Looking At Watercolor Directions By 5 British Artists
In a recent ‘Resource Centre’ article, British art supplier and manufacturer, Winsor and Newton, focused on the contemporary works in watercolor by several British artists. In so doing they first noted some historical background of watercolour in England versus that of the French Academy, and thereby cited the issue of “heirarchy” in painting mediums.
“There are many preconceptions about watercolour; a paradoxical medium, seen by some as the perfect entry into painting but by many as technically challenging and difficult to master.”
“In the 19th century Turner and Constable introduced watercolour into fine art; however, the French Academy, copied throughout Europe, created a hierarchy of subjects suitable for the serious artist; history and myth being at the top, followed by ‘genre’ scenes, then landscape and still life. The only material they proposed for historical painting was oil colour; watercolour was considered suitable for sketches and associated with architectural painting and landscape.”
Five British artists engaged in contemporary work discuss the use of watercolour in their art practice… Several artists are cited who are currently challenging some of the perceptions about the watercolor medium. Given the diverse nature of contemporary art, it is little surprise that artists use watercolour in a range of ways, sometimes unorthodox, that best suit their ideas and working method.
“As watercolour is a liquid I pour or drip it” says Alf Löhr, “or I throw it in the air to catch when it comes down!”
Alf Löhr sees an almost moral benefit to this material challenge; he believes you have to live with your mistakes, there is no cover up or rubbing out. He likes the simplicity of watercolour: “water + pigment +light; neither greasy nor plastic like acrylics.”
The historical association of water colour with sketching is part of the way London based artist Alf Löhr (www.alflohr.net) communicates his ideas about life and the creative process;
“Look at architecture and it is obvious that the highest level of creativity was at the stage of the original sketch or drawing. The rest is technical execution done by engineers. Art is not dissimilar.
For me, creativity is in the sketch, when the mind is still free to explore and is open for things to happen. That’s why watercolours are always nearer to life and more lively than cleverly executed artistic statements. Watercolours allow you to avoid big, heroic simplifications. You either look for life or you don’t.”
Born in Germany in 1957, Alf Löhr studied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and completed a PhD at the Royal College of Art, London. Having spent periods teaching, researching and working in New York, Australia, and Glasgow – to name a few – he has chosen London to be his home for the last twenty-five years. Since the early’s 1990s, Löhr has focused on producing small watercolours, and has gained in scope until producing large-scale works on canvas.
In a recent interview Alf Löhr responded to the question ‘what it is about a painting that might cause us to say that it is beautiful? ‘ with the following:
‘Whether it is abstract or representational, we find (a painting) beautiful if we can see a pattern in it, a grace of line or movement, harmony or proportion. The eye is caught by a pattern of colour, the way different colours relate to one another; the eye is caught by differentiation and contrast between dark and light, stillness and activity. And yet a painting is lifeless if it is too controlled, too obviously patterned, and organised and its objects too perfect. In truthful art as in a truthful understanding of life there is always a hint or echo of chaos, incompatibility, imperfection and so every beautiful artwork also has an element of pathos’.
Stephanie Tuckwell works on a number of paintings at one time; this encourages her to work swiftly and directly, shifting between paintings, sometimes to linger and work intensely, other times to move on rapidly. For Stephanie the special material characteristics of watercolour are both an idea in her art as well as a practical application.
“My work is a response to the edges of landscape, the meeting of land and sea, where mass meets fluids. My inspiration lies at the edges of the air, land and sea, my working methods lie in the area between the intentional and incidental; the fluidity and immediacy of watercolour which allow me to explore these concerns in an intuitive manner.”
“My work.. is a response to movement through the landscape; a glimpse from a train, a view from a mountaintop, being airborne in a glider, or standing on the edge of a cliff. I seek to arrive at an image that is a distillation of the experience of being present in the world at a particular moment.
Just as the focus of my inspiration lies at the edges of the air, land and sea, my creative practice lies in the area between the intentional and incidental. Working at these edges demands a mindful awareness and presence that embodies my experiences of the landscape. I work in series: my working methods tend to be swift and direct, shifting between drawing and painting, sometimes to linger and work intensely, other times to work more sparingly and moving on rapidly.”
Stephanie graduated from Goldsmith’s College London in 1975 and is based in Cardiff. Winner of the University of Glamorgan’s prestigious Art Purchase Prize for 2008, awarded the prize for Wales at the 2009 ING Discerning Eye Exhibition.
Winner of the 2005 Sunday Times Watercolour competition with her abstract paintings that embrace the transparent qualities of water colour, Carol Robertson (www.carolrobertson.net) loves the medium for its luminosity and the way it soaks into paper. She believes water colour brings a quality of light from the back to front and appears to reflect light. Carol uses soft brushes to lay down washes of colour, then over-paints, using a more saturated mix. She sometimes removes areas of watercolour with water and absorbent tissue to leave a stain or vestige. She masks out areas of an image and uses flicking or spattering as a softer unstructured contrast to careful linear detail.
Carol Robertson’s paintings are firmly rooted within reductive abstract conventions. Although she doesn’t seek to confirm or record the way the world looks, her work is never disconnected from it.. In earlier work Robertson choose to use the square, rectangle and circle for their ideal power and aesthetic beauty. Recent work has moved towards a more informal relationship with landscape, architecture, nature and the environment, encompassing notions of transience and change.
Multi-coloured arcs or circles now loosely traverse her canvases, with collisions and crossovers registering flashes of chance and coincidence, reminiscent of small arcane details that fleetingly curve across one’s vision.
Every painting is prepared with poured and stained grounds, unstructured atmospheric colour fields that deliberately highlight and complement carefully over-painted arcs as they collide and cross in their individual orbits.
The expression of flux and impermanence in this work reflects her changing response to the world. Art and beauty, however much they arise out of life, are now the defence against its ravages. As Nietzsche said “We have art that we may not perish from truth”.
“The power and beauty of geometric form and detail provides me with a catalyst for ways to make art. Adopting the formal restraints of a reductive and often repetitive geometric language takes the chaos out of what otherwise would be an impossibly vast set of visual options upon which to pin my existence. Geometry allows me to concentrate on the essential. It allows me the freedom to channel sensory or poetic material through its refined parameters. Over time my work evolves in tandem with whatever is happening in my life, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and physically. The enduring constant is my commitment to working with the non-hierarchical and pragmatic language of geometric abstraction”.
Carol Robertson lives and works in London and is married to fellow artist Trevor Sutton. She is primarily a painter and printmaker, represented in the UK and USA by Flowers Gallery, by Galleri Weinberger in Denmark and by Peter Foolen Editions in the Netherlands.
In 2005 she won first prize in the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition. She was Research Fellow in Painting at Cardiff School of Art & Design from 2003 – 2008.
Her work has been exhibited extensively internationally, most recently in The Netherlands, Austria, Japan and USA. Since 2001 she has been a Returning Fellow at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ireland. In 2012 she was artist in residence at the Kunstgarten in Graz, where she has made 3D objects for the first time. In 2013 she shows a new series of paintings titled Circular Stories at Galerie allerArt, Bludenz, Austria.
Barbara Nicholls’ (www.barbaranicholls.co.uk) watercolour paintings made with Winsor & Newton professional water colour suggest the stratification built up over millions of years in geological formations.
“I start by creating puddles of water on large sheets of paper. I apply the watercolour to this water and wait for the pigment to find the edge of the water. This creates a line of colour. I am interested in this line; it has a quality that I could not otherwise achieve.”
“Residue” Large watercolours produced during a year long studio residency at Winsor and Newton London 2013. “Nicholls takes as her point of departure systems of archaeological and geographical mapping, accumulations and isolated portions of material remains, the convoluted territorial alignments of the city (its physicality and historical layering), and the malleability of the actual materials out of which her work is made. She draws upon a substantial (though not arbitrary) armoury of technical processes and devices, bringing these together so as to produce works of a coherent yet open nature which ask that the viewer respond to them in an active and engaged way.”
Barbara Nicholls’ work operates across a broad range of artistic categories, employing a wide span of processes and techniques to address a number of engaging critical issues: questions of aesthetic form, surface and depth, chance and order, the handmade and the readymade, the archaeological and the cartographic, and the relations between work and play. Her approach, both to the subject matter with which she engages and to its material rendition is allegorical or metaphorical, rather than literal or mimetic. The objects Nicholls produces, be they primarily two dimensional or three dimensional forms, may thus be regarded as translations or complex developments with their own internal logic, structures which have, to a considerable degree, moved away from their original sources whilst nonetheless connecting to them through inference and analogy.
Nicholls takes as her point of departure systems of archaeological and geographical mapping, accumulations and isolated portions of material remains, the convoluted territorial alignments of the city (its physicality and historical layering), and the malleability of the actual materials out of which her work is made. She draws upon a substantial (though not arbitrary) armoury of technical processes and devices, bringing these together so as to produce works of a coherent yet open nature which ask that the viewer respond to them in an active and engaged way.
An individual work can display several, apparently contradictory methods of “inscription”, of technical know-how within its frame: drawing, painting, routing, folding and unfurling, tracing and tracking, sanding down and sharpening up. The result may be a multilayered, overly physical cluster of densely packed substances or, conversely, something minimal, neatly stripped down. Nicholls’ works might sometimes be better described as “accumulations” rather than as conventional paintings; they are certainly situated somewhere between or adjacent to conventionally established categories, this hybrid status being one of their most intriguing and seductive features.
Watercolour can have a particular, luminous quality achieved by applying transparent paint to white paper. Once applied, water colours are hard to move and artists respond in different ways to this challenge.
In a recent London exhibition Peter Haslam-Fox (haslamfox.com) showcased a series of large-scale, highly detailed paintings:
“Water colour by its very nature is unforgiving. The kind of focus needed to be brave with your subject and get it right first time is exhilarating. I find this especially true of working on a larger scale.”
” I am aiming to rejuvenate the neglected medium of Watercolour and push it in a new direction. The paintings draw more on the simplicity of Eastern traditions in ink than the more fastidious Western works on paper, though through the use of colour and scale try to merge the two worlds.
For the most part self contained, the subjects are chosen for their innate but simple strength. Similarly the painting of them reflects a clarity of style and a concentration of technique that I greatly admire in Chinese painting and calligraphy. Rather than relying on detail, the pictures depend as much on raw paper as paint for their description. “
Based in his South Lambeth studio, Haslam Fox has continued in his attempt to rejuvenate watercolours and while working on various private commissions, he continues to work on new series of works.
Peter Haslam-Fox, lives and works in London. He has won several awards including; The Benton Purchase Prize at ‘The Discerning Eye Exhibition’, Mall Galleries (2010) and The RWS/Sunday Times, ‘young artist’ (2008). His work has been exhibited at mixed exhibitions including; The Discerning Eye Exhibition, Mall Galleries and The Royal Watercolour Society Spring Exhibition, Bankside Gallery.”
Peter Haslam Fox is a London based figurative artist. For the large part self taught, he did start out at art school. He hated it, and instead went to Glasgow to study art history and then went on to work in a variety of professions around the world, latterly as a carpenter in London and gilder in the U.S. It was only in 2006 when a chance meeting with the artist Brendan Kelly rekindled his interest in painting that he ended up under his guidance for a year culminating in his first show at Ainscough Contempory Art.
A foray into Watercolour in 2007 unexpectedly led to his first series of paintings that explored the capital’s architectural and social diversity. He was named the RWS/Sunday Times’s 2008 ‘Young Artist’ and other works were showcased at the 2008 Discerning Eye Exhibition at the Mall Galleries and the 2009 21st Century Watercolour Exhibition at The Bankside Gallery.
The series entitled A Tale of Two Towers went on to form his critically aclaimed solo show, launching the ‘Art Work Space’ gallery in Bayswater. The paintings were described in ‘Art Of England’ magazine as “exquisite pieces of contemporary portraiture.”
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