Boucher executed his painting with oil-based paint on canvas. The canvas is made of flax fibres in plain weave. This is the oldest and still the most common weave of textile painting supports. The selvedge is evident along the painting´s left tacking margin; the selvedge forms the lateral border during the weaving process and thus defines the maximum width of a cloth. In the course of a later conservation treatment, the original canvas was lined with a second canvas.
The cross-section shown here illustrates the structure of the picture´s paint layers.
The ground consists of three layers: two applications of red (1 and 2) followed by a grey layer (3), consisting of white and black pigment particles. The blue layer of the sky forms the top paint layer (4). As the final layer the varnish (5) is applied, a transparent resinous coating.
Ground layers consisting of two colours were commonly used in the 17th and 18th century. Contemporary sources (e.g. the standard reference work by A. J. Pernety, published in Paris in 1757) explicitly recommend a brown-red oil-based ground, onto which a second oil-based ground – mixed from white lead and some carbon black – should be applied to create a grey tone. At times the artist would make use of the tonality of these preparatory layer in his painting technique by leaving the ground exposed, e. g. in the darks.
A change to the picture´s composition is visible amongst others in the back of the reading shepherdess. A shallow, yet distinctive difference in level suggests the form of a bow, as seen under raking light – a strong light illuminating from one side to illustrate the surface textures of the paint layers. Whether the bow was part of a plait of hair or of the dress cannot be established.
The painting’s colour scheme consists predominately of primary colours, which are set against each other in a contrasting manner. As to be expected, analysis suggest the use of Vermilion, Red Earth, Naples Yellow, White Lead, Yellow Ochre and Prussian Blue, all of which were commonly used in the academic painting technique of the 18th century. By applying brown-reddish paint with precise and clear brush strokes Boucher defines the contours of hands and faces and further uses that same tonality to create the shading of the flesh.
Like many old paintings, also this one displays areas of pigment change. The greens were mixed from blue and yellow, a common practice amongst painters. Up until the 19th century natural yellow lake pigment usually served this purpose; however, natural yellow lakes are not lightfast and hence tend to fade. As a result, the depiction of leafage often appears blueish or brownish. It can be assumed that Boucher originally created the foliage in a greener tonality.
Boucher applied his signature in black with a small round brush and integrated it into the depiction of both paintings by placing it on a stone.
According to some historical correspondence this painting was completed in 1760 like the correctly dated counterpart Shepherd and Shepherdess. Hence the date 1790 is somewhat confusing.
However, a later application of the date is highly unlikely, as the signature exhibits drying cracks, which indicates that the paint was applied shortly after the completion of the picture.