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  Index artist Charlotte Angus at work on rendering of Appliqué Sampler Quilt Top, 1940, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gallery archives

Before an artist began work, a researcher would compile information about the object on an Index data sheet. Completed renderings were sent to Washington, where an administrator determined whether they met Index standards. If not, they were sent back for further work. The planners of the Index intended their project to culminate in the publication of a series of portfolios reproducing a selection of the watercolor renderings. These portfolios were to be widely distributed with the expectation that through them Americans would become acquainted with their country’s folk, popular, and decorative art--much of it fragile, underappreciated, and therefore susceptible to loss--and learn to recognize its characteristic forms and patterns of design.

Many assigned to the Index project were artists whose technical skills and training enabled them to perfect the precise, documentary style required for this work. In order to be hired, they had to meet the stringent requirements for federal relief and demonstrate their artistic talent. Index work, like that of all WPA projects, was temporary and artists had to vacate their positions and re-qualify for them from time to time. The Index supplied the artists with all materials, which were generally of very high quality, and the work was often performed in local Index studios. Whenever possible, artists worked directly from the objects, but when this was not feasible, they used black-and-white photographs along with color notes.

Suzanne Chapman, American, 1904-1990, Valance, 1936/1937, watercolor over graphite  
Weather Vane  
Lucille Chabot, American, born 1908, Angel Gabriel Weather Vane: Demonstration Drawing, 1939, watercolor over graphite  

The extraordinary quality of many Index renderings can be attributed in part to the training and inspiration of Suzanne Chapman, a gifted illustrator employed by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Chapman was hired by the Index as a special supervisor in spring 1936 and remained with the project until 1937. Along with artists she had instructed, Chapman helped prepare a technical guide as part of the Index of American Design Manual, offering suggestions on how to render each type of object. A passage on embroidery, for example, reads: “Each thread is a is important to notice the holes caused by the needle and the puckering of the background where the embroidery draws it, as well as irregularities in contour caused by the necessity of drawing each embroidery thread between threads of the ground.” Chapman’s own rendering of an eighteenth-century valance illustrates this advice. The manual also describes how to apply watercolor over a preliminary pencil drawing, “working in” the light areas first and then building up more intensely colored or darker passages by applying additional layers. In a separate instructional program artists prepared special demonstration drawings, such as that of the Angel Gabriel Weather Vane, to show this process, step-by-step, from a pencil drawing (on the right), through the initial layer of paint (in the center), and finally to the finished watercolor.


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