Making a Miniature

Painting with watercolor on ivory is a challenging task that requires meticulous preparation of the ivory and special painting techniques. If an artist were to simply paint onto the ivory, the colors would blend together and lose definition. Thinly sliced along the grain, the ivory was cleaned to remove all organic oils, and sanded in preparation for miniature painting.


Artists used painting techniques such as hatching and stippling to avoid muddy colors. With hatching, short lines of paint cross and overlap to create a gradation in color (as seen in the background of Fraser’s H.F. Plowden Weston). Charles Fraser, a prolific miniature painter in Charleston, often used hatching for his backgrounds.

Stippling refers to small dots of paint that are layered to create soft changes in color (as seen on Mr. Weston’s face).

H. F. Plowden Weston (1738–1827), 1824, by Charles Fraser (American, 1782–1860); watercolor on ivory; 3 7/8 x 3 1/4 inches; Museum purchase with funds provided by the Eliza Huger Kammerer Fund in memory of Helen Gardner McCormack; 1974.004

H.F. Plowden Weston represents Fraser’s mature miniature technique. His first known portrait was painted when Fraser was 14 years old, and is much looser and less defined than his later work. In this early portrait of Andrew Rutledge he aims for a solid background, trying to get the colors as smooth as possible. On the other end of his career, the portrait of Frederick Grimke Fraser, his last known miniature, shows a tightening of his technique. He uses the same stippling technique as his earlier works, but the dots are even smaller and almost oppressively regular.

Andrew Rutledge, Esq., 1796, by Charles Fraser (American, 1782–1860); watercolor on ivory; 2 3/8 x 1 7/8 inches; Transfer with The Charleston Museum; 1993.006.0001
Frederick Grimke Fraser (1794–1852), 1852, by Charles Fraser (American, 1782–1860); watercolor on ivory; 4 x 3 1/4 inches; Gift of J. Alwyn Ball; 1920.002.0002

Other artists, like Edward Greene Malbone, used almost all hatching to create their portraits. Even though her skin looks smooth, a closer study of Eliza Izard’s face reveals small lines of color layered over one another to create a subtle blush in her cheek.

Eliza Izard (Mrs. Thomas Pinckney, Jr., 1784–1862), 1801, by Edward Greene Malbone (American, 1777–1807); watercolor on ivory; 2 7/8 x 2 3/8 inches; Museum purchase; 1939.004.0004

French itinerant artist Pierre Henri used long strokes of the same color to create smooth skin. To create shading in the jacket, he used two different colors in various lengths.

Unidentified sitter, ca. 1790, by Pierre Henri (French, act. 1788–1818); watercolor on ivory; 1 5/8 x 1 3/8 inches; Transfer with The Charleston Museum; 1993.006.0016

Jeremiah Theus, a prominent portrait painter in Charleston, used a variation of stipple strokes throughout the portrait of Isaac Mazyck II, with longer, hatched lines to create his curly hair and jacket.

Isaac Mazyck (1699–1770), attributed to Jeremiah Theus (American, 1716–1774); gouache on ivory; 1 1/2 x 1 3/8 inches; Gift of William C. Wilson, M.D. in honor of the family of doctors descended from Robert Wilson; 2010.008.0002


Another major component to a miniature painting is its casework, and many of these tiny treasures fit together like puzzles. Thin sheets of ivory were attached to pieces of laid paper (finely textured paper) so the artists could manipulate the piece while painting. Once finished, the paper was trimmed to fit a case and allowed the ivory to fit snuggly against the glass, protecting it from dust and moisture. To keep the ivory from shifting, other pieces of paper, often playing cards or scraps, were layered beneath the painting. In the miniature of Susannah Drayton, the case-maker used an ad or receipt from a Broad Street shop that bought silver and gold.

Susannah Drayton (Mrs. Tobias Bowles, 1777–1801), attributed to Pierre Henri (French, active 18th century) disassembled
Susannah Drayton (Mrs. Tobias Bowles, 1777–1801), 1787, by Henry Benbridge (American, 1743–1812) and attributed to Pierre Henri (French, active 18th century); watercolor on ivory; 1 1/4 x 1 1/8 inches; Gift of Dorothy Thomson Waring; 1980.005.0002 (front and back)

Colored glass was added to some miniature cases to elevate the richness of the object. With John Maynard Davis’s miniature, a stunning starburst of cobalt surrounds a simple braid and monogram. The pattern of the glass comes from a piece of pressed foil placed directly behind the glass. This miniature also includes a card from the case-maker still inside the case. According to the card, an artist could have a miniature case made “on the shortest notice” at J. Cook and Co. in New York.

John Maynard Davis, ca. 1805, by Jean François de la Vallée (French, active in America 1795–1828) disassembled
John Maynard Davis, ca. 1805, by Jean François de la Vallée (French, active in America 1795–1828); watercolor on ivory; 23/4 x 2 1/4 inches; Transfer with The Charleston Museum; 1993.006.0025 (front and back)
John Maynard Davis, ca. 1805, by Jean François de la Vallée (French, active in America 1795–1828), detail of case-maker card inside case

For more information about miniatures and how they are put together, watch this video about our miniature collection and its conservation.

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