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Marianne North's Painting Materials: The plants in paint

Emma Le Cornu
21 September 2010

Read about the work of the Marianne North conservators and their research into the materials that she used. Find out how you can come and see a demonstration by the team.

The conservation of Marianne North’s paintings has presented a unique opportunity to research the materials that she used. This not only helps with deciding what conservation treatments to use, but also gives us an insight into how Marianne North painted and where she obtained her materials. There are many ways to discover what paints she used. The most accessible source is historical information. This includes writings from the artist herself and from records telling us what was available in her time.

Another step in discovering what paints she used is to look closely at the paints themselves. This can involve taking very small samples of the different colours from a painting. These can then be examined under a microscope or tested with more complex equipment that has been borrowed from forensic science. Whilst Marianne North depicted plants in her paintings, she also used plants in her painting materials. Many of the traditional colours used by artists have been derived from plants. Even with the introduction of synthetic colours in the nineteenth century, when Marianne North was painting, these natural colours were still popular with artists.

Paints from plants

Madder is a bright pink to red colour and is obtained from the madder plant (Rubia tinctorum), through the drying and fermenting of the roots. This colour is still manufactured in this way today and can be seen at the Winsor and Newton factory.

 Detail of painting number 76, illuminated in Ultraviolet light.


Madder has been detected in many of Marianne North’s paintings, by a simple method of viewing the surface in Ultraviolet light (see above image). A component that is very specific to this colour reacts to the light, telling us that Madder has been used. Indigo is a deep blue made from pressing the leaves of the indigo plant, Indigofera tinctoria.


Flowers of a Dogwood and an Indigo from the Himalayas, Marianne North, painting number: 560


Sap green is made from the juice of Buckthorn berries (Rhamnus cathartica). Other colours are resins extracted from trees and are given names which make suggestions of their origin; Brazilwood, Logwood and Dragon’s blood. These colours are not so easy to detect and in these cases, small samples may need to be taken from the paintings for closer examination. The plants that these colours are derived from can also be found in the Gardens at Kew, a link that Marianne North also intended for her paintings, from viewing cultivated plants in the Gardens, to seeing them depicted in their natural habitats in the gallery.

Learn more at Kew

Links from the plants through to the painting materials can also be made through the collections at Kew, from the living collections in the Gardens to the Economic Botany collection (which holds the raw materials for the colours through to the finished products) to the Marianne North paintings and the extensive botanical art collection, where these colours have been used to depict plants.

Through our continuing research we hope to make some exciting discoveries about Marianne North’s techniques, including which plants can be found in the materials of her paint. Keep a look out for a following blog with the results from our analysis.

The Marianne North Conservation team give free informal talks/demonstrations on the project and Marianne North once a month. The gallery is currently closed while the original paintings are re-hung and some minor work is carried out on the building, therefore the next talk will be held on: 24th September, 2.30pm, at the  Shirley Sherwood Gallery.

- Emma -

Further Information

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