When reading about artists traveling on European expeditions, we learn that artists worked in watercolor. Marianne North worked in oil. Does North ever explain why she chose oil over watercolor or other color media?
Yes, she does – and the answer is really interesting in terms of getting a handle on North’s motivations for painting and her self-image as an artist. North took watercolor lessons as a young woman, but once she tried oil painting she found it to be “a vice like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one.” Besides enjoying the feel and effects of oil colors, it is important to note that North was not a botanical illustrator. If we examine North’s oil sketches within this tradition, the only conclusion that can be, and has too often been made, is that she was bad at her work. This isn’t helpful for reconstructing what it was she was doing. North’s project is more closely aligned with the kind of work being done by the Hudson River School painters in North America, who traveled throughout the United States, the Arctic, Jamaica, and South and Central America with the goal of painting the beauty, unity, and character of nature – and who did so in oils. For North, it wasn’t interesting to paint an uprooted, idealized type-specimen against a white background as per botanical illustration. Instead, she treated the plants and botanical landscapes she encountered as individuals and groups of individuals met with in distinctive settings, all of which she wanted to portray with the vibrancy and materiality of the original encounter, a task best done with oils.