Friday, December 02, 2005

I've recently completed a series of watercolour workshops for a group of complete beginners - it was something of a challenge. Routine exercises like laying washes, experimenting with wet in wet are not particularly exciting after you've made a few attempts. Sketching outside was a rather daunting prospect for most as it showed up inadequate drawing skills. Students managed a simple still life more convincingly but some had formed clear ideas of what they wanted to achieve. "I want to paint landscapes like Alwym Crawshaw." said one. Others were stimulated by the
'Watercolur Challenge' TV broadcasts.

Then it occurred that copying might be the best way forward - but from what sources? certainly not from photographs. Studying good reproductions of works of art is much better. Making copies has a long tradition as part of a painter's apprenticeship. Dr Monroe invited Joseph Turner and Tom Girtin as two promising RA students into his home to copy the engravings in his collection which he bought for 2s.6d and a bowl of oysters. Girtin often doing the linework and Turner adding watercolour washes - look where this training led!

So good examples were needed - what better artist to begin with than Rembrandt. His pen and wash drawings of the mills and farms in the countryside around Amsterdam display a mastery of line and tone which is an inspiration. Unless a reed or quill pen is used it is hopeless to try and achieve the variey of line which these tools can achieve in the hand of a master like Rembrandt - but for the beginner it is worth transposing the linework by using a modern waterproof ball or fibretip pen. Then the applied washes need not be monochrome - the sketches can be teated imaginatively by applying colour.

I chose two watercolours from the Royal Watercolour Society's Diploma Collection as models. These can be found in Stephen Spender's book 'The Glory of Watercolour.' The first choice was John Varley's delightful small watercolour 'Cader Idris.' It's merit lies in the beautifully controlled washes he has laid down to portray the receding planes of the mountains and lake. He uses a simple colour scheme mainly of blues and greens. The painting is an example of traditional transparent watercolour of the highest quality.

The second example shows a different approach to watercolour. It is 'Saÿn on the Pretsoh Bach, Rhine' by Thomas Miles Richardson. It was painted on a buff ground, the line drawing plays an integral part in the finished picture showing through the overlaid washes to record the details of the buildings. Final touches were added with white bodycolour to render the half timber buildings and a smoke rising from a chimney.

So two different ways of using watercolour which are instructive and worthy of careful study. I asked the students to make their own studies of the examples - I'm keen to see what they made of them.

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