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Straining wistful eyes into vacancy…

Straining wistful eyes into vacancy…

It’s about that time when the New Year starts to feel a lot like the old one and I’m tempted to consign my resolutions to the bin along with the Christmas tree.

It’s easy to feel that way about your art, too. Perhaps you haven’t made the progress you’d hope for in 2018 and the moment you open your box of colours, you know exactly where your next effort will end up… alongside the Christmas tree!

Just how do you revive a flagging interest in art?

Looking at more of it is one way!

clockwise from top left: Maggi Hambling, John Varley, Gwen John, Eric Ravilious

Last September, I was asked to write a practical book on watercolour for Ilex Press*; a tall enough order when there are so many good ones on the market, but for this publication, each exercise had to be based on a painting in the Tate Collection.
The Tate houses more than 50,000 works on paper and at any one time, in its several art galleries, only the merest fraction will be on display. Watercolours are not so robust as oils and next to impossible to renovate or restore; or they may be in a folio or sketchbook and not easy to display, so they’re kept out of sight and more particularly, out of the light.
So, I embarked on a long and sometimes tedious journey through the Tate on-line archive, wondering at times, just what so many old, brown landscapes could teach anyone about painting watercolours today.
But I found Maggi Hambling, using more colours in a single painting than I’d ever dare and John Varley using fewer than most people want to. Eric Ravilious, I discovered, trained as an engraver, just like my grandad (you can see it, can’t you, in the beautifully etched lines of his ‘White Horse’ painting?)  and Gwen John, ‘God’s little artist,’ lived in a squat, too poor to eat anything but fruit and nuts and was Rodin’s lover. She was passionate about ‘Edgar Quinet,’ too and painted him over and over again. Although cats make me sneeze, I’m still quite fond of the watercolour variety.

And at the same time,  I found out about ‘blottesque,’ zodiacal physiognomy and why WiIliam Henry Hunt was nicknamed ‘Birds Nest!’ Most importantly, because I had to, I studied artists that up until now, I would have passed over. John Varley, a successful drawing master, was advising his students to ‘go to Nature,’ for the best art instruction more than fifty years before John Ruskin or Paul Cézanne ever thought of the idea. The central tenet of his teaching that ‘the true exercise of art consists in contrasting the round with the square, the light with the dark, the hard with the soft, the far with the near,’ seemed rather glib to me, at first, but actually sums up the entirety of practical artistic endeavour from Canaletto to Kandinsky!

And here’s the man himself, drawn by John Linnell (a student of Varley), in conversation with none other than poet and mystic, William Blake. Varley (aficionado of the aforementioned zodiacal physiognomy), was also a big fan of Blake, who saw visions and ghosts and would conjure up for Varley fantastical portraits of all who ‘visited’ him, including the man who built the pyramids, Moses, Caractacus (King of the Britons), Julius Caesar and the ghost of a flea. These were collected by Varley in sketchbooks entitled ‘Visionary Heads.’

“Varley would say, ‘Draw me Moses,’ … or some other great historical personage. Blake would answer, ‘There he is!’ and paper and pencil being at hand, he would begin drawing, with the utmost alacrity and composure, looking up from time to time as though he had a real sitter before him; ingenuous Varley, meanwhile, straining wistful eyes into vacancy and seeing nothing…”
And speaking of straining wistful eyes into vacancy and seeing nothing… here’s wishing you quite the opposite in 2019 and all the very best for you and your art!
* Master Watercolour will be published by Ilex Press in 2020
** Alexander Gilchrist in 
The Life Of William Blake 1863
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