Thursday, April 28, 2005

The loose handling of watercolour has a surprisingly long history. The most notable exponent was Turner whose Venetian sketchbooks are full of drawings which have colour notes added in watercolour. Some of his sketches are made directly in watercolour and there are some interesting examples using body colour on blue paper. They were done as working studies to note down effects of light and to develop his visual memory of a place.

Another exponent of the genre was Sargent who frequently made watercolours on his extensive travels in Europe. Most of his watercolours date from c1900-1917 when he became disillusioned with portrait painting. He embarked on journeys through Europe with friends and students recording places in direct bold watercolours many of which he casually gave away. He probably painted them for simple enjoyment but his fame as a fashionable portrait painter ensured interest by dealers and collectors in everything he produced. In 1909 80 watercolours exhibited at Knoedler’s in New York were bought by the Brooklyn Museum and gradually his watercolours were bought by other American museums.

The loose fluid manner of execution which Sargent developed was very similar to that used by Edward Wesson. In particular there is a striking resemblance between a small watercolour of Venice by Sargent,‘All’ Ave Maria’ painted c1907 and one by Wesson titled ‘Venetian Waters’. The location and composition are very similar. Both paintings could have been made as a quick impression in front of the motif with the aim of further development in the studio. That seems to be the way Wesson evolved his characteristic style – he was able to refine a method that was quick and immediately recognised by his distinctive direct brushwork. It brought him steady sales and a host of imitators.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

I am a keen admirer of Edward Wesson’s watercolours but he is a bad exemplar for amateur painters. Wesson developed a very personal loose way of working which is very popular and his style has spawned look-alikes of varying degrees of competence. Demonstrations by professional artists who paint in a loose Wesson manner are sure to captivate audiences at meetings of amateur painters.

The April meeting of Ludlow Art Society members enjoyed two watercolour demonstrations typical of the loosely handled genre. The first demonstration followed a predictable course. First a quick sky painted with fluid washes laid on with a Japanese hake – Wesson’s favourite tool for this job was a French Polisher’s mop. The hake was used again with stronger blues to create foreground shapes. At this point the demonstrator announced it would be a snow scene. The use of a hairdryer to dry off part of the sky area enabled the demonstrator to drybrush the outline of an oak tree with the side of a sign writer’s liner. The point of the liner was used with a dark pthalo blue/umber mix to flick in suggestions of branches. Finally purple blue/grey washes were used to suggest distant hills and create the outline of a farmhouse roof. After further use of the hairdryer a suggestion of the detail was added and the job was done – a finished watercolour in 35 minutes. Members were treated to a second slick performance after an interval. Two large water colours ready for framing in 90 minutes.

Over the years I have observed several demonstrations of this kind and they teach you very little. For the beginner they encourage the idea that loose direct handling is the key to success in water colour and little else. After each of these demonstrations I always return to Barry Miles book on Edward Wesson* to compare his work with that of his look-alikes. This kind of study is important if you want to appreciate him. A superficial awareness of Wesson’s work overlooks the fact that the loose brushwork of his small plein air landscapes are based on keen observation developed through drawing.

Wesson like his contemporaries Jack Merriot, Leonard Squirrel, and Claude Muncaster was a fine draughtsman. For me Wesson is seen at his best in his pen and wash watercolours. There is a fine example, St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol on the dustjacket of Barry Miles book. The clean loosely handled transparent washes are there to be enjoyed but they are supported by accurate, though understated, ink line drawing.

Wesson has so many disciples - John Yardley and Ron Ranson being the most widely known - that it is worth reflecting that Watercolour has a long tradition. It is important to visit public collections to discover how other artists have used the medium. Dear old Edward's watercolours are very seductive but it is best to avoid becoming enslaved by them.

* Edward Wesson 1910-1983: Barry Miles, Hallsgrove (1999)

Friday, April 08, 2005

The other day I was talking to a friend about drawing in pen and ink. The medium is essentially a linear one and tonal contrast is generally achieved by cross hatching. Ruskin in ‘The Elements of Drawing’ sets a very tedious exercise asking the student to cover a small square with lines to achieve gradations of tone. I’ve tried this several times and however hard you try – varying the line spacing, varying the density of cross hatching – smooth gradation of tone is very difficult and time consuming requiring waiting for each stage to dry.

Studying the Whistler etching in Walsall's Garman-Ryan collection the thought occurred that some of the qualities of the print could be reproduced in a pen drawing. An etched plate is often dipped in the acid bath several times. The length of time in the bath determined the depth of ‘bite.’ A deeply bitten line holds more ink than a shallow one and results in a darker line. A similar effect can be achieved by using dilute ink for the most delicate lines in the drawing. Turner used dilute ink in his small watercolour in the Garman-Ryan collection for distant detail. It’s a simple idea which is rarely used and when applied sensitively broadens the scope of pen drawing.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Artists, I am certain, love their own paintings – it is something that is inherent in the creative process. I daresay there are artists, driven by the necessity to sell, who turn out three or four paintings a day with little real affection for what they are producing. This has a hint of production line mentality and there can be little real satisfaction in that way of working.

David Cox, enfeebled and on his death bed, is reported to have said, “Goodbye paintings, I will never see you again.” It was as if he was saying farewell to some dear friends. I experience a similar sensation whenever I sell a painting – part of me is sorry to see it go. I sent'The Flower Girl' which is shown on a Blog posted in February to the LAS Spring Exhibition. I’d enjoyed having her around for a few weeks before the handing-in day and David Cox’ attributed remark came to mind when I learned the painting had been sold. “Goodbye Flower Girl, I may never see you again.” I only hope you give your new owner lasting pleasure. But then the purchaser may be a dealer who will add a 50% mark up and flog you off to someone else. I do hope not.

Monday, April 04, 2005

I paid a visit to the Walsall Art Gallery which houses the Garman-Ryan Collection. Sally Garman was Jacob Epstein’s lifelong mistress who he married late in life. Garman was born in nearby Wednesbury – a fact which influenced her decision to choose Walsall as a home for the collection of Epstein’s bronzes and the art works that she and her friend Sally Ryan had collected.

The Epstein bronzes in the collection are powerful works modelled directly and retaining a satisfying feeling for the plastic nature of clay. Epstein made friends with the Parisian avant-garde in the 1930’s particularly Modigliani. His interest in modernism made him a controversial figure yet he was denied the acclaim which he deserved. In the post war years he became sidelined largely due to the promotion of Henry Moore by the then Director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clarke.

The rest of the collection consists chiefly of drawings and works on paper – minor works perhaps but many are worth close study. A nicely handled drawing by Sickert of St. Marks Square freely drawn in pencil overlaid with watercolour washes. Then a small watercolour of Westminster Bridge with detail subtly added with diluted ink.

Another favourite is a small etching of riverside buildings at Chelsea. Whistler is mostly known by his loosely handled Nocturnes – sand also the controversial ‘Cremorne Gardens, the Falling Rocket.’ This little etching shows him to be a sound draughtsman. An artist who has learned his craft so well is entitled to display a little cockney impudence and fling a pot of paint in the public’s face occasionally. Ruskin, who was invariably right in his comments on art, was wrong in his assessment of Whistler.