Cole wrote of his intention to paint an "Allegory of Human Life—a series" in the list of themes and subjects he started in 1827. He began jotting down his ideas for the first painting of The Voyage of Life years before it was actually painted, making a sequence of preliminary drawings and small oil studies that allowed him to work out the series' mood, color, and composition, before turning to the large canvases. In this early sketch, Cole drew on the back of a letter, rather than in his sketchbook, suggesting a sudden burst of inspiration. Hurried, scribbled contour lines mark the position of the cave, river, and boat with figures, anticipating the composition of the final painting.
In designing The Voyage of Life, Cole combined the original concepts for the series with numerous en plein air and studio sketches. Cole favored broad diagonal arrangements for each composition. He transferred the preliminary drawings to the canvases as a blueprint for the four interrelated works. The underdrawings in many cases are painstakingly rendered with the aid of rulers and compasses. 1
Cole was methodical in applying paint, starting with a thin and even application of an additional ground to the already prepared supports in order to harmonize his distinctive color palette. He favored warm colors for his grounds, often using a salmon-buff or reddish-brown hue. 2 Sometimes he applied the paint quite thinly, but he varied the density of his pigments—they are especially thick in the bright highlights. The final step was to apply a layer of transparent varnish that provided a lustrous protective coating for the paint surface.
1. Thomas Cole, <cite>Preliminary Sketch for The Voyage of Life: Childhood</cite>, ink on paper, c. 1837-39, 6 x 7 7/8 in. Albany Institute of History and Art.
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2. Thomas Cole, <cite>The Voyage of Life: Childhood (First Set)</cite>, oil on canvas, 1839-40, 52 x 78 in. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY, 55.105.