by Carla Scarano D’Antonio
Watercolour painting or aquarelle is a difficult technique that does not allow rethinking. The first time is forever or the picture would be spoiled by fiddling and retouching. This gives the painting freshness and immediacy but also reveals great skills and a sense of impromptu at the same time. The fascinating effects of watercolour is exactly in this combination of improvisation and expertise.
The technique is ancient, dating back to Chinese and Egyptian art forms (4000 BC) and emerged in Europe in the Renaissance period (15th and 16th centuries) with artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Hans Bol, then developed further among the Dutch and Flemish artists during the 17th century. In England this technique became popular in the 18th century and was applied to illustrate landscapes, public works, maps and discoveries in faraway lands. Watercolour was a quick way to record and catalogue. In Britain it became an establishes pictorial technique thanks to painters such as JMW Turner, Thomas Girtin, David Cox, William Blake, Thomas Gainsborough and others. It was considered a distinctive English artistic medium that gave expression to the personal, the local as well as to the romantic landscape so popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. The unique effect of light created by watercolour with its thin layers of pigment and the ‘impression’ it conveys of the subject, influenced the Impressionists and was successfully employed by modern artists such as Cézanne, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Klee, Egon Schiele and Georgia O’Keeffe.
The exhibition of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours at the Lightbox in Woking gives an idea of the exceptional level of watercolour production in England today. The RI was founded in 1807 and is one of the oldest institutions that has promoted watercolour as a serious artistic expression. The artworks displayed testify a wide diversity of the styles of the artists; they sometimes use mixed media adding collage, ink, acrylics and gouache ranging from traditional figurative approaches to more experimental ones. There are ninety painting on display by twenty-eight members and all the pieces are available to purchase.
They are renowned artists who have won awards and their works has been extensively exhibited in the UK, around Europe and, in some cases, internationally as well. Some of the paintings show accurate, laborious work rather than an immediate, spontaneous pictorial rendering, similar to the tempera technique, but the luminous effect of watercolour allows unique results. This is clear in the work of Lillias August who layers and lifts washes in order to obtain the right effect, which is perfectly executed in her display of pieces of guns and of knives (‘Decommissioned’ and ‘Amnesty’). In a similar way, the real world has inspired artists such as Harry Price, Paul Banning and Ian Sidaway who return to visit the subject and record it with photos. Later they work in their studios in a recollection of memories that is also a reworking of the imagination. The results are captivating, accurate and loose at the same time, with a skilful rendering of the transparency typical of the watercolour medium.
The translucent, unpredictable and fluid quality of this technique is also highlighted in Bob Rudd’s ‘Summer Trees’, revealing a semi-abstract looseness that underlines the dynamism of the subject. Masterful effects are achieved by Ann Blockley as well with ‘Sloes in the Hedge’ and ‘Rose hips in the Hedge’ where the depiction of nature and seasonal changes are interpreted in a poetic way through colours and intricate patterns.
The surreal, magical side is explored by artists such as Rosa Sepple and Aimee Birnbaum. Their works is mainly figurative, juxtaposing images that seem to float in the picture reminiscent of Chagall’s imaginary world – a dreamlike reality that takes inspiration from memory as well as from an acute observation of reality.
Some abstract or semi-abstract pictures disclose the innovative potentials of watercolours with elusive undertones and fresh viewpoints that prompt multiple interpretations. This is found in the works of Don Farrell, Jean Noble and Ann McCormack, in which a sense of the extraordinary in the ordinary is present with different styles and palette.
Shirley Trevena’s artwork is also on display with four of her pictures that testify her long experience with this technique. Her domestic settings and the everyday objects she depicts, such as vases, flowers and fruit, acquire an astonishing quality in her compositions. They are exciting in colours and forms, in the remarkable arrangements and in the impressive transparency of the pigments. She skilfully combines looseness in the brush strokes and a strong compositional discipline that makes her creations so effective and delightful.
Other remarkable examples are Chris Forsey’s ‘Along the Causeway, St Michael’s Mount’, Robin Hazlewood’s ‘The Chair, Luxembourg Gardens’, Colin Allbrook’s ‘Morning on the river’ and Roger Dellar’s ‘Late Night Tango’. They all use mixed media, experimenting with watercolour, gouache and bodycolour with surprising distinctive effects.
This is an enthralling exhibition that explores and shows the most recent achievements of British watercolour artists in the distinguished venue of the Lightbox in Woking. A great opportunity to view and purchase remarkable artwork.
The Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, Upper Gallery, The Lightbox, Woking 13 July – 20 October 2019