Tutorial: Turner's Fighting Temeraire in Miniature

Famous Paintings in Miniature Number 2: Turner's Fighting Temeraire

In this, the second of my famous paintings in miniature series, I'm going to show you how to recreate one of Turner’s most famous paintings, “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838” (painted in 1839).

<Click here to find the first in the series, Van Gogh's Sunflowers>

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) began his artistic career in 1789 at the tender age of 14, when he joined the Royal Academy Schools on the Strand in London. His early training at the Academy was predominantly in watercolours and drawings, it wasn’t until 7 years later in 1796 that Turner exhibited his first oil painting. Turner had a lifelong affiliation with the Royal Academy, becoming an Associate in 1799 and continuing to exhibit and attend life classes there for much of the rest of his life.

Turner was very successful from early age. He had a number of wealthy patrons so was able to live well and combine travel and sketching in the summer with painting in his studio in the winter months. Turner was rather experimental with his painting style and techniques, he used anything to hand to create his paintings – rags, a finger nail kept long for the purpose, and even a bit of spit and polish here and there. Don’t worry, we’ll just be using brushes to achieve our masterpieces!

In this article we are going to be reproducing one of Turner’s most famous paintings, “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838” (painted in 1839), in miniature. He was a very experienced artist at this stage, having been painting for 50 years, and his fascination with brilliant colours and his reputation for being “the painter of light” is very much in evidence in this work. We must bear in mind that the colours that Turner used 175 years ago would have been much brighter and cleaner than in the painting today, so I am going to aim to recreate this painting as I think it would have been at the time.

We are lucky nowadays with the range of ready mixed colours available for us to use, but Turner had to grind and mix his own oil paints from toxic powdered colours that included lead and other heavy metals that we now know to be very bad for our health.

For this demonstration I’m using Atelier Interactive acrylic paints – these are the closest to oil paints that I have found without actually using oils. There is a great pleasure in oil painting and if you want to use oils you can, but it will take up to a week for each layer to dry and then up to a year before the finished piece can be varnished.

You will need:

  • Scraps of mount board
  • Size 10 filbert brush
  • Size 18 filbert brush
  • Size 0 round brush
  • Size 00 round brush
  • Size 2 or smaller hog hair fan brush
  • White Gesso
  • Atelier Interactive Acrylic Paints in:
    • Arylamide Yellow Light
    • Crimson
    • Yellow Ochre
    • Burnt Sienna
    • Burnt Umber
    • French Ultramarine
    • Transparent Perinone Orange
    • Titanium White
    • Tinting White (Pearl/Titanium) 

Step 1

Turner worked his paintings on canvas. To recreate “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838” in miniature we need a support that will give the impression of a miniature canvas but without the weave of the canvas dominating the finished painting. I recommend using off-cuts of smooth mount board, easily obtained from a framing shop.

The Fighting Temeraire measures 121.6cm x 90.7cm. To find how big yours needs to be simply divide these measurements by the scale you're working in.

  • On a 1:12th scale, dividing by 12 will give us 10.1cm x 7.6cm, at 1:16th it will be 7.6cm x 5.7cm, and 1:24th it will be 5.1 x 3.8cm.

I'm working at a 1:12th scale.

If you are working in a different scale to me, simply multiply the measurements you take from my drawing by your scaling factor. For example

  • if you want your painting to be 1:12th rather than 1:16th, multiply your measurements by 16 and then divide by 12. 
  • if you want to be working in 1:24th, multiply each measurement by 16 and divide by 24.
I don’t have a suitable frame for this painting so will eventually be making my own. In the meantime I will simply stand my painting on an easel in the same way that Turner would have done in his showroom.

Since my painting will simply slot into my frame from the front I do not need to allow extra on my mountboard for framing. If you are using a commercial frame you will need to cut your mountboard to fit your frame, put it into the frame and then mark out the aperture to ensure your painting fits the frame.

Using your steel rule and craft knife, cut out the mount board to the correct size.

Apply 2 coats of white gesso with a flat brush to prepare your canvas. This will stop your paints from soaking straight into the board. You'll need to leave it for at least a day to thoroughly dry.

Step 2

The only drawing we will be doing on this painting is the horizon line, approximately one quarter of the way up from the bottom. Draw as lightly as you can – mine is heavy so that you can see it but as soon as I took this photo I erased as much of it as I could. It is possible with acrylics to paint over heavy pencil lines but it’s much easier if we don’t have to worry about it.

Step 3

Before we add some colour we're going to need a palette. To make my own own stay-wet palette I use a small plastic takeaway box lined with wet kitchen roll on the bottom and greaseproof paper on top. When I leave my paints for any length of time I simply put the lid on and the paints stay workable.

The key to painting like Turner is to be bold with our initial application of colour. Using the size 10 filbert brush, place dashes of Arylamide Yellow Light, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna mixed with Transparent Perinone Orange, French Ultramarine, Crimson and plenty of Titanium White to your canvas as per the photo.

Step 4

Working quickly before the paint has a chance to dry, stroke the dashes of paint with the size 2 hog hair fan brush. Hold the brush towards the end and use a gentle back and forth motion to blend the colours together. Some marks left by the hog hairs from the fan brush are very welcome here, Turner had plenty of texture in his work.

If you find that your paints won’t blend it’s probably because they are drying too fast. Simply mist with water to reactivate the paints and you will find that you can blend again.

Step 5

Turner’s paintings are full of light, indeed he was known as the “painter of light”. To recreate this effect we’re using a combination of Tinting White (Pearl/Titanium) paint which allows the colours to glow through from underneath, and Titanium White which is an opaque colour that is extremely useful for bright white highlights and for creating pastel colours.

Add lots of Tinting White (Pearl/Titanium) to the cloud and lighter areas of the painting and blend. You can switch to the size 18 filbert brush for blending, gently tickling the paints until they are well blended.

Step 6

To check that your painting is unified, view it through a mirror or take a photo of it – this helps you to distance yourself from the painting and view it with fresh eyes. Are the colours well blended? Does your painting appear to be split down the middle with all the blues on one side and the brown/red on the other? Make any corrections to the sky by continuing to add more colours, bringing the red/browns to the left hand side and the blues to the right hand side.

Go very easy with the crimson at this stage, it is very easy to end up with a painting that is too red. Small touches of crimson to the clouds on the left hand side and a tiny touch of crimson on the right hand side is all that is required.

Use the 00 round brush to touch in burnt sienna lowlights to the sky on the top and bottom right.
Move quickly on to the next stage before your paint has dried!

Step 7

Once you are happy with your sky, use the other end of your brush to drag colour from  the middle of the light yellow section (just above where the sun will be) upwards to the top-middle of the painting.
Using the size 18 filbert brush gently tickle over some of the hard edges that you just made.
Add more Tinting White (Pearl/Titanium) where required.

Step 8 

Mix Arylamide Yellow Light and Tinting White (Pearl/Titanium) and add in the sun.

Step 9

The colours in the sea are a reflection of the sky and boats, so we need to use the same method and colours that we used in the sky. Add small dashes of Arylamide Yellow Light, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, French Ultramarine, Crimson  and plenty of  Titanium White to your canvas as per the photo.

Step 10

Blend with the size 18 filbert brush. Use only horizontal strokes and a gentle tickling action. Before using any brush to blend, make sure that it is thoroughly dry – any drips of water on your painting will quickly result in your blended paints becoming muddy.

Add more colours into the sea and blend until it looks like a convincing reflection of the sky. Bear in mind that the bottom left hand corner will be dominated by the boats so this area does not need to reflect the sky. It can be helpful at this stage to turn your painting on its side – this tricks your brain into treating the areas of colour as shapes rather than recognisable reflections.

Step 11

Now we’re going to begin adding in some details.

Dash in some waves in the centre of the horizon using Titanium White and your size 0 round brush.

Clean your brush in water and create 2 shades of green in your palette by mixing Arylamide Yellow Light and French Ultramarine in equal quantities, then add extra Arylamide Yellow Light to half of your green.  Use the two shades of green to paint in the promontory to the horizon line on the left hand side of the painting.

Leave your painting to dry and clean your brushes thoroughly in water. I always put the small plastic covers back on my very fine brushes to keep them in good condition and I store all of my fan brushes in a little cardboard pouch to keep them flat.

Step 12

The next stage is to add in the boats and other water activity. Begin by painting a trapezium shape in Titanium White – a square that is ever so slightly wider at the bottom then the top. Position this shape approximately 2/5th of the way up the left hand side and approximately 1/5th in from the left.  This puts the action in one of the natural focal points of the painting. Make your application of paint as smooth as you can.

Step 13

Pick up your smallest brush and using Tinting White (Pearl/Titanium), French Ultramarine, Arylamide Yellow Light, Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna add in the shadows and the lines to define the Fighting Temeraire. Soften with Tinting White (Pearl/Titanium) so that the details do not stand out.

Step 14

Using Titanium White add in the Fighting Temeraire’s masts. Use a little of the Arylamide Yellow Light, Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna to add variation to the masts, just a touch here and there.

Step 15

Add in a hint of the rigging using French Ultramarine.

Step 16

The tug is basically made up of 2 circles connected by 2 lines. Begin by painting a circle on the left in Burnt Umber and the circle on the right in a mixture of Burnt Umber and Yellow Ochre. Then connect the two circles with a line of Burnt Umber.

Step 17

Add in Yellow Ochre and Arylamide Yellow Light lines along the bottom of the tug and add definition to the two circles that we have already put in.

Step 18

Using Burnt Umber and Titanium White paint in the chimney.

Step 19

There are a couple of sailing boats of some sort behind the tug. Using Yellow Ochre and Titanium White paint in the sails and mast. The flag is painted in Titanium White mixed with a touch of French Ultramarine with extra Titanium White highlights.

Step 20

In the distance behind both of these boats there is a hint of another sailing boat with multiple sails. Use four sets of vertical white lines to represent these, in Tinting White (Pearl/Titanium).

Step 21

In the middle of the horizon there is a simple vertical white line in Titanium White to represent a further sailing boat.

Step 22

Dot in Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre and Titanium White for the steam. Clean your brush and continue to dot without paint to blend the steam.

Step 23

Now to tackle the right hand side of the painting. Using Burnt Umber place the shape of a boat hull on the horizon, the marker buoy in the foreground and the rowing boat with two figures in it to the right of the marker buoy. All but the marker buoy are quite indistinct so if you find that yours are too prominent you can dab them with a slightly damp tissue to lift some of the paint.

Step 24

Mix some of the Burnt Umber with Tinting White (Pearl/Titanium) until you have a pale brown/grey colour. Use this to add in the merest hint of a town in the far right hand side of the horizon. It really is barely there so just a few lines with this weak grey will be perfect.

Step 25

Next we’ll add in the reflections using the same colours that you used when painting the Fighting Temeraire and tug. Note that the ripples in the water are reflecting the reflections, making them appear long. The Fighting Temeraire reflections in particular disappear right off the bottom of the painting. Reload your brush and pull down the colours vertically from the base of the boats, the tickle and blend them horizontally with your size 18 filbert brush. You can also add in a few subtle wiggles to give the effect of the water moving. Turner used this technique in several places in the water.

Step 26

Using Titanium White add in the waves around the bow of the Fighting Temeraire and the tug. This also helps to separate the boats from the reflections.

Step 27

Revisit the whole of the painting adding in highlights with Titanium White.

Step 28

Return once more with lowlights using combinations of French Ultramarine, Burnt Umber and a French Ultramarine/Burnt Umber mix, taking care not to go too dark with the latter.

Step 29 

Finally add in the reflection of the sun using Tinting White (Pearl/Titanium).

I have spent some time studying this painting and cannot see a signature anywhere, so I’m leaving mine unsigned and calling it done.

Leave your painting to dry very thoroughly (I recommend at least 2 weeks) before varnishing with an acrylic gloss varnish.

The original painting “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838” was bequeathed to the Nation by Turner in 1856, some five years after Turner’s death following a legal wrangle over his will, and is now owned by the National Gallery in London.

If you can’t make it to London you can view the painting online here.


ps I had three goes at this painting and all of them turned out slightly differently. Which do you like best?