The Development of Media in Miniature Art
Mediums associated with the history of miniature art have varied considerably over time ranging from the rigidly exclusive, to the wider acceptance of media in the mid 1800s, to the near complete representation of all branches of art in the present day. Watercolor and gouache have dominated the genre varying with artistic taste according to geographical regions or simply preferred use of the painting support. Miniaturists’ techniques working in watercolor and gouache have spanned the scale of transparent to opaque, from light and airy to dense and solid.[i]— Public appreciation and scholarly attention influenced the style of artists working in miniature and none were immune to adapting to market demands. Eventually, other mediums came to be known as miniatures absolving the dominance of the single media and broadening the genre to more fully represent all forms of fine art. Sculpture’s formal addition began in 1922 when Alyn Williams invited the American sculptor Louis Rosenthal to participate in the Royal Miniature Society (RMS) exhibition.[ii] The quality and public interest in Rosenthal’s works, alongside a few other Europeans, caused the privy council of the RMS to convene a special session to allow sculptors membership in the RMS.[iii] This was followed in 1926 by a decree from King George V to change the name of the society to the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers.[iv] Representations of the Modern Art Movement, such as surrealism and abstraction, became acceptable in the 1970’s. As of 2009, the miniature art movement typically rejects only two media: photography and digital art. Both exclusions are influenced by the historical impact of photography upon the miniature genre and the intrinsic advantages of production by mechanical means over manual physical dexterity. Digital art has made some brief incursions into the genre but the fear of misuse and the disproportionate advantage of using better equipment persist in excluding it from the genre in the near future.
Acceptable supports for miniature painting and materials for sculpture are generally limited to those suitable for fine, intricate work. The distractive weave of canvas, rough grained wood or pitted stone, lessen the impact of miniature art to the viewer and make the refined qualities usually associated with diminutive production proportionately more difficult. Ivory, as a support, was the first choice of miniature painters for its smooth surface, warm tint conducive to flesh tones when working transparently and its durability. Today’s miniaturists, typically more environmentally conscious, make use of a variety of synthetic substitutes for ivory such as ivorine, polymin, Duralar film, and Lumitex, while also utilizing old standbys of vellum, paper, rag board and gessoed/clay coated masonite panel. Reclaimed ivory is sometimes used, especially in the form of piano keys, but shipping it is difficult to sometimes impossible with international regulations. Few miniaturists today would agree with the following statement from the 1899 article “The Modern Miniature Craze”:
The elephant is not a graceful or artistic beast, and no particular sentimental thoughts at first sight attach to him. But artists to-day [sic] would be at a loss without his tusks, and so much sentiment is lavished upon them in the form of lover’s portraits. H. M. Tindall[v]
Archival qualities are of highest importance to the professionals with both media and support.
[i] Early miniaturists’ use of ‘body’ color differs from most modern opaque watercolors. Early miniaturists used transparent pigments in a thick application with a minimum of binder to achieve the dense look of their ‘body’ colors compared to the more typical application and incorporation of gouache today with the latter basically having an inert white chalk as an additive to provide opacity. See Wehle, American Miniatures., 32.
[ii] Letter from Alyn Williams to Louis Rosenthal. 16 Feb. 1922 <http://www.lousirosenthalmuseum.org> accessed 2.2010.
[iv] Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers. <http://www.royal-miniature-society.org.uk/History.html> accessed 2.2010.