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This is just some of the research our team has found on the painting technique of Emil Carlsen.  We hope it helps artists around the world who contact us on a regular basis to learn more about this topic.


There is little discussion in the history books about the actual painting technique of artist Emil Carlsen.  In the late Victorian era, the idea of talking about painting technique in itself, separate from other aspects of painting, would not usually have been done.  But, during Carlsen’s lifetime as a teacher, he started to formalize his own ideas of painting.  The ideas, however, were largely about painting concepts and ways to approach it and less about the specifics, as seen in his advice to young students of painting in the Palette and Bench article in 1908 “On Still-life Painting”  (See article on our website at: http://emilcarlsen.org/portfolio/palette-and-bench-on-still-life-painting-by-emil-carlsen-october-1908-volume-1-issue-1-pg-6-8).



Carlsen also experimented and was interested in egg tempera which he used after 1900 into the early teens in combination with oil paint.  He discussed the technique more specifically in another Palette and Bench article in 1909 “On Tempera Painting”:  See our site for the entire article: http://emilcarlsen.org/portfolio/1909-palette-and-bench-on-painting-with-tempera-by-emil-carlsen-june-july-1909-volume-1-9-10-pg-202-203-224-225





Much is made of Carlsen being a “self-taught” artist.  Carlsen himself would add to his own mystic by claiming formal training and denying being trained as it suited him.


It is true that Carlsen did receive at least basic art, design, and architectural training in Denmark at the Technical Institute of Copenhagen under J. A. Stillmann [1822-1875] and at the Royal Academy of Art [Kunstakademiet] from 1866 to 1869 under Ferdinand Meldahl [1827-1908].  Carlsen did paintings during this period, although most are badly drafted and flatly painting.


Growing up Carlsen’s mother was a hobbist flower painter trained by I.L. Jensen [1800-1856].  Carlsen may have been deeply effected by his mother’s hobby since he would devote a large amount of his own life painting still-life.  Also possibly influencing his choice to become a painter was his admiration for his cousin, only three years his senior, who would become one of the most celebrated nautical painters of Denmark, Viggo Johansen [1851-1935].  Carlsen learned basic seascape and ship painting from Johansen.  Carlsen’s technique closely mimiced his cousin’s style, applying thinly painted dark brown, black, and dark blue colors down and accenting the scene with thickly painted white for any areas of light.  You can see Johansen’s influence on Carlsen in his very early works.  Carlsen’s work at this time was flat, and followed accepted conventions of seascape and nautical painting in Denmark.





While Emil Carlsen was mostly “self-taught” as an artist, it would be incorrect to say that he did not pick up various techniques and methods throughout his career from his fellow artists.  Carlsen met William Merritt Chase, the Boston School painter almost immediately when he came to America.  The two would have a life long friendship and there is evidence that Carlsen stayed at Chases’ homes, on occasion joined Chase in his still-life painting studio, and when Chase died, that Carlsen may have purchased some of the artist’s personal still-life items.



Chase’s Boston School style would effect Carlsen.  Carlsen’s early fish, foul, and game still life have many of the traits of the Boston School.  The canvases were tinted to a light medium brown, then the outline drawn in pencil on the canvas or with a liner brush in darker brown or blue paint.  Shadow areas were filled in thinly dark and then lighter colors where applied over, first thinly and then progressively thicker – following traditional grisaille techniques (using brown instead of gray).  Flourishes of bravura brushwork in thick whites applied in the end and then if needed stained in light colors over the thick white impasto areas.  Carlsen may have drawn the subject in pencil and transferred it onto the prepared canvas since we do have some existing outline drawings by Carlsen that are exact copies for works and appear to have been used for that purpose.  It is also clear that Carlsen may have done several careful color freehand studies as a reference when composing and creating a final work especially when working with nature like still life morte animals and nature with changing light.  Studies by exist by Carlsen for almost all his final painting.


Carlsen, while influenced by the Boston School of painting, would not give up his tighter painting style completely which he learned at home.  This may be his personal nature, having studied architecture, or his Danish heritage which traditionally as a people are more rigid and exacting people than their exuberant American counterparts.  When comparing a fish painting from Carlsen and Chase of that same time period, one critic comments that with Chase the fish appears like it might “smell and be more fishy” while Carlsen’s more carefully rendered fish looks like it might “smell less”.


Emil Carlsen first met American impressionist painter Childe Hassam [1859-1935] in 1883, when Carlsen was 34 years old.  Carlsen had taught for several years, understood basic technique and his drawing accumen had greatly improved.  This may have been a key time in the artist’s development, opening him up for a more serious exploration of his own technique.  Hassam’s influence was marginal compared to Carlsen’s life long friend and neighbor in Connecticut, Julian Alden Weir’s (1852-1919).  Weir’s influence can be seen throughout the artist’s career.  Carlsen, who was not a proponent of Impressionism, may have felt more drawn to Weir’s traditional/Impressionist mixed technique over Hassam’s more overtly Impressionistic tehcnique.  Carlsen believed Weir to be one of the most gifted artist’s of their day and spoke after the artist’s death singing his praises.  It is believed from Hassam Carlsen took the idea that the color white was to be added to every color, a popular idea among Impressionists.





Carlsen was a member of the prestigious art group at The Salmagundi Club in New York City.  The club owns one of Emil Carlsen’s original painting palettes (see our original documents article on our site: http://emilcarlsen.org/portfolio/emil-carlsens-actual-palette-provided-by-the-salmagundi-club) so we know what kind of palette he used.  It has a dark base to mix his colors on so it stands to reason that most of Carlsen’s early darker works had a generalize darker to middle dark base.


Carlsen was said to have favored the earth based paints, which he recommended to students as follows:


“A very good palette for students is as follows, Zinc White, Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Light Red, Burnt Sienna, Ivory Black and Permanent Blue, to which later can added Vermilion, Madder Lake, Light and Orange Cadmium and Verte Emeraude. The first seven colors are enough for most studies and it is a very good plan to finish a few paintings strictly with these; if the values are observed the picture will be in harmony.”


Carlsen was also very interested in the making and preparing canvas and other mediums.  The artist Weir felt that Carlsen prepared canvases so beautifully that he hung up one of Carlsen’s blank canvas on the wall in his studio.  There are conservation notest that talk about the lack of canvas preparation of Carlsen but it is unclear just how much seizing and ground work Carlsen did.


Based on the Corcoran Museum of Art conservation notes of one of his most famous painting The Picture of Thibet, 1920 (http://emilcarlsen.org/portfolio/emil-carlsen-the-picture-from-thibet-1920):


Carlsen appears to have painted on an un-primed fabric; if any overall ground was applied, it soaked into the fabric and is now virtually invisible, even under magnification.
 All the paint appears to have been mixed with white, so it is generally opaque.  It was applied with much variation in thickness, ranging from thin layers that barely cover the texture of the open-weave canvas, to thickly-applied areas that mask the canvas texture and show the marks left by the brush.  In a few places (in the tabletop, to the right of the cup, for example), the paint appears to have been intentionally rubbed or scraped by the artist, perhaps to give a livelier surface.


The artist began the painting by applying an ivory-colored paint over most of the fabric; the layer was thinly applied and barely covered the open-weave (and probably un-primed) fabric. The artist then used pencil and fine lines of blue paint to carefully draw in the design.  Some passages of the patterned textile background were left at this stage, while other parts of the background received additional applications of paint, wet-into-wet.  The still life objects were carried to a greater degree of finish and in these areas the paint is generally thicker and more blended than in the background. The artist appears to have intentionally rubbed some of the paint, perhaps to expose colors below. One or two small touches of pencil appear on top of the paint (at the edge of the cup and along the line of the table).


Under ultraviolet light greenish fluorescence in parts of the textile that acts as the background suggests the artist may have added some resin to his paint.


It is has also come up in Conservation notes by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, that Carlsen may have used either a blue pencil or a liner brush to paint bluish under drawings in his earlier Boston School style paintings.
Based on found examples of work by Carlsen we believe that Carlsen may have painted “off stretcher” initially.  He would adhere/tack the canvas on a board first, which might explain why so many of his paintings where relined and re-stretched later after his death.  Also supporting this conclusion are the notes from the original sellers of his estate that they got the works “off stretcher rolled up.”


There is also proof that Carlsen most probably did fairly detailed studies and created “studio works” from those studies.  Most of his works had small color sketches on boards.  They were rough color sketches quickly and thickly put down for most of his landscapes.  Carlsen would then go back to the studio and “interpret” them into final paintings on larger scale formats.  He was known for doing multiple variations of one sketch.


It is also appears that Carlsen would crop and decide the final composition at the end of painting when everything was complete.  Which is why most of his canvases where uneven and unusual sizes.  Carlsen almost never made canvas that where whole inches but would make canvas with odd numbers measurement sometimes like 21 (for example).  Most of Carlsen’s canvas stretchers appear to be home made and custom.  It is hard to draw too many conclusions since many of his works have been re-stretched later.




“For his pictures of still-life, he chooses his models with fastidious care, not for their rarity, but for beauty of form, and in particular, for the way in which they reflect light.  In his arrangement, he combines a significant contrast of shape with an effective relation of light and dark.  His color is restrained, and is but a means of heightening the values which reveal the form.  It exists by subtle relations rather than contrasts.”


“The technique of Carlsen is intimately related to his expression.  He makes of it an element of style.  It does vary with the variation of his theme; his method is personal and unique.  The sensitive temperament of the artist is imparted to the painting, the picture becomes imbued with his magical message, seemingly, a most faithful rendering of a given subject, it is unmistakably, the purified emanation of a particular temperament.  The method is significant, not merely as a manner of painting, but because, but its means, is manifested the perfect embodiment of the artistic idea.


“It is herein that Emil Carlsen fulfills his mission as an artist.  His message is made clear by his means.  It is this that spirit finds its personal expression.  His method is not evident or obvious, though it is at once apparent.  As he sees nature through a temperamental veil, so his method of expression, though clear, is subtle and elusive.  It has nothing of that suggestion which is due to quick improvisation, or the exhilaration of a moment.  It is considered, and calculated, indirect, rather than direct, built up and refined.  The painter does not rely on distance to complete the tonal relations, and the significance of volume and mass, the handling is not calculated to impress one by its economy of means, or the carrying power of the brush work.”


…”By contrast, Carlsen is retired, reflective, remote.  His brush work is suppressed, it does not intrude upon the form, his painting is comparatively thin and dry, the necessary oil in the pigment is reduced to a minimum.  The unctuous, flowing quality of paint which seems the should of full, sensuous coloring, as exemplified by a Rubens, is manifestly inconsistent with the cool, reserved and restricted palette of Carlsen.”