Te Papa Paintings Conservator Linda Waters recently presented a webinar about the evolution of Rita Angus’ painting style. Linda studied the development of Rita’s painting technique through comparison of the way in which she painted the sitter’s eyes in a number of her portraits.

It wasn’t something that I had noticed – the paintings in the current exhibition at Te Papa tend to capture the viewers eyes in their entirety, with intensity of colour, flat aspect and composition usually taking our attention. The faces of the portraits seem designed to challenge us, looking back at us, often sternly and unlovingly, but even so we take the face as a whole. The self portraits are especially unemotional and few are designed to flatter.

Linda began by telling us about the examinations of the works made by herself and fellow conservator Tijana Cvetkovic along with curator Lizzie Bisley. Looking at images under the microscope and in UV light helps with knowing what a certain pigment definitively is  – without such certainty conservation work would be very difficult. She gave the example of Rita’s use of the pigment Zinc White being proven with the use of fluorescence; most artists will use the other white pigments in lieu of this.

An XRF  beam (X-ray Fluorescence) detects elements to help ascertain pigments, while the stereo-microscope is ten times stronger than the microscope. Infrared imaging shows the underdrawings, and how few changes Rita made from this point, there being little difference between sketches and her finished work. It means that they do not need to take pigment samples by scraping – this would be very difficult with Angus’ work as it is so finely painted that loose paint fragments are seldom evident.

The suite of portraits examined during Linda’s fascinating talk included Self Portrait with Orange Beret (1929), Leo Bensemann(1938), Fay and Jane Birkinshaw, also 1938, and the later Self Portrait c1966.

Rita Angus had read about the techniques of the great masters, and had worked as a fashion illustrator previously. The incredibly precise lines around eyes showcase her control and accuracy on a small scale – she painted her works area by area, completing one section before moving on to another.

Linda described Rita Angus as having sophisticated and developed colourist tendencies. She discussed colour used in the eyes – in one, a cool grey is set against sienna in the corner of an eye. The Leo Bensemann portrait is ‘cartoon like’, and an incredible likeness has been archived with use of black, blue and white for hair, eyebrows and eyes. The Birkenshaw girls eyes are ‘now one colour, simplified and reduced linear forms, symmetrical and more realistic’. The late self portrait with moon shows eyes reduced to geometric planes, which appear more realistic than the Bensemmann ones, for example.

Considered together the portraits showed a progression from formal through experimental and extreme renderings, to becoming more refined, before slowly moving back to more lifelike creations of the face. Linda concluded that they had all been staggered at the skill and technique of the artist whilst working on preparations for the exhibition. I found the talk fascinating, and so enjoyed the focus on application of paint, and the very detailed and defined examination of the ‘how’ of each work.

The talk was recorded, and you can access it now by using the link below.

Link: https://vimeo.com/691602641

Password: LindaWatersAngus03-22

Sharon Taylor-Offord