February 11, 2011 10:08 pm

Landscapes? Think again

 
'January 9: 1983: II', by Patrick Heron

‘January 9: 1983: II’, by Patrick Heron, 1983

The modernist painter Willem de Kooning said that watercolour painting is “the first and the last thing an artist does”. This may sound romantic, but what he surely meant is that watercolour is not the medium of one’s prime, and that something else – in his case oils – usually comes in the middle. Watercolour has suffered a reputation as a soft option for centuries: an L-plated medium for those who haven’t yet graduated to oils or, perhaps more often today, installation or video art. Yet anyone who has seriously engaged in watercolour painting will tell you it is possibly the most challenging art form of all.

I was 11 years old when I got my first box of Windsor & Newton watercolours. I remember the reverence with which I unwrapped the 10 pans of solid paint and placed them according to the colour spectrum. I sat down to Create a Work of Art, as never before. Straightaway, I decided on an imaginary view of a windmill on top of a grassy hill. I dunked my brush in water, went straight for the sap green and attempted to cover a large area of the white textured paper with one sweep. I hadn’t quite realised how quickly the paint would dry. Panic. How would I manage to apply more paint in time to stop green watermarks from permanently ruining the grassy mound I was trying uniformly to colour in? Too late. The paint had, of course, dried, forming a beautiful, amorphous streak of apple-ish green, silk-like with darkly defined edges. I was spellbound. I had unwittingly unleashed the potential of watercolour in one amateur swoosh.

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Ever since, I have been captivated. I have tried other media, but every time I return to watercolour. Not only is it convenient – no smells, stains and minimal paraphernalia – but a watercolour painting can be completed in one sitting. The process requires deep concentration, but that is the beauty of it. Watercolour is unforgiving: it is all too easy to end up with a furry, muddy mess, but equally, you can create something that is fresh, luminescent, and – to use the dabbler’s favourite adjective – painterly.

Watercolour, fundamentally pigment diluted with water, was adopted by some of the very first artists – the ancient Egyptians. In the Middle Ages, a type of gum was added to create a more opaque effect for the decoration of illuminated manuscripts; later it was watered down further to tint lithographs. The therapeutic and practical sides to watercolour were nurtured in the 18th century, when it began to be used by amateurs as well as professionals. Watercolour soon became associated with landscape, still life and interior scenes of daily life and, often small in scale, were purchased by the middle classes to adorn their walls.

A rigid hierarchy prevailed until the 20th century. In general, works in watercolour fetched paltry sums compared with oils, and were rarely exhibited. The Royal Watercolour Society was formed in 1804 to showcase watercolour painting, which at the time wasn’t deemed eligible for display at the Royal Academy of Art. Despite the efforts of the Royal Society, the term “watercolourist” had amateur and even feminine connotations. Though established artists often used watercolour for smaller works and sketches, they almost always made their name and fortune in oils. An obvious exception is JMW Turner, however, who pioneered the medium in such an astonishingly vital way that his watercolours have just as much verve as his work in oils.

Modernism liberated watercolour yet further. It is impossible not to be moved by Cézanne’s watercolour sketches, or Paul Klee’s blocks of translucent colour. The giants of modernism, Picasso and Braque, blasted away the hierarchy of oil before water by combining three or four different media on one canvas. How could you categorise a work that included paint, newspaper, rope and vinyl?

Today, “mixed media” is standard vernacular, making it trickier still for art institutions to classify their collections. Works are now stored and displayed according to their support: watercolours, gouache, pencil and other graphic media come under the umbrella term of “works on paper” – a classification which suggests a hint of the age-old divide that says watercolour is more drawing than painting.

Interestingly, as Tate curator Alison Smith has noticed, more and more contemporary artists are reaching for their watercolour palettes: “You just have to scratch the surface to see how much experimentation is going on.” While some artists such as David Austen pursue a more purist approach by using a “wet in wet” technique, others such as Howard Hodgkin combine watercolour with lithography and gouache to semi-abstract effect.

The therapeutic benefits of watercolour painting have often encouraged introspection. Its immediacy and directness make it the ideal medium for expressing one’s interior life – a subject much explored by artists today. Tracey Emin’s ethereal work in watercolour, for example, suggests the evanescence of memory and the way we collect images in our mind.

For most contemporary artists, watercolour is just one weapon in an arsenal of materials. Even those who work solely in watercolour are careful not to refer to themselves as a “watercolourist” – a term still associated with the sort of paintings that hang in certain commercial galleries. Yet watercolour requires determination and skill. In many ways, it is the most revealing medium – you can’t hide behind technology or a team of helpers. It is just you and your palette.

Rebecca Rose is the FT’s acting books editor and illustrates Rowley Leigh’s recipe column for the international edition of FT Weekend

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Q&A

When? Why? How? Who? Six of the contemporary artists on show at the Tate talk to Liz Jobey about their personal and creative relationship with watercolour

Peter Doig

Peter Doig

When did you first use watercolour?

As a child.

What qualities does watercolour offer that you don’t find in other paint media?

Its validity on the page, ie you can leave it very open like a sketch or a thought.

How central is it to your work?

It’s always been there.

What kind of work do you use it for? Do you use it for sketches or to map out ideas, rather than for finished compositions?

More for unresolved ideas and starting points.

 
'Pelican' by Peter Doig

‘Pelican’, 2001

What is your favourite way of using it?

Traditionally, and with added gum arabic.

Do you find it difficult to use? Did it take you a long time to master it?

Yes. I certainly haven’t mastered it.

Have there been particular periods in your work when you used watercolour, and if so, when were they and why?

I always use it on the side of whatever oil paintings I’m doing.

Who are your favourite watercolour artists and why?

Edward Burra – because of what he painted and because it was his primary medium (by necessity). He was a brilliant luminous colourist with his medium.

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Anish Kapoor

When did you first use watercolour?

I have used watercolour for 30 years.

What qualities does watercolour offer that you don’t find in other paint media?

My interest in it as a medium stems from my continuing involvement with colour and its ability to induce a dreamlike reverie when in the right context.

What are the particular effects it brings to your work?

An involvement with colour.

How central is it to your work?

I work in many different media. It is not central, but it is important.

What kind of work do you use it for? Do you use it for sketches or to map out ideas, rather than for finished compositions?

Both sketches and finished compositions.

What is your favourite way of using it? Do you always use a brush? A sponge? Does it have colour properties that you enjoy?

I usually use a brush.

 
'Untitled' by Anish Kapoor

‘Untitled’, 1990

Do you find it difficult to use? Did it take you a long time to master it?

No, not really.

Have there been particular periods in your work when you used watercolour, and if so, when were they and why?

No, I’ve used it fairly consistently.

Do you think it has been superseded by acrylic, or does it have a distinct quality all its own?

It has very particular qualities that acrylic doesn’t.

Who are your favourite watercolour artists and why?

I don’t know, as I don’t think in terms of medium.

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Sophie Von Hellerman

Sophie von Hellerman

When did you first use watercolour?

I first used it when I was a child with my grandmother, sitting in and sketching beautiful landscapes. She also gave me my first artist’s watercolour set when I was about 12.

What qualities does watercolour offer that you don’t find in other paint media?

The great thing about watercolours is that you can take them everywhere and it is almost always easy to find some water. Although it often happens that I have just climbed up with huge effort to a great spot somewhere, settled down, started sketching – and then knocked the water jar over. But I use them at home and in the studio as well, to paint very much as I paint on the large-scale canvases, too: ideas in my head transferred onto a ground with colours that I mix.

What are the particular effects it brings to your work?

As a medium to translate mental images or dreams, watercolour works very well, due to its fluidity. You can, for example, easily paint the face of a beautiful boy morphing into a beast, or a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. Anything of transience, I suppose. And drama: stormy clouds with some sun breaking through. Make sure you always put dark on light though, otherwise it doesn’t work.

 
'Nurture with love (busy busy stop stop)' by Sophie Von Hellerman

‘Nurture with love (busy busy stop stop)’, 2010

How central is it to your work?

Watercolour – or in any case painting with water – is my main practice. I only use oil as a medium occasionally.

Do you use it for sketches or to map out ideas, rather than for finished compositions?

Some of the small watercolours on paper are sketches for bigger paintings, some are finished works and most of them are just some sort of record of the day.

What is your favourite way of using it? Do you always use a brush? A sponge? Do you prefer its transparent qualities, or does it have particular colour properties that you enjoy?

I use large ceramic trays of watercolours that allow me to mix the paints easily and I can also use very large brushes. They are nice to stack when you are finished. I only ever use brushes, not sponges, though sometimes my sleeves.

Do you find it difficult to use? Did it take you a long time to master it?

I find it easy enough to use, but I doubt I will ever master it.

Have there been particular periods in your work when you used watercolour, and if so, when were they and why?

I use watercolour every day, and there are periods when I use it exclusively because I cannot be in the studio.

Who are your favourite watercolour artists, past or present or both, and why?

Although it’s always hard to name favourite artists, I do like Francis Bacon’s watercolours very much, because they are so raw.

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Tracy Emin

Tracey Emin

When did you first use watercolour?

In 1986.

What qualities does watercolour offer that you don’t find in other paint media?

It carries light like no other paint.

What are the particular effects it brings to your work?

It makes my work look much softer and prettier, especially when I build up lots of translucent layers.

How central is it to your work?

There have been times in my life when watercolour has been the most important thing, especially when I have been travelling. I would take small black Daler sketchbooks and fill them from cover to cover with watercolours, like a picture diary.

What kind of work do you use it for? Do you use it for sketches or to map out ideas, rather than for finished compositions?

No. All my watercolours are finished works.

 
'Berlin the Last Week in April 1998' by Tracy Emin

‘Berlin the Last Week in April 1998’, 1998

What is your favourite way of using it? Do you always use a brush? A sponge? Do you prefer its transparent qualities, or does it have particular colour properties that you enjoy?

I like to use a thick white gouache with lots of translucent colours. I use all different size brushes and often use loo roll to blot out when there’s been too much water. I have quite a few sets of watercolour boxes. Some I’ve had for over 20 years, and they have travelled all round the world with me.

Do you find it difficult to use? Did it take you a long time to master it?

Once you start and you have a flow, it seems very easy and pleasurable. But the first attempts are often awkward and clumsy.

Do you make a distinction between watercolour and gouache?

Yes I do – they have very different qualities. And I always have a few tubes of different white gouaches.

Have there been particular periods in your work when you used watercolour, and if so, when were they and why?

When I was in Turkey I did hundreds and hundreds of watercolours, but with very cheap children’s paint or whatever I could get my hands on at the time. Amazingly, they have still retained their pigments and colours to this day. It was good using watercolours in this situation because the colours were so vivid. The next time I made lots of watercolours was immediately after my abortion in 1990. They were strange and very different from any other pictures I’ve ever made, and were full of emotional sentimentality that really suited the medium of the watercolour. I did them on lined notepaper. And in 1998 I painted tiny pictures of the end of a relationship. They were called “The Last Days of Berlin”.

Who are your favourite watercolour artists?

Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele, Louise Bourgeois and Turner.

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David Austen

David Austen

When did you first use watercolour?

Probably like most people: six years old, a cheap little set with six round bright colours, paint by numbers, a grey wet summer’s day with my brothers around a fold-up table in a caravan in Great Yarmouth.

What qualities does watercolour offer that you don’t find in other paint media?

Watercolour is simply “coloured water”. Pigment held in water. If you change the words around it says everything.

What are the particular effects it brings to your work?

Watercolour is so uniquely itself; in some ways it is also an idea, closer to photography than oil or gouache. It is about light and lightness. It has liquidity, imbued with time, a moment caught.

How central is it to your work?

It is the closest art I make to myself. The art I make in other media is more like building work. Watercolour is like a breath. It is the most intimate of mediums.

What kind of work do you use it for? Do you use it for sketches or to map out ideas, rather than for finished compositions?

Most of my watercolours are of figures. Often single, isolated on the page. They work for me when the figure appears to be alive, both ephemeral and bound by gravity. A luminous fragile figure that also has weight, that feels that it is standing in a space, that has an “unbearable lightness of being” if you like. I have observed over the years that the figures are getting stranger and more exaggerated; protruding alien breasts, odd flower-like colours, stamen-like limbs. I think watercolour has a life of its own, quicker than a thought. If I try to question, go back or correct, it always ends in failure. The ones that work best are those that have nothing to do with me.

 
'Untitled (Woman on Man’s Shoulders)' by David Austen

‘Untitled (Woman on Man’s Shoulders)’, 2005

What is your favourite way of using it? Do you always use a brush? A sponge? Do you prefer its transparent qualities, or does it have colour properties that you enjoy?

I usually stand. I work flat using a brush and gravity. I sometimes blow on them. I have collected loads of brushes but often use the same one. I use tubes of watercolour and mix my colours in glass bowls; it is more liquid and generous that way. I have a set of large glass jars and will have one filled with clean water and the others left over time with sediment at the bottom. I will often mix this into the intense colours, making them a bit dirty.

Do you find it difficult to use? Did it take you a long time to master it?

There is no right or wrong way, but there is logic to its material. I find the “why” of art really difficult –ideas are hard to find and slippery to hold. The “how”, the doing, is often the easiest bit.

Have there been particular periods in your work when you used watercolour, and if so, when were they and why?

I tend to spend one day a month making watercolours. I lay out the materials, fold and tear paper until I have a thick block, mix the colours in bowls. I then work through the paper, laying the wet drawings side by side to dry. The figures lead on to each other rather like a Muybridge sequence (the human locomotion photographs by Eadweard Muybridge). Many days later, I go through them and dispose of the ones that won’t do. Watercolour is a brutal business.

Do you think it has been superseded by acrylic, or does it have a distinct quality all its own?

I have never used acrylic. It’s pretty nasty stuff.

Who are your favourite watercolour artists and why?

There are some artists I think of as having a watercolourist sensibility, even though they really work in other media, such as Cy Twombly or Tacita Dean. Certain poets, too. Writers like [Yukio] Mishima. Rodin, Blake and Beuys. Blinky Palermo is another.

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Howard Hodgkin

Howard Hodgkin

When did you first use watercolour?

Probably at the age of seven.

What qualities does watercolour offer that you don’t find in other paint media?

Transparency and immediacy.

What are the particular effects it brings to your work?

I’ve used watercolour far more extensively on my hand-coloured prints than anything else, because you can see the print through the colour.

How central is it to your work?

My work’s all one messy bundle.

Do you use it for sketches or to map out ideas, rather than for finished compositions?

No, because I never do that anyway.

What is your favourite way of using it? Do you always use a brush? A sponge? Does it have colour properties that you enjoy?

I apply it with a brush. The reason I like it now is because I can have a “puddle” of a colour and it gives you many different weights of that colour.

 
'A Storm' by Howard Hodgkin

‘A Storm’, 1997

Did it take you a long time to master it? Do you find it more difficult to use than oils?

No, rather the boot’s on the other foot – oil paint is harder to control. But now there’s a thinner which can make oil paint rather like watercolour – so maybe, eventually, physical incapacity will make me use watercolour all the time ... But hopefully that’s a long way off.

Do you make a distinction between watercolour and gouache?

No.

Have there been particular periods of your work when you used watercolour?

No.

Do you think watercolour has a different effect on the viewer?

Oh I’m sure it does. Viewers probably don’t take it as seriously as they should.

Why do you think it has its reputation as a medium for amateur artists?

I think probably because of its immense practical advantages, such as its portability. An artist like Edward Lear, for example, did marvellous watercolours of views on the Nile, places he went, but for some reason, people don’t do that any more.

Is there an artist whose watercolours you particularly admire?

Yes. Turner. A truly great artist and very influential, but sadly not on young artists today. I don’t know why.

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