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.
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.
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.