Tuesday, July 18, 2017

John Bauer

By Justin Gerard

I was sitting in my Doomsday bunker today, sipping cold coffee and admiring my bear-proof suit when I thought to myself, "It's high time we had a post on John Bauer around here."

Sure, Bauer's name has been mentioned on Muddycolors before, but his art has never had its day in the sun. So today I am dusting off a copy of Swedish Folk Tales and cracking open the fallout doors to share some really wonderful trolls with you.

Looking at Bauer's work, one might reasonably think that it was all pure escapist imagination. Yet much of it was based on the real world study of mankind and of nature grounding his highly imaginative work in reality.

At 22 he journeyed to Lappland, which in 1904 was an exotic wilderness to him. He was commissioned by industrial developers to paint watercolors of the Sami people and their culture to send back to people in Stockholm. While there Bauer took notes, photographs and made sketches, detailing the landscape and the curious people he encountered there. This real-world study would influence his work throughout his career and would impart solid earth beneath the magic in his illustrations.

Few artists have truly captured the magic and mystery of the forest like John Bauer. Who knows what lurks in the darkness beyond those trees? Or beneath that water or under that stone? His art has a wonderful quality that draws you out into the world, instead of encouraging you to retreat from it.

He makes the forest seem a precious and magical place. Which is interesting considering that he was originally commissioned to document these places by people who sought only to exploit it for natural resources.

While Bauer's work feels very classical and a product of the Golden Age of Illustration, it continues to be quite popular, inspiring artists to this day. His paintings have gone for as much as $87,000 at auctions in recent years and his books still being reprinted more than a hundred years later.

Fellow Muddycolors contributor Cory Godbey visited the John Bauer Museum in Jönköping, Sweden  a few years back. He gives a brief video tour of it here.

I hope you've enjoyed this little tour of John Bauer's work. I'm going back to my bunker now where its safe from all the things that come out after dark around here.

Link to higher resolution files on Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/John_Bauer
Link to the collection on Project Runeberg: http://runeberg.org/jbauer/
Link to Swedish Folk Tales on Amazon: http://a.co/7Zxe1R6


  1. Thanks for these images, Justin. Bauer has long been an inspiration to me as well. I wonder if you would have any information or references on his technique - watercolour and ink, but HOW did he get such incredible effects?

    1. Hi Michael, Great question! I might do a more extensive post on it at some point but for now: There is no definitive guide to his work in existence (Sadly, he died quite young), but there are quite a number of unfinished watercolors of his out there which can give us many clues. They are hard to find online, but they do exist! In them you can see that he is working on some kind of hot press watercolor paper equivalent. He is first sketching in a drawing in light graphite. After this he inks his shapes and lines in brush. Then he lays in shadows or sometimes figures first in dark watercolor. I believe at this point he erases his pencil lines, leaving only the ink and watercolor. After this he lays in watercolor washes to give atmosphere and color. He probably lays in 2 or 3 rather dark passages to give it the murky quality his shadows have. He then uses opaque watercolor (or gouache) for details and highlights. (Though on some paintings he seems to be using gouache from the get go)
      He and Arthur Rackham were contemporaries, but they developed their styles independent of one another, likely both influenced by the 19th century romantics of Northern Europe (like Durer). If his style is more like Rackham's then he would have re-touched some of the inkwork after the watercolor stage to pull certain lines and shadows back up.
      For a great modern day version of this, google "Peter DeSeve step-by-step guide". It's got a lot more pencil in it than Bauer would have used, but the general principles and stages are the same!

    2. Thanks for this explanation, Justin. And I will check out Peter de Sève's article. In terms of the technique, I was also under the impression that Rackham lifted areas of his heavy washes to get that luminous effect which we see in Alice and Peter Pan, for example. I wondered if Bauer did this as well, but as you say, it may have been gouache that created this effect. It's really fascinating how all of this works. I will have to play with these techniques in the future. Many thanks again, and I should also mention that I am very impressed with your work.

    3. Hi Michael, I think he absolutely would have lifted out of some of his washes as a technique, but it does not appear to me that he used this technique quite as liberally as Rackham. I'm sure you're already familiar with it, but for anyone else interested in this technique, Google: "William Stout Rackham Dulac Technique" and see his Secrets Revealed description of the technique!

    4. Hi all! I am a swedish artist who have studied Bauers work for 30 years. He is to me completely timeless ! His compositions are so strong they can be blown up to posters yet they are usually only 25x25 cm. He tried to simplify and get rid of clutter and treat the subject and motif as a theatre stage. He captured the inhabited woods as no one before and noone after. We still refer in Sweden as deep forests as "Bauerwoods". I have studied his technique in many originals. He does lift up pigment a lot with a semidry brush and also scrape the paper sometimes. The use of opaque light colors accentuate the very highligts but is sparsely used. He has never been forgotten at all in Sweden and is as much loved as he was back then. He died way to young (38 yrs)in a steamer accident along with his wife and little boy. By then he was increasingly interested in the Art Deco style and would have become a master of it.

    5. Thanks for letting us know! Can you tell us anything else about the materials he used? Would love to hear more from someone who has had a chance to really inspect the original paintings!

  2. Awesome post, always look forward to the humour ;-) It is only a small part of what makes his paintings, but the depth and mystery of the forest(s) as it vanishes into darkness ... like thin sheets of black ink obscuring whatever fantasy the viewer can imagine hiding back there. Incredible! The textures are amazing as well.

  3. Awesome post! Thank you so much for sharing!!

  4. Ooh! I love John Bauer's work. I've always felt that his woods were like a magnet drawing the viewer in to some secret hidden world, as if there was sometime hidden deeper in the image that first realized. Great stuff!

  5. His forests and their inhabitants, were the very first to insinuate themselves into my imagination, ( not counting dinosaurs!) where, even now they provide a standard and quality checkpoint, making it quite tricky for any of the thousands of others images to sneak in. Amazing that a proper art book has not been attempted., as Sweden should be so proud of him.

  6. Is there a book that has most of his paintings?

    1. The best one I've found is the one that is linked at the bottom of the post. If anyone finds any others out there that are better please let me know!


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