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Turner's Gumtion - Perspectives No. 312

Turner's Gumtion

Perspectives No. 312

J.M.W. Turner, Venice: the Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore, 1834
Venice:  the Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore         1834        J.M.W. Turner


   Modern oil paint mediums have come a very long way since the time of J.M.W. Turner (1775 - 1851) and Joshua Reynolds (1723 - 1792). Both of these painters, along with many others, used a medium, mixed with their oil paints, known then variously as Gumtion, McGuilpis, Macgilp and Megilp. No matter what it was called, the formula was essentially a mixture of mastic varnish and an oil such as walnut, linseed, safflower, or poppy oil, cooked with litharge or white lead.


   Early oil paints were a combination of oils, pigments and resins and took weeks, if not years, to fully dry. An artist could not add another layer of paint on top of a previous "un-dry" layer without the risk of the paint slowly dripping down the canvas. Turner’s particular formulation of the medium megilp consisted of dried resin from mastic trees, lead acetate, linseed oil and turpentine. The resulting butter-colored, jellylike concoction enabled his oil layers to dry within days, ready for the next layer. This allowed him to quickly build up luminous glazes of color giving his work a glowing appearance of sunlight. Despite his famous carelessness about using fugitive reds in his paintings, it appears that Turner was careful to formulate his megilp properly so that it would not darken over time. The effect was sensational for the day and helped to make him famous. It is possible that, without megilp, Turner may not have gained as much acclaim for his work. There is conjecture, however, that the detrimental changes seen in some of Reynold's paintings may have resulted from his reliance on a less durable formulation of megilp.

   Scientists have unraveled the chemical properties of Turner’s megilp to figure out why the mixture works. They have discovered that the lead component of the mix generates a highly reactive form of oxygen. It reacts with the oils, speeding up their drying time. It also catalyzes the formation of an elastic organic-inorganic gel that holds pigments in place when additional paint layers are added.

   Modern megilps, such as Gamblin’s Neo-Megilp, have been reformulated to get rid of the toxic lead, replacing it with a synthetic alkyd to achieve similar properties. The new version will not turn yellow or darken over time. We use Neo-Megilp often and find that it is a superb medium for creating transparencies in both direct painting and glazing. It is also our choice for turning a stiff oil paint into a buttery one without resorting to paint thinner, which breaks down the bonding qualities in paint. Because Neo-Megilp dries more quickly than oil and adds elasticity to the paint film, it is an ideal substitute for oil when painting “fat over lean”. The added elasticity of the outer fat layers ensures that the shrinkage of the drying under-layers will not crack the outer, drier paint film. It is recommended to allow 2 to 3 days drying time between layers painted this way. We don’t always have the patience to follow that suggestion, so, like Turner, time will tell.

   For the whole story on oil painting mediums, see our article, "Understanding Oil Painting Mediums."

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About Us

Photograph of John Hulsey and Ann Trusty in Glacier National Park
We are artists, authors and teachers with over 40 years of experience in painting the world's beautiful places. We created The Artist's Road in order to share our knowledge and experiences with you, and create a community of like-minded individuals.  You can learn more about us and see our original paintings by clicking on the links below.
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