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.