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Friday, 9 March 2007

Watercolour Needn't be a Wishy-Washy Medium

Okay, I put my hands up to it, I pinched the title from an article by Grayson Perry in The Times (March 7). As it happened I had, over a short period of time just before that, heard or read several examples of watercolours being badmouthed for their many failings. Here at last, I thought, catching his headline, is someone making a case for them - well, wouldn't you? (Disappointingly, as it turned out, Grayson decided to sit on the fence with a yes, but narrative. I have to forgive him though, for - and this seems as good a ime as any to say it - I find him the most lucid and interesting of any critic or commentator I have come across with a regular column. I wish I could write as well. His page is always the first I turn to.)

The article set me thinking about the reasons for the unpopularity of watercolours - which for some reason he did not go into. Unpopular, that is, with professional or serious painters as opposed to amateur and "Sunday" painters, for it has always been popular with the latter - and there, I think, we have the first strand of the problem. Grayson referred in his piece to a downsland encounter with a group of these watercolourists, and to the clink of brush in water jar as they squinted at the view. It is a telling image encapsulating the attitude of many (most?) "serious" artists. (I recall its prevalence among the students at art school towards the "amateurs" with whom we had to share some evening classes - and an embarrassing encounter with a guy call Epstein, but that's another story, and if it is to be told, must await another post.) Feelings of superiority are a sad, but I think an important part of the problem.

Watercolour's reputation for impermanence may also be a factor. I am not sure that it is that much less permanent than the way in which oils are sometimes used, and certainly most watercolour works would be considerably more permanent than much that has reached the galleries (and private customers) over recent decades, but reputation counts for a lot in such matters.

That watercolour is difficult to manipulate may also be a factor, though you might have thought that this would affect the amateur rather more than the professional, who ought to be more sure in his technique and more capable of overcoming the medium's limitations. Still, the fact remains that if you are not happy with something you have done in oils, you can just scrape it off and start again. Watercolours do not allow you that luxury. You really need to get it down the first time and then leave it. Start to correct or fiddle with it and the thing goes muddy and looks awful. It just will not co-operate.

The point is often made that watercolours do not lend themselves to the large scale or the grand gesture, and there is some truth in this, but as Graysn Perry's title suggests, it does not absolutely have to be like that. Artists have produced watercolours with dimensions of twelve feet and more - and their works have not always been wishy-washy. Think of some of those produced by William Blake, Paul Klee, Turner (le God), David Cox, Francesco Clemente (a great favourite of mine and mentioned by Grayson Perry), Eric Ravilious (esp. his war paintings), Samuel Palmer (an all-time favourite of mine) and the recent experiments of David Hockney. I could go on, for there really are far more than some would like you to believe.

Strange as it may seem, no one talks of watercolour's advantages - other than its "convenience", for "sketching" en plein air, for example. I say "strange", because one of them is the way in which things can happen unexpectedly as you paint, often suggestively. Not every artist would want that, of course, but I would have thought that it might have fitted in very nicely with the world view of many artists from the Moderns onward. If you are a Klee who likes to take a line for a walk it might be more to your liking if it could be a walk during which exciting things happen. Equally, if you happen to be an artist who knows before he starts the statement he wants to make or, if you prefer the more grandiose term, begins with a vision, then again watercolour might fit you purpose admirably.

This, I suppose, is the crux: artists choose a medium that will suit their world view, their vision, whatever. If simple, direct qualities are called for, then watercolours might be the chosen option, but in fact it seems that most artists prefer the grand sweep, the dramatic gesture, the large scale, and that's fine, but over the course of a couple of centuries or so, painters in watercolour have built up an accepted language for their medium, a way of working, a menu of techniques, a grammar of appropriate speech which has become too constraining. They guard it jealously, as grammarians always do. What we need is another Cox, who perhaps will need to be even greater than the first, to throw off the shackles we have placed upon the medium.

Some links you might like to try:

Francesco Clemente
Francesco Clemente
William Blake

and speaking of taking a line for a walk....

Paul Klee in the Naples Aquarium

The world of Jean Anouilh was shapeless or
Was shaped by art. In oceans behind glass
Klee watched a world transform itself, saw grass
That jived in mating rites, a flower claw
Its prey and mossy stones traverse the floor,
MacDiarmid-style. Aspect, that old impasse,
He watched waymark the ways for him to pass
To take his line on walks to metaphor.
All those unfolding qualities of squid
And frond, brought forth, along with melodies
In counterpoint, by time, he caught in space,
Fanned-out or stacked as motifs in a grid
Of sea-dark tints, and unfurled by degrees
Through shape and shade to spirit's earthly face.

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