Jem Bowden

Jem Bowden - watercolour landscape painter

Entry time, and Artist influences

Bristol, Venice of the Southwest. For sale


It’s that time of year again, when I’m always hoping I might pull off a decent last minute painting to enter into one of the popular competitions.

But even if I did, I wouldn’t have the confidence that I’m seeing it objectively enough to be right about it so soon after painting.
How are you ever really supposed to decide which paintings are, objectively, your ‘best’?  There are so many and so few really seem to stand out.  And I even suspect that the supposed ‘objectivity’ that comes with some time/distance is also not actually quite that.

I’d always like to ask the people I know and trust the opinion of, but it feels like a lot to ask. And their answer may surprise you, and you may not like it… and if you don’t go with it you may cause offence…. Anyway, posted here are a few of said recent pieces, and I don’t think they will get entered for anything.

Pensford Church and the river Chew. For sale


On a different note, I’d rather like to pay some respects, in terms of the artists who have influenced or inspired me over the years, and continue to do so.

When teaching or demonstrating I sometimes get asked the question ‘Are you self-taught?’.  
It always strikes me as a sort of naive question.  I’m not sure anyone is entirely ‘self-taught’, and I’m always a bit doubtful when I see the claim made by an artist.  After all, who hasn’t looked at books for guidance when they first start out, or these days DVDs or online videos – at least to some degree.  As for proper ‘tuition’ from a physical human being, well, does any university or even school have teachers that properly demonstrate how to use watercolour in a traditional way?  Perhaps so but I never saw any of it in my day except by one art teacher (I think quite incompetently), in one art lesson at secondary school.

For myself I would love to attend the painting holidays tutored by various well-respected artists of the world.  I know I could learn a great deal, and probably get a lot of inspiration too, so one day I hope to do this.

The only actual in-person tuition like this I’ve ever had was in the form of a weekend group workshop with Steve Hall, when he did one quite local to me.  Steve’s painting still inspires me today.  Here is a rundown of my watercolour learning from other artists (there are more of course, especially 20th century British watercolourists, but these are the most important):

Age 9 or 10:  Borrow books from local libraries.  John Blockley, and particularly Wilfred Ball’s books caught my imagination.
I hope the latter is remembered by others today (not to be confused with an earlier watercolour painter Wilfrid Ball.)  He was an impressive painter, and his main subject was moorland/mountain scenery and atmospheric weather and light conditions.  Some of his books in the library contained mainly black and white plates, but I’ve more recently for old time’s sake bought a couple from ‘Abebooks’ which are in colour.  I loved how evocative his paintings were, even in black and white, and being a lover of the outdoors from family holidays (often walking in rain and mist) they were powerful to me.

Summer field near Pensford. For sale


Age 11-ish: I think is about when I saw the later, atmospheric paintings (mainly in oil) of JMW Turner at an exhibition in London.  I was inspired to try similar things with my watercolours.  One I recall was a car’s eye view on a motorway in fog, with headlights on full beam etc – my version of ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’, based on the experience of a recent journey.  I also did a topical dramatic painting (somewhat tasteless, as I remember my parents pointing out at the time) depicting the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise.

Age 13-ish:  Did my last watercolours – except very infrequent ones – for over 20 years.   (Became sidetracked by other things, somewhat unfortunately!)

Around 2009 I got back into watercolour.  This was inspired by a visit to the Heaton-Cooper Gallery in Grasmere, Cumbria, and the paintings of William Heaton-Cooper.  His work features terrific counterchange, and his compositional skill I think especially struck me.  His paintings were of the stunning (his native) Lake District landscape, and different from my earlier influences in that they were more simplified in terms of detail.  His technique with the medium was flawless, and his poetic interpretation made the landscape even more awe-inspiring than the reality, which is saying something.

About this time I joined an art society, ‘The Bristol Savages’.  I was really only beginning to paint again, and working full time in an unrelated job so couldn’t devote much time to it.  But here I saw some excellent work by other painters, including Paul Weaver and Patrick Collins in particular whose watercolours were impressive and inspiring.  Again it was the visual simplicity of their styles that I liked, and aspired to.  It gave me plenty to work at, and by this time I was also regularly painting en plein air whenever I could to improve my skills.

Then a couple of people mentioned to me the names Edward Wesson and Edward Seago.  “You should check them out” they said.  I got around to it eventually.  Seago took me a while longer, because initially I just saw his oils and failed to realise he painted watercolours!

One of Wesson’s main galleries in his time was The Alexander Gallery in Bristol.   Co-founder of the gallery, the venerable John Cleverdon, was a member of the Bristol Savages and through him I saw my first Wesson originals, a choice collection too, and was completely blown away.  
One of my first thoughts was (like I’ve since discovered many other people also think at this point) that I might as well just pack it in!  Not only was Wesson utterly masterful of the medium, but I related entirely to his choice of subject matter.  Every aspect of his painting style I loved.  Nowadays, there are a lot of examples of his work online because he was extremely prolific and his work comes up on auction sites regularly.  Quite a few are probably his demo paintings and while still impressive are not all representative of his best work, which people may not realise.

2011-ish:  Through googling ‘Wesson’, I discover Steve Hall.  And I buy a DVD.  And I love Steve’s work too.  Steve has done a great deal to bring to name of Wesson to current generations of aspiring watercolour painters and the world should thank him for this.  But from initially being inspired by Wesson he has developed his own – equally unobtainable!  – style, as his followers will attest.  
I was lucky that Steve lives in the next county to me, and he ran a weekend workshop in 2013 that I was able to get to as a non-residential student.  I had been making some progress with my painting over the previous year or two, having dropped some hours in my job and beginning to run my own workshops and demonstrations (feeling completely unqualified to do so, I might add!).  But watching Mr Hall paint was another big moment for me.  It was several things.  Firstly I remember it was a bit of a revelation to see the scale he worked at ‘in real life’, and the amount that he would crop a scene when composing.  Less, not more – of course.  He worked so broadly – even more so than Wesson it seemed – and with such energy.  Actually seeing someone sum up so much so well, so quickly, and with so few brushstrokes and such fresh washes was incredible, but also partly confirmation that it was even – theoretically at least – possible! Sadly though, still only theoretically for the rest of us…
I’m now very lucky to be part of a plein air painting group initiated by Steve, and really would like to spend each time just watching him do his paintings from start to finish.  However, I take longer than him, and by the time I’m done he is often already in the pub.

John Hoar is another artist whose work I admire, and nowadays Facebook is one place I often see some inspiring painting.  A couple of my other favourite contemporary artists are two from India, both with highly individual styles.  These are Suresh Raval, and Vijay Kakde.  I recommend checking them out if you can.

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Mary Ann 1 year ago . Reply

I, too, love the work of Wesson and John Hoar…..fresh and exciting! What do you think of Robert Wade?
love his work also. Show more demos on U-Tube.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Robert Wade also produced, and probably still produces brilliant work, and I read one of his books which I recall was full of wisdom.

Stephen 1 year ago . Reply

interesting to read of your pathway in watercolour, as always your are very honest about your work and influences. Wesson has certainly inspired do many aspiring artists, hasn’t he?

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thanks Stephen. Yes, Wesson is a legend we can be very proud of.

Gaelle1947 1 year ago . Reply

This lovely retrospective of your artistic journey proves the importance of connection with other artists as models and sources of inspiration, and now, you are in turn becoming that beacon for other artists. I’m enjoying discovering the works of those you mentioned — artists I would not have known about had I not read this blog. Creativity does not thrive in a hermetically sealed container – it needs to be shared! Thank you for spreading it around!

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thank you, I really appreciate your generous comment, and glad you’re enjoying discovering those artists.

Nick 1 year ago . Reply

This particular blog is very inspiring to me. Watching you apply paint to paper leaves me feeling you are very accomplished. But your openness about being willing to learn has encouraged me to experiment and make mistakes! I have a long way to go to catch you up but you have given me some pointers about where you picked up your skills. Thank you

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thank you Nick. Nice of you to say, and there’s no other way but to make mistakes! One of the main things I’ve learned is that watercolour should be a risky business. Take your chances!

Julian Lovegrove 1 year ago . Reply

Great article Jem,
I too am unable to judge my own work, or to choose the best works for exhibitions.
I am also inspired by Edward Wesson, and John Tookey is another watercolourist you might enjoy!

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thank you Julian.
    Actually I do know the work of John Tookey. I love it! Shame that there isn’t more to see easily, though I saw a few originals in a gallery in Southwold!
    All the best, Jem

Patricia Brander 1 year ago . Reply

Thanks for introducing me to your heroes! It is easy to see how they have influenced your painting style and the choice of colours you use in your landscapes. It is always interesting to read your thoughts about the painting process. Thank you for this blog. One thing I wonder is: why are you so drawn to landscapes and not portraits, for instance? What thoughts do you have about how you convey your sense of the landscape so we viewers see what you have seen?

Just now I’m reading “The old ways” by Robert MacFarlane about people’s relationships with landscape; maybe you would enjoy it?

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thanks Patricia.
    I’ll bear in mind your enquiry for a later blog post.
    In brief though, I think I paint the landscape because I love being out in it. I’ve never really wanted to paint people, interiors, still life’s or even many landscapes too, unless en plein air/from life. It’s not about achieving an image for me, though I enjoy the medium itself for what it can do. I think it’s about a feeling of connection to the subject, and admiration for it in a way that takes you out and away from yourself. I like those watercolours (by others) that create the right atmosphere, evoking nature as I can relate to it.
    Yes, its a blog post (or book!) in itself…

Colin 1 year ago . Reply

Hello Jem,
I have just spent a week with Steve Hall at Dedham hall in Essex with a view to loosen up my watercolour painting. You were mentioned during the course and I must say I greatly admire what you have achieved. I am particularly fasinated by how you work with a Chinese calligraphy brush. I hope to see you at Dedham hall later in the year.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Hi Colin.
    Thank you for your message. It’s nice of Steve to mention my name, I’m a great admirer of his work and his incredible skill, and am seriously looking forward to joining him at Dedham in August, and watching him paint up close. Will hope to meet you there then. Cheers, Jem

Bill Phillips 2 months ago . Reply

Dear Gem, I don’t think I have ever used one of these sites before.
Sadly, you are no longer with us at Bristol Savages, but maybe one day you might be persuaded to return; I do hope so. One of your wonderful water-colours, and I do mean that, of a beach scene in Cornwall, graces the main passage next to the ‘Red Feather’ studio. I am so pleased things are working out well for you. I have come upon this site by accident, whilst looking up examples of John Hoar’s and Steve Hall’s work. Jenny and I booked in for a Steve Hall workshop a year or two ago, but he fell ill so someone else took his plce. We shall try again. The advice you give about your favourite influences strikes a real cord. There is another name you might look up – Tim Wilmot, who joined the Tribe a while after you left us. I also attended a workshop near Staithes run by Alvaro Castagnet, brilliant, but trying to emulate his slick approach is something else! Best wishes, Bill Phillips.

    Jem Bowden 1 month ago . Reply

    Hi Bill,
    Thanks for your message. I hope you and Jenny are well!
    Honoured to have my painting near the Red Feather’s studio. I trust all is good in terms of the Savages, and hope you’re enjoying your own painting.
    I know well of Mr Castagnet and how his style is emulated (attempted!) the world over, and Tim Wilmot has obviously not mentioned to you that we’ve been going out painting together quite a lot in the last few years! Tim’s work is great isn’t it?
    I’m a huge admirer of Steve Hall’s work, and do recommend you book again with him.

    Best wishes, Jem