The last six lessons of my online course, Watercolour A to Z, began with the…
Oskar Kokoschka, Polperro II (1938)
Kokoschka’s lively composition is loaded with juicy brushstrokes. Under his impetuous hand, the clouds race across the sky, trees sway in the breeze and the quayside bustles.
When I was very young, we’d go on day trips to Exmouth, Goodrington Sands or Dawlish Warren for our summer holiday. My dad would borrow my uncle’s Ford Anglia and we’d head twenty or thirty miles down the A38 (always stopping at a lay-by on the way so Dad could brew a pot of tea with his Primus) and at our destination, eat fish and chips in the car while raindrops wriggled down the windscreen. Yes, I was more often in my Pacamac than my swimming trunks and I recall not having to endure sunburn until I was at least twelve.
That particular year, we spent an entire week in Fowey.
The trip filled my imagination for weeks before we got there. I’d pore over the holiday brochure as if soaking up every little printed dot from the meagre, colourised photographs.
Stanhope Forbes, Home Along (1905)
Forbes’ nocturne uses a minimal palette to evoke a time of day when sea and sky are equally bright and details are lost in the shadows.
The harbourside, Readymoney Cove and Polruan across the estuary, fuelled my fantasies about smugglers, shipwrecks and buried treasure and although Cornwall was only over the county border and Fowey, less than two hours by car, it seemed like a foreign country to me.
Terry Frost, Movement, Green & Black (1952)
Frost’s Movement, Green & Black does exactly what it says on the tin. A stormy sea and a stretch of coastline are reduced to a bold and simple statement in two colours plus black and white.
When the day finally arrived and I at last climbed the stairs to our holiday flat, I fell in love with the view from the big bay window. Across the estuary, where a dozen, bright-sailed yachts leaned into the breeze, Polruan’s little, white cottages teetered down to the quayside. The headland beyond, with its verdant cap and rocky skirts, appeared dark and inscrutable against the sparkling sea. I had to paint it all, of course and while my brothers went fishing with my dad, I sat down in the big bay window with a box of watercolours that I’d won in an art competition. I sketched something painstakingly, first, then dipped my brush into the cakey colours…
Peter Lanyon, Porthleven (1953)
Lanyon gives us a side-on and top-down view of Porhleven in one painting. His palette is even more muted than Forbes’ yet the vigorous brushstrokes hint at a constantly shifting, experiential landscape.
Ben Nicholson 1943-45 St Ives, Cornwall (1943/45)
Influenced by Cubism and Constructivism, Nicholson’s 1943-45 (St. Ives) is both landscape and still-life; a distillation into simple geometric forms, accentuated by yet another carefully modulated palette of cool and warm greys with the odd pop of red, yellow and blue.
Needless to say, things did not go well. All I managed on that fateful afternoon was to ruin my drawing and I made up my mind, then and there, that painting and more specifically, colour, wasn’t for me. I’m fairly sure that the chastening experience of attempting (and failing) to capture the view from the bay window of our holiday flat informed my choices in art for years to come.
Many of us approach our art in the same way that I did on that day. We see something that stirs us so much that we want to capture it. And when we attempt to do so, we find ourselves pining for the skills that would make us adequate to the task.
Clearly, knowing what we want to paint isn’t the problem – it’s how.
Walter Langley, A Newlyn Street Scene (1885)
Although we barely get a glimpse of the sea, Langley, a consummate story-teller, uses angular shadows and thoughtfully applied values to evoke a hot summer’s day in Newlyn. Everything is still, yet like the many women in their white aprons, we can’t help but tumble down the street to the lugger in the bay to see what’s in today’s catch. But why is the lone individual in the foreground still at her knitting? Was her husband lost at sea?
We often want to put everything into our work: Light, shadow, texture, colour, depth, atmosphere, movement – perhaps to prove to ourselves that we’re as good at painting as we’d like to be! But, to put into our work everything we can see of a place (or a person or a pot plant) is to attempt the impossible. And to prove to ourselves or to others that we know how to paint, is not the point of art anyway.
Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham, Gurnard’s Head (1947)
Barnes-Graham’s ‘Gurnard’s Head’ is almost flat, the elements piled steeply up on one another (like the cottages in Polruan). And even though the whole thing is as grey as Cornish slate, you can almost taste the bright salt air and feel the breeze on your skin.
Experienced artists are aware of this and just as a great musician does more than just play the notes, they not only strive to heighten their relationship with their tools and materials, but also to consider what they wish to say with them. The beginner, meanwhile, is caught up with trying to make water look wet, grass look soft and rocks look hard and thinks that once they can do that, a work of art will result. In truth, however, this is just the beginning of their journey, not the end, because the real goal is to evoke that which can be felt and not to just paint what can already be seen.
JMW Turner Land’s End, Cornwall c. 1834
Looking at one of Turner’s colour beginnings, a study for his publication, ‘Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England,’ (1826) we notice that he has left out more than he’s put in. Nevertheless, we cannot fail to see a crashing ocean, a mighty land mass and the approaching storm. But how is this possible when he hasn’t even painted a single wave, rock or blade of grass?
Because, for Turner, seeing is feeling and it’s by making his feelings clear that he excels as an artist. As Paul Klee said, you ‘put the right colour in the right place,’ – but if your feelings aren’t involved, then no amount of technical skill will make a scrap of difference.