Monday, February 05, 2007

Watercolours Fast and Loose – but are they any good?

I regularly post to artists’ forums and become a bit dismayed by the almost universal preoccupation with ‘looseness’ of handling in watercolour. Look around though and you discover watercolour is a medium which can be handled in many different ways.

The argument about loose and free as against tight or controlled handling of the medium has raged for at least a hundred years. Ruskin taught students to avoid the easy freedom achieved with the uncontrolled sweep of the brush or pencil. He wrote: “masterliness is in never letting the hand be free, but keeping it under control at every part of the line.” The qualities he admired are found in the beautiful drawings and watercolours of artists like Rossetti.

With watercolours of any quality looseness is an illusion. In the apparently freely handled watercolours of Edward Wesson or John Yardley what we’re really observing are carefully considered confident brushstrokes precisely placed to create maximum effect. The kind of mastery they each achieved arises from close observation and through the discipline of drawing. There’s no quick half-hour fix as offered by some of the popular watercolour manuals.


Donald said...

Your argument for watercolor technique is similar to the idea that painting thinly in oils "isn't really painting" but "brush drawing." I've seen that foolish argument many times. My complaint is that today, we have what is referred to as "digital painting." Nothing could be further removed from painting than "digital painting" and digital art. It's a JOKE!

Robert said...

Thanks for your sharing your opinion Donald but regarding your comment that my 'argument for watercolor technique is similar to the idea that painting thinly in oils "isn't really painting" but "brush drawing."' I don't get the connection.

I've never personally come across that criticism of thinly painted oils and I agree it's not valid.

I fear though you're wrong to dismiss 'digital painting' or 'digital art' as a joke - it is a serious art form. Although different in presentation digital painting originates as a moving hand making a mark which is preserved. Moving hands holding a drawing tool have been making marks in one form or another for thousands of years. Whether the tool is a lump of chalk on a cave wall, or a brush on canvas, or a stylus on a graphics tablet it's all essentially the same activity.

Donald said...

On the subject of digital "painting" ...

It may be a "serious art form" but to call it "painting" is nonsense. My fingers get stained with paint. They never get stained with pixels. Since no paint is involved, calling it painting is a charade. It doesn't matter what the result might look like, pixelization or pixelizing might be a better term. Paint and therefore - "painting" - it is not.

As for the painting thinly in oils point... I've seen prejudice against those who do paint thinly using oils as "not really painting", suggesting heavy impasto is the only "true" form of oil painting. I was tying it in, rightly or wrongly, with the controlled aspect of your watercolor comment. It probably could have been worded better, but that's what I was getting at. I think many of the loose and free proponents of watercolor consider it an integral part of the watercolor painting process as water itself is "loose and free."

I have known a few watercolor painters who think of themseelves as being more in tune and better artists than those who use oils, because "oils are easier to use, since they can easily be corrected." I am not actually attributing this to you. I don't know you. But this also is nonsense. I can paint in either medium freely.

Robert said...

I think that the discussion we've got into Donald is essentially about semantics because the meaning of words frequently changes over time to accomodate new situations.

Julian Bell in his book 'What is Painting?' gives precise definitions. Put simply 'paintings' are objects where we expect to see hand made marks usually on a flat surface which are capable of interpretration to look like something if figurative - or have some other meaning if they are abstract. The process of applying colour electronically with a stylus is very similar to applying it with a brush or pastel stick even though you don't get your hands dirty. The hand drawn marks are identifiable whether tracked electronically or as a physically applied pigment.

I will concede that to make digital paintings permanent they have to be printed. This perhaps puts them in the same category as say etchings or engravings where the hand made marks on the plate or block are revealed by the print. So far there isn't a good
description - the term Gicleé isn't appropriate.

Anonymous said...

i think no one can comment on digital art until they themselves have proof that they themselves have tried it

until they have their comments and opinions are worthless!