Drawing the Dead: How to Make Spirit-Paintings

A precipitated spirit painting of a spirit guide named Azur, which hangs at Lily Dale.

A precipitated spirit painting of a spirit guide named Azur, which hangs at Lily Dale.

There is little I enjoy more than exposés of the inner workings of the séance room.  Here, for your enjoyment and enlightenment, are several methods proposed as explanations for spirit paintings. The genre is not that of the more well-known spirit photographs, but paintings of those loved ones who had gone before. As we will see, there was usually some sort of mystic ritual or spiritualist patter before the painting “developed” or “precipitated.” Let us read a sample anecdote from a bereaved parent, whose dead child “set” for her painted portrait.


Mrs. S. L. Woodard, Deerplain, Ill., contributes the following interesting narrative: —

“Ten years ago, our little daughter Leona passed to the home of the angels; being then but two years of age. We never had any likeness of her taken previous to her entrance into spirit-life. I have had the unspeakable pleasure of seeing and talking with her all these years, watching the tender bud as it gradually unfolds in beauty. Her father was very anxious for her picture, as he could not see her, often asking her if she would not sit for it. She promised to do so, and to let us know when she could do it. Two years ago, the 1st of December, she came to us, telling me that she would sit the eve after Christmas, at the residence of Mr. J. B. Fayette of Oswego, N.Y. (he being a spirit-painter); telling her father she was going to be painted as she was then, instead of as she was when she passed away from earth-life. This he had always requested her to do. I wrote to Mr. Fayette, telling him what time she would sit, and asking him if it would be convenient for him. He replied to me that it would. Previous to my writing to him, she (our spirit-daughter) went to her aunt at Belvidere, Ill. (Mrs. B. W. Dean, who is a medium like myself), and asked her if she did not think she would look nice to be dressed in white, with blue ribbons, when she set for her picture. Her aunt told her she did, as she was a little blonde. She was much pleased at this, and went away. Neither my sister (the aunt) nor myself have ever seen Mr. Fayette. A few days after Christmas came a letter from Mr. Fayette, stating that he had painted a picture of a little girl at the time stated, and asking if he should send it to me. It came; and there on the canvas was the picture, or shadow as she calls it, of our darling Leona, — white dress, blue ribbons, and all, — perfectly satisfactory to us all.” The Year-book of Spiritualism for 1871, Hudson Tuttle, James M. Peebles, 1871

The spirit-painter often was said to have no acquaintance with the subject and yet, astonishingly! they were able to capture a perfect likeness of the deceased. Let us see if we can speculate on how this miraculous image might have materialized. Since Mrs. Woodard and Mrs. Dean were both “mediums,” the details of the family’s bereavement would undoubtedly have been known through the medium’s  “blue book” system of intelligence. This was the traveling mediums’ method of sharing information on “marks” in each town and consisted of entries on names, significant dates, illnesses, and physical characteristics of dead loved ones, and secrets that only the dead would have known. It also suggested obsessions of the living and their vulnerabilities. Mrs. Woodard’s entry in the book or card-file would certainly have indicated the loss of Leona and her husband’s interest in a spirit-painting of the child. I suspect that the explanation for the white dress and blue ribbons was either a happy guess or that Mrs. Dean told/wrote someone who knew Mr. Fayette about the color scheme. Since the portrait was not of a two-year-old, but of an older child who never existed, perhaps the doting parents would have been “perfectly satisfied” with any generic painting of a little girl in a white dress with blue ribbons. That’s my theory anyway. But to turn from theory to practice…


Spirit-painting is an ancient trick, which has been resorted to by mediums, astrologists, and fortunetellers, in New York city for many years. Anyone who is familiar at all with art materials is aware that canvasses for paintings are usually sold stretched over little wooden frames, which can afterwards be inserted into gilded frames if desired. The canvases are made in certain sizes, so that it is easy to secure duplicates whenever desired, and any “spirit-painter” can promptly furnish an exact counterpart of any sized canvas that may be given to them to operate upon.

Like everything else in spiritualism, that which is done must be executed in the dark. A dim and uncertain light is necessary, and things are so arranged as to smack of the supernatural as much as possible.

“You have brought your own canvas, I see,” remarked a medium, as the visitor unwound a small modern frame over which canvas was stretched.

“Oh, yes; I thought I would be able to say that I had convinced myself that there could be no possibility of tricks.”

“Very good,” replies the medium. “The spirits and myself are well pleased to have the matter placed beyond the question of scoffers.”

The medium is never discomfited. She has a canvas already painted just the size of the one brought, and a little clever work in the way of sleight-of-hand is all that is necessary. She takes your canvas, looks at it a moment, and then asks that it be marked. This is done. She carefully notes the position of the little mark placed on the canvas, and, leaving the room she marks a painted canvas in a similar manner and places it under her skirt, through the side of which is a wide cut, large enough to allow the painted canvas to slip out easily. Returning to the room, the medium again takes your canvas, and requests you to face a small mirror, which is so small that anything that happens below the level of her shoulders cannot be seen. While this placing is being done the medium apparently holds the canvas carelessly in her right hand, but in reality she hitches it to a hook cleverly concealed at her waist and draws out the painted canvas which she raises in such a way that the painted portion is not reflected in the mirror because of a slight backward slant which is not noticeable to the visitor. Meanwhile you stand with the canvas poised above your head before a glass and fondly imagine, if you are at all inclined to believe, that the canvas is the original one and trickery is out of the question.

“Now,” says the medium, “just hold the frame very steady for a moment, so as not to disturb the spirit artist, who is one of the old school, and who will reproduce a most valuable ancient painting for you.”

You hold the frame firmly and look steadily into the dimly-lighted mirror. “Now,” continues the medium sweetly, “tip it forward just the least bit.” This tipping discloses the painting in such a way that it looks like a long, dark streak on the canvas. “Now tip it slowly forward, for it’s developing. Not too fast.”

You tip the painting very slowly forward, guided by the hand of the medium lest it be moved too fast and dispel the illusion. The effect of this, in the dim reflection of the mirror, is to make the painting appear to develop from the black streak first seen. To the subject the illusion appears perfect, and the cheap chromo thus developed seems to the awed imagination a genuine work of art.

To make the trick even more impressive, the medium sometimes places a touch of phosphorus in the centre of the canvas, which naturally attracts the attention, and is watched with bated breath during the process of development.

Another system mediums have of producing these art treasures is a chemical process known to few. A picture is painted, and is then sized over with this peculiar chemical mixture. If an artist were to examine the canvas he would say that it; had simply been primed. When it is desired to produce the spirit-painting, the canvas is rubbed with a sponge dampened in a liquid which eats off the whole white priming and exposes the picture as fresh as when painted. This can be done on a wall as well as on canvas, and it is in this way that spirit paintings on walls are produced. Mme. Diss Debar [another post; another day] “paints” most of her spirit pictures in this manner. The secret of the chemical preparation used is carefully guarded by those who know it.

The Climax [Richmond, KY] 1 August 1888: p. 1 


A recent expose of fraudulent spiritualistic mediums brought out the interesting details of the process by which “ghosts” paint “spirit portraits.”

The patron or “sitter” who desires to have painted the portrait of a departed friend is received in the sitting room on an upper floor: on the floor below is stationed the ghost—an expert photographer. A photograph of the dead person is given by the sitter to the first medium, who wraps it in several folds of tissue paper—so there will be no chance of fraud—and passes it over her brow. As she does so a series of raps begins to sound on the table near the second medium. These raps are made by the thumb nail of the second medium, but the sitter cannot detect it. Naturally the sitter turns to No. 2, who declares she is in communication with the spirit and tells the sitter to put his hands on the table to establish the current. The duty of No. 2 now is to hold the sitter’s attention. While No. 2 is thus engaged No. 1 drops the photograph through a slit in the floor near her, to the “ghost” below. The “ghost” makes a negative of the photo, rewraps it in the tissue and passes it back to the medium. It is done in less than two minutes. There are more messages and finally the spirit—the model of the painting is there. Through the medium the spirit bids the sitter come again Thursday as he cannot get into communication at the present time. In the interval between the next sitting the “ghost” makes an enlargement of the photograph on sensitized canvas, paints it over and also makes ready a blank canvas exactly like the canvas on which the portrait is made.

When the sitter comes back communication with the spirit is again established. The blank canvas wrapped in tissue paper is set up in the window. Medium No. 2 again holds the sitter’s attention with fraud messages, and while she does No. 1 substitutes the completely portrait for the blank canvas. When the sitter turns, the painting shows dimly through the folds of tissue. Again and again No. 2 holds his attention by conversing with the spirit—and each time he turns the picture shows brighter—successive layers of tissue having been torn off in the meantime by No. 1. At last all the remaining paper is torn off and there is revealed a perfect portrait of a spirit painted by a spirit. Of course the sitter is willing enough to pay a good price for such a wonderful manifestation.

Popular Mechanics, May 1905


If investigators of spiritual phenomena, so-called, would but use in this the same degree of caution that they do in —A their ordinary business affairs, to avoid being defrauded, the practice of trickery in Spiritualism would not prove quite so lucrative. So-called spirit paintings and drawings of departed friends, guides, etc., have parted more well-meaning but credulous people from their hard-earned savings than all the green-goods and gold-brick swindlers in the country. We do not pretend to give all the methods employed in working this game, but present a few of those in most common use.

Some mediums keep in stock a supply of cheap oil paintings and drawings of different kinds, to be used as occasion requires. For instance, an apparently blank canvas is taken into a cabinet with a medium, and in a few moments the same is shown to the audience or sitter covered with a very fair painting, the colors not yet dry. This may be done in two ways. In one the painting— one on hand—has been neatly covered with another piece of artists’ canvas, tacked over it in such a way that even close inspection will not detect it. As soon as the medium is out of sight in the cabinet, he quietly removes the outer covering, rubs the picture with a little poppy oil, and there is your spirit painting.

A solution of zinc white and water may be applied to any varnished painting, concealing it completely, and at any time can be removed with a wet sponge. This method is also used sometimes in place of above.

A picture or drawing made with concentrated solutions of sulfocyanide of potassium, ferrocyanide of potassium, and tannin, will be colorless and invisible until sprayed by an atomizer with a weak solution of tincture of iron, when it comes out in three colors. The first solution comes out red, the second blue, and the third black. This picture can be brought out in the light before the eyes of the audience or sitter, by a clever manipulation of the sprayer. With these materials many wonderful things are done in the way of spirit “art work.”

Some operators use a very complete system of substitution, and can deceive even the smartest.

The only way in which you can be sure that you are getting a genuine spirit picture painted is to furnish your own canvas, mark it unmistakably, then keep your eye on it every moment. Even then you are liable to be fooled if you are not extremely sharp-sighted. The claim that many of these portraits are recognized as departed friends is very much open to doubt. Some of these testimonies that have been traced up come from parties financially interested with the medium. Others come from good, honest souls who, when pressed, admit that while the resemblance is marked, they are not positive that the pictures are those of their friends—that there is a doubt about it.

Mysteries of the Seance and Tricks and Traps of Bogus Mediums, Edward D. Lunt, 1903

And finally, a Spiritualist explanation. Simplicity itself.


This, where accomplished by the medium’s hands, does not need much explanation, as it is purely a case of ordinary spirit control, and is accounted for by the spirit ejecting the upper portion of the medium’s soul, entering in and possessing this portion of the medium’s body, and from the brain centre controlling the hands in a normal manner, using the brushes and paints as any mortal would. In this case the medium is probably in an entranced condition. Others are overshadowed by a spirit control, and while they are practically normal are mechanically moved to produce painting. Where pictures are produced, however, while the medium’s hands are held by the sitters, one and sometimes two materialized hands project from the breast of the medium, and these manipulate the brushes and paints, this usually taking place in total darkness.

Spirit Intercourse: Its Theory and Practice, J. Hewat McKenzie, 1917

See also this booklet for a lengthy description of Dr. W. J. Nixon’s spirit-painting act. And this on the Campbell Brothers and their possible methods.  I’m not crazy about the organization, but this offers an analysis of some of the techniques used to produce “Azur” and other spirit portraits.

Any other examples of how “spirit paintings” were done? Let dry before sending to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com



Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.


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