Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Watercolours revisited. It's a long story...

I started my hobby painting career almost twenty years ago, with a watercolour class. I was in my early twenties, the teacher and the other ladies in the class were in their sixties. We did "traditional", rather faded looking watercolours of mostly flowers. I learnt the basic techniques but although the teacher and other ladies were all very lovely, I just wasn't really inspired.

The next class I went to after that was an acrylics class. It was at an artists studio. He was a good 20 year youngers than the lovely ladies. I adored his style, his ideas, his creativity, his teaching style, I loved the bold colours and textures of acrylic paint. We didn't do any flower paintings. I've been going there ever since.

It's not that I haven't tried painting with watercolours again since that first class. When I bought my first box of water colours, I asked the shop assistant where the black and white paints were. She looked at me with such an expression of  shock on her face as if I'd just confessed a murder to her. "You don't use white paint with watercolour", she resolutely and accusingly told me. "If you want white, you just leave out the areas. And you never, ever use black in watercolour".  I left the shop humbled and embarrased - although not convinved. But without any black or white paint.

When we did watercolours in the painting class once or twice, my teacher always told me that I needed to use much more water. Watercolour paintings should be transparent, not as bold as mine. So I came to associate watercolours with traditional, antiquated, colourless, boring. A little bit at least. Admittedly, I was also a bit afraid of watercolours. It seemed that you always had to get it right, that there was no chance of correcting mistakes. To me, it appeared to be such a difficult technique that if you weren't a highly accomplished watercolour artist already, you better just left it alone altogether. And I gladly turned to my beloved and forgiving acrylics.

So I hardly ever got out the watercolour paints - and it certainly wasn't because of a lack of supply. The little travelling box on the left (complete with dark blue velvety pouch) must date back to the times of my first attempts. The big box at the back is my latest acquistion. A large tin box with good artist's quality paints, which I bought in London this summer. It was one of those 70% off special offers. I simply couldn't resist.

When, at the beginning of the year, I decided to take my (rather neglected) painting hobby much more seriously again, and to really get into the habit of painting, sketching and drawing regularly, I also got interested again in exploring other paint mediums, and the watercolours began to call out to me again, softly but persistently.

In May, I visited Vienna, and I went to the wonderful Kunst Haus Wien, a museum designed by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser to exhibit his work. I have admired his unique style for a long time, but had never actually seen an origianl painting. And I had never realised how much he had painted with watercolours. I had never associated his bold, colourful works with this medium.

When I went on my summer holiday to London not long after, I was very pleased to see that there was an exhibition at Tate Britain about - Watercolour. I really liked the idea of an exhibition not about an artist, an artistic movement, a certain period or style, but about a specific paint medium. I thought it was rather clever. And I really enjoyed the exhibition; learning about the history and development of watercolours, the different styles, techniques, and most of all its versatility. I was also very pleased to see that white and especially black paints were frequently used, as well as bold colours :).

Certainly, these two incidents weren't pure coincidences? Now I really had to give watercolours another try. I bought a couple of books on watercolour techniques (not that I don't already have the one or other), got some (more) supplies, and have made some timid attempts at getting to know that medium (again).

I'm still struggling a bit. I find it hard to achieve a light and airy and transluscent style, without using too much paint (on purpose, this time), and to try and find my style with this medium. But I won't give up. I'm determined to practise and get more accomplished, just as with my sketching and drawing.

And I'll never ever listen to anyone trying to tell me that you can't use certain colours with certain paint mediums again. You can use whatever you want, however you want. And if I want to use white and black in my watercolour paintings (or even a white gel pen, like I did in the above portrait), I will. And that's it. If no one had dared to break conventions and try something new, art history would be a very short chapter today. And we would never have had such innovative artists as for example Friedensreich Hundertwasser.


  1. Yes! Yes! Yes! That last paragraph is so, so true. Art has no rules. There is no right or wrong. As soon as we impose rules or conventions we lose all chance of originality, personality or creativity.

    A few years ago I joined an art therapy group and one of the teachers was a very talented, young abstract artist, who really created one of those "epiphany" moments in some of us, where we realised that our art belonged to us, not to others and their conventions. And he did it with watercolour! We just experimented with so many ways of using watercolour (spraying it, throwing it, using things other than brushes, etc)

    I never imagined I would bring a painting home and want to put it on my wall, but I did. Sadly I've moved house since then and don't know what happened to my "masterpieces" but it was so much fun. Maybe one day I'll do some more just for a change, like you are doing this year with this fascinating journey through your art.

    By the way, I really like that portrait - so many shades of brown (or red, I suppose) - watercolour is much more versatile than people realise.

    I don't know if you noticed but I can see a little influence from Friedensreich Hundertwasser in your sketchbook trees image, though yours definitely has a style of your own.

    How do you find time to watch Terry & June with all this creativity going on??

  2. That sounds like a great teacher you had there, Nigel. There are many talented artists, but not everyone has the talent to inspire others in such a way. What a pity your pictures got lost! You should definitely take out some colours and give it a try one day. It's such fun, especially if one stops putting pressure on oneself and forgets about "conventions".

    I hadn't noticed any influency, but I can see what you mean. Hundertwasser's trees were always shaped like this (and he had some very distinct opinions about trees and architecture). When I started painting, I had just the circle shapes in mind. I actually added the stems quite spontaneously, after I had finished the picture. Maybe I was unconsciously influenced by his pictures, somehwere in the back of my mind :).

    Ah, Terry & June. Can you believe it? They've actually moved it to a time earlier in the afternoon, which means that if I'm home early, I just about manage to catch the last 15 minutes or so. They've replaced it with 'The House of Eliot', though. Probably not your cup of tea either, but I loved it when it was first on, about 10 years ago. It was one of the things that got me interested in the 1920/30s.

  3. Noooo! They moved Terry & June? As the principal member of their fan club I think you should write and complain. I'm sure they'd be glad (and maybe surprised) to hear from a fan!

    Gosh, yes, The House Of Elliot. I do remember that - seems ages ago now. Another series based around that era was Jeeves and Wooster (PG Wodehouse.) I loved the humour, mostly laughing at the ridiculous English gentleman. It was an era where woman really started to fight back against their traditional roles in society. There is a lot to be said for that time in history, and so many values and qualities of life that we just don't see today - I can totally understand why you like it so much.

    I'm looking forward to the weekend and the Bridport Hat Festival where one of my hats will be from that time. Obviously I have to keep the specific details a secret, but I will tell more via my blog hopefully ;o)

    I think you'd love the event!