||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
|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 cylinder...it
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.