“Dip it all over in skim’d milk”: Gainsborough’s Working Method

Thomas Gainsborough (English, 1727–1788), Wooded Landscape with Figures and Winding Track Leading to a Cottage, mid- to late 1780s. Watercolor and gouache with lead white on beige laid paper, fixed with gum and skim milk, varnished with mastic. Clark Art Institute. Gift of the Manton Art Foundation in memory of Sir Edwin and Lady Manton, 2007.8.78
From the early 1770s, Gainsborough experimented increasingly with technique. Graphite, black and white chalks, ink washes, watercolor, and touches of oil paint intermingle on toned papers, a material diversity echoed by the artist’s varied rhythmic handling and bold hatched lines. Gainsborough coated chalk compositions with fixative, a liquid substance often made of natural gum dissolved in water, which stabilizes fine pigments to paper and protects them against smudging. Gainsborough also innovated a “secret” recipe to this end: he immersed worked sheets in skim milk. After applying white highlights and color washes over fixed layers of dry media, Gainsborough would take the drawing and “dip it all over in skim’d milk” again. He also brushed some finished drawings with varnish, which added a transparent tint and surface texture that evoked the effect of oil painting.