I was looking at Barry Miles monograph on Edward Wesson today. I bought the book some years ago when it was first published by subscription. He handled watercolour with great dexterity and like so many others I was an avid admirer. Judging by the accounts of students on his courses – working in front of the subject – he made a few sketchy pencil marks then plunged in with bold gestural washes. These deft demonstrations left his students overawed and full of admiration.
He was able to work this way because he had a ‘good eye’ developed by accurate draughtsmanship. This comes out plainly in the poster commissions which he did for British Rail and the Post Office Savings Bank. The posters are quite different in conception from his impressionist watercolours.
In the early days with watercolour I’m ashamed – looking back – at how I neglected my draughtsmanship. I also realised that being a ‘Wesson follower’ resulted in a lot of wasted paper. By all accounts he said for every four paintings he did only one was any good, most of the others ended up in the waste bin.
Well I’m a hoarder and I’m reluctant to consign work I’ve done to the waste bin. Good watercolour paper is too costly. I had my eyes opened by the Watercolour exhibition at Tate Britain last February. Most of the watercolours seemed to be worked on paper that was distinctly off white. The pure transparent methods advocated by Wesson and his disciples would not be very successful on the paper which Turner used for the ‘The Blue Rigi’. There is though another dimension to the watercolour tradition. It finds expression in the lovely translucent washes of lead or zinc white which Turner has floated across his painting to create atmosphere.
I’m using Chinese (zinc) or Titanium White these days to ‘recover’ watercolours which were painted a few years ago that I’ve become unhappy with. This one ‘Above Grasmere’ dates back to 1987. I’ve made use of white to give atmosphere to the sky and distant mountains. I think that it’s important to make the opaque passages blend in softly with the transparent areas. Don't want to fall foul of Wesson's disparaging criticism by making the painting look as if it's been given "a touch of the whitewash brush."