of materials.

We also used Raman spectrometry, which is a complimentary method to infrared spectroscopy and also provides some very good analyses. For example, here’s the ( ? ) in green taken from this painting. This is the hospital, which was the very first painting that I examined and I sort of fell in love with Clementine Hunter’s work in examining this painting.  It has this strange, sort of almost out in the, a hospital in the middle of nowhere, out in space almost, it seems. But what really got me was looking at these under the microscope, there’s some really fine, fine work in the eyes and if you’re interested in comparing and contrasting the forgeries from the originals, get close up with a magnifying glass or even better a stereo microscope and the difference between the Toye’s work and Clementine’s work itself is really extraordinary. In order to create that eye and this is a scale, a one millimeter scale down here, so we’re talking very, very small. She created the eye by doing one dab of white, one dab of black, and touched it up with a little bit of red. This is extraordinary work. She’s a folk artist but the command that she had over her materials is extraordinary.

Her signatures, on the other hand, are awkward at best. In the field on handwriting analysis, one of the terms that you constantly see in their reports are line quality. In other words, they’re talking about the smoothness of the lines and with writing, the whole object is to have in your brain the model of what you’re doing so that when you create your signature, you just do it automatically. This is not written automatically. We have a form underneath in pencil and if you look carefully, okay there is created here, here, here, there’s actually a line up here that was started but the actual line going down here is actually a little bit lower, is drawn, not written. So there’s a different mental program that created, that was used in creating the signature. Whereas, her painting is very fluid, her signatures are almost universally quite awkward.

This was the first of the questioned paintings, the Wedding Day that I encountered and after having looked at five paintings close up, for this one to be brought out, completely unscientifically, I have to say I was physically repulsed by this painting. It was an extraordinary reaction that was spontaneous and perhaps not very scientific but I felt as if I was in the presence of something very bad, very evil.  Looking at this close up, the cracks were filled with dirt, the paint itself is almost transparent, and the eyes were created with lots of jerky little movements.  Let’s go back for a second. Let’s take a look at Clementine Hunter’s work. Her paint here is all opaque. We have a very smooth background here. The impasto is well controlled. The background here is quite variegated. You’ll see that, here’s another one. This is Uncle Tom’s eye, very transparent. The fact that the background, instead of being smooth is full of variegation really comes through with this highly transparent paint.

This is the signature from the Wedding Day and you can see its motion, motion, motion, motion. This is a signature. This is easily, quickly written. No hesitation. This one too. Look at the background here. Instead of it being a smooth Clementine Hunter background, this looks like it was done with a paint roller. I can’t imagine any paint brush that would create that other than a roller. The materials that we analyzed we put into these different forms and into tables to basically compare the materials and one of the things that was fascinating was the whites and the blacks are always the paints that you pay the most attention to and the ground materials because these are the artists’ normal way of working. This is harder to follow, but this to me was the essence of the report that we submitted to Attorney Van Hook and Agent Denton.

This contained the gist of the evidence that Hunter CHN, the questioned Hunter QCH, are truly different artists and while there’s some overlap in here of materials that they had in common; for example both artists used cadmium yellow, the greatest difference is in the whites, zinc white greater than titanium white, and in the case of the questioned, it was primarily titanated lithopone, which is this guy here. We found one of those in Clementine Hunter’s but not too many. One of the fascinating things from a materials usage too is we see here ultramarine blue in just about all of the questioned pieces and none in Clementine Hunters’. Now if you analyze art, you see ultramarine blue from when it was invented, the synthetic form, once it was invented in the early 1800’s, you see it everywhere because it’s a wonderful pure blue and it’s relatively inexpensive, but Hunter didn’t seem to use it or at least none of the paintings that I examined had any at all. Also bone black, she used bone black completely. She also used iron black but all of the paintings in the questioned pieces were carbon black. They’re both good materials but very different.

The other material that we see here in good supply is dolomite and dolomite is a filler material. Let’s take a look at that a little bit more. Well here’s the blue paint and this will show, we’re switching gears a little bit on blue paints, this is not about ultramarine blue anymore, but this is a cobalt violet that was in one of the Clementine paintings. You can see that this, this is what I like to see. These are good professional grade materials. They’re all good stuff. In Clementine, in the questioned piece, there is no inorganic blue material. It’s all, it’s almost all the titanium, barium, zinc, sulfur. It’s almost all filler material and opacifier with some organic material. It’s a much less expensive material. The blacks, as I mentioned are very different. The QCH’s are all basically [ ? ] black or carbon black, whereas Clementine’s were the calcium and phosphorus of bone black.  It became monotonous to see in all of the five paintings that I examined from the questioned this kind of view that we saw earlier combined with the elemental distribution of calcium and magnesium, carbon and oxygen, magnesium carbonate or dolomite, it became you see, you see the bright field of materials. Basically we’re dealing with very low quality student grade materials. I shouldn’t say low quality but they were definitely student grade materials, much cheaper than professional quality materials that Hunter seemed to be using consistently.

I’m amazed Mr. Whitehead had mentioned that she only used materials that people brought her. They were bringing her good stuff, really good quality materials, and she must have put in orders because the consistency of her palette is remarkable. We also looked at 231 paints that were seized by the FBI and of those, 92 of those were Windsor Newton oil paints and 86 of them were of the Winton, which is a student grade material. We did some analyses and many of them did contain magnesium, calcium magnesium carbonate or dolomite.

We looked at a lot at the visual characteristics as well and compared those. This is a little, we won’t go through all of this but just awkward, poorly executed signatures, fluid while consistently well formed. What we’re able to do a little bit of too and which I think, I recommended that actually that they employ a forensic document examiner to really examine and analyze these signatures. I just noticed the one thing myself, that if you look at the width to length ratios in the backward C’s, you’ve got different proportions here. You’ve got 1.1 to 1.4 whereas they’re almost equal 1 to 1 in the questioned. So if you look at them, you see how the height here to the length, is almost 1 to 1, whereas it’s longer here and a little higher here and if you look at the way, at the symmetry of these, this is all good analyzable material.

We talked about the eyes. Here’s an eye from one of Clementine’s paintings, here’s an eye from one of the questioned and again, when you’re looking, when we step into the gallery, there’s going to be a big magnifying glass on one. Take the time to look at that and being a microscopist, I always carry a magnifier with me so if anybody wants to borrow a magnifier, tap me on the shoulder in the gallery.

It really is beneficial to look at these materials and see the differences; it will give you some good insights. In closing, I would, the painting that really touched, that I found the most moving, and especially in retrospect when I was able to examine these photographs that we had made though the microscope, this is one that I did not do any chemical analysis on, this was one of the Brittain images, but the amount of emotion that she was able to pour into these two grieving angels, with these again, the scale, this is one millimeter scale down here, it’s just amazing. With that, I thank you for your attention.


The paintings of Clementine Hunter, an illiterate and self-taught folk artist from Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, once sold for pennies but now command prices in the tens of thousands of dollars.  In recent years, a number of works attributed to her have been suspected to be forgeries.  In the course of the criminal investigation, McCrone Associates was contracted to examine a number of works purchased directly from her, and thus of known authenticity, and compare their material constituents with works suspected to be imitations.  The comparative analyses proved useful to the investigators, as both groups had both distinctive palettes and a number of visual characteristics as well.  This presentation will summarize McCrone’s findings and show the efficacy of the comparative approach, which can be enormously effective in generating data of evidentiary value.

Barabe studies one of the Toye forgeries

The following items were examined:
•    Five paintings, purchased directly from Hunter in the 1970s by one collector, were examined, photographed front and back, with close up photographs made with a stereomicroscope of signatures and other details.  Samples were taken of a range of colors representative of her palette and analyzed in our laboratory.
•    Five paintings, purchased directly from Hunter in the 1970s by another collector, were examined, photographed front and back, with close up photographs made with a stereomicroscope of signatures and other details.  In this group was not sampled and received only visual analysis.
•    Five paintings, purchased from a third party and whose authenticity was questioned, were also examined, photographed front and back, with close up photographs made with a stereomicroscope of signatures and other details.  Samples were taken of a range of colors representative of the artist’s palette and analyzed in our laboratory.

The analytical methods performed on the paint samples included polarized light microscopy (PLM), energy dispersive x-ray spectrometry in the scanning electron microscope (EDS in the SEM), Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and Raman spectroscopy.  The results were summarized in tabular form, and a chart was created showing the distribution of painting materials between the five known Hunters and the five questioned paintings.  Both artists had distinct palettes, but they differed significantly in a number of materials.

Comparison of the photographic images, especially the photomicrographs, also provided important evidence. Not only did the materials themselves differ, the manner in which they were applied in the paintings also differed.  Major differences were found in economy of brush strokes to produce, for example, a subject’s eye; in the use of underdrawings; and in the manner in which the background paint was applied.  Photomicrography also documented the presence of dirt in the questioned paintings; this is a commonly used method to “age” a painting. Notably, there were major differences in the manner in which the signatures were applied to the paintings as well:  in the authentic paintings, they were painted, whereas, in the questioned paintings, they were written.

In summary, significant differences were found between the known authentic paintings and those of questioned authenticity.  This paper will describe the analytical methods used, the data generated during the analyses, and the conclusions the analyses permitted to be drawn.

Speaker Biography


Joseph Barabe is Senior Research Microscopist and Director of Scientific Imaging at McCrone Associates in Westmont, IL. He has a bachelor degree from Michigan State University, where he studied both liberal arts and sciences.  He studied paint pigment analysis and art authentication under the mentorship of Dr. Walter C. McCrone, founder of McCrone Associates.  As a microscopist, he consults in art and historical object materials’ analyses and authentication studies. He presents often at technical symposia and has published numerous papers in professional journals on scientific imaging, pigment and ink analysis, printing process identification and other topics, and interesting case studies such as his photomacrography of the Zapruder film of the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, analysis of the Gospel of Judas codex, the Archaic Mark forgery and, most recently, the analysis of the mysterious Voynich Manuscript.