A Ruskin Masterclass on colour
I’ve just picked up my copy of Ruskin’s ‘Elements of Drawing’ again, it’s a timeless work because the advice he gives is equally relevant and applicable today. He reduces drawing to its basic elements of making marks and developing an eye for shape and form before going on to deal with more complex concepts like colour and composition.
Re-reading the ‘Elements’ has set me thinking about ways of colour mixing in watercolour and the merits of each. Ruskin omits the obvious method of premixing in the palette which often produces a sullied colour less pure than the constituents. He first discusses mixing wet in wet on the paper, a familiar technique which is good fun but is always unpredictable. Next comes laying one pure colour over an earlier wash when dry – it’s interesting to note what Ruskin has to say about this:-
‘If you lay a solid touch of vermilion and after it is quite dry, strike a little very wet carmine quickly over it, you will obtain a much more brilliant red than by mixing the carmine and vermilion. Similarly if you lay a dark colour first and strike a little blue or white body-colour over it you will get a more beautiful grey than by mixing the colour with blue or white.’
His reference to the use of white might surprise those who regard watercolour as a pure transparent medium. For Ruskin this attitude is too restrictive and he recommends mixing Chinese white with colours as a preferable way to tint them rather than dilute them with water.
‘The mixing of white with the pigments, so as to render them opaque, constitutes body-colour drawing, and you will, perhaps, have it often said to you that this body-colour is ‘illegitimate.’ It is just as legitimate as oil-painting, being so far as handling is concerned, the same process, only without its uncleanliness,……for oil will not dry quickly, nor carry safely, nor give the same effects of atmosphere without tenfold labour.’
The last method he describes is ‘Breaking one colour in small points through or over another.’ This is not a method that seems to be endorsed very much but Ruskin rates it highly.
‘This is the most important of all processes In good modern oil and watercolour painting,…….. To do it well is very laborious, and requires such skill and delicacy of hand as can be only acquired by unceasing practice.’
The method involves the interlacing of one pure colour over or alongside another, or applying small touches separately sometimes leaving space between them allowing the untouched paper to show. What he seems to be advocating is a technique that relies on an optical mix of pure colours that anticipates Impressionism.
Note that Ruskin is inclusive in his comment of both oil and watercolour. The basic problem of rendering colour has to be faced in all media.
After Turner, Ruskin rated Rossetti and Holman Hunt the best of the 19th Century watercolourists. It’s worth studying the work of each of them particularly in respect of the way they employed ‘broken’ colour.