REAL-WORLD VIEWS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

The na­ture of the medium en­tails an aes­thetic and a process very dif­fer­ent from those of oil paint. Oil paint tends to be ap­plied from dark to light, the dark­est lay­ers be­ing thin and flat, while the lighter ones, ap­plied over the darks, are thicker. There is no im­pasto in wa­ter­colour, in which all the colours are thin and flat on the page, and the painter works from light to dark, leav­ing the light­est ar­eas as white pa­per and build­ing darker tones all around these.

The equip­ment re­quired for wa­ter­colour paint­ing is also much more portable than that needed for oil paint­ing: a pocket-sized wa­ter­colour set, some brushes, a small bottle of wa­ter, and a wa­ter­colour sketch­book. This makes it an ideal medium for hik­ers and na­ture lovers, or for trav­ellers want­ing to record the sights they en­counter in for­eign lands. So wa­ter­colour was quintessen­tially the medium of travel, ex­plo­ration and the plein-air record­ing of the world.

As an ex­ten­sion of draw­ing, wa­ter­colour was also a nat­u­ral part of a school cur­ricu­lum; del­i­cate and highly re­fined, but not re­quir­ing the long and spe­cialised stu­dio train­ing of the ex­pert oil painter. It was also use­ful to any­one, from ar­chi­tects and en­gi­neers to nat­u­ral his­to­ri­ans and naval of­fi­cers, whose work de­manded an abil­ity to draw. So wa­ter­colour was a medium with­out clear boundaries be­tween ama­teur and pro­fes­sional, or be­tween high art and ap­plied art, but rather a con­tin­uum be­tween these cat­e­gories. Many out­stand­ing wa­ter­colourists also have ex­er­cised other pro­fes­sions.

In all these re­spects — in the em­brace of util­i­tar­ian ap­pli­ca­tions, the open­ness to ama- teur prac­ti­tion­ers, the love of na­ture and cu­rios­ity about the world and new lands — wa­ter­colour was a very Bri­tish medium. Other artists of other na­tions had prac­tised it be­fore the Bri­tish adopted it so en­thu­si­as­ti­cally: Al­brecht Duerer, for ex­am­ple, had been an as­ton­ish­ing pi­o­neer of the medium in the 16th cen­tury. But nowhere was it so keenly taken up by such a broad range of prac­ti­tion­ers.

Per­haps this is what led Bri­tish wa­ter­colour, es­pe­cially in the pe­riod cov­ered by this ex­hi­bi­tion, to at­tempt more than might seem the nat­u­ral range of the art form. A medium that is best suited to light, fresh, lively no­ta­tions of the phe­nom­e­nal world was thus made to at­tempt heav­ier, more sub­stan­tial ef­fects to ri­val those of oil paint­ing: it is as though we are wit­ness­ing not merely the aspi­ra­tion of wa­ter­colourists to equal oil painters but the im­plicit as­ser­tion that Bri­tish artists, with their wa­ter­colour medium and their semi-ama­teur ethos, are ca­pa­ble of out­do­ing the con­ti­nen­tals with a medium that re­quired years of pro­fes­sional train­ing.

Three works that hap­pen to hang side-by­side epit­o­mise some of the di­verse am­bi­tions of the Bri­tish tra­di­tion. The lat­est of the three, a view of Rich­mond in York­shire by Wil­liam Cal­low, al­though painted in 1858, re­mains faith­ful to the original spirit of mid-18th cen­tury pleinair wa­ter­colour: it is a view of a real place, cap­tur­ing del­i­cate im­pres­sions of light and at­mos­phere, work­ing in trans­par­ent wa­ter­colour and leav­ing con­sid­er­able ar­eas of the pa­per un­painted or barely tinted.

Made three years ear­lier, Sa­muel Palmer’s

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