There are many preconceptions about watercolour: it’s 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. But the French Academy, copied throughout Europe, created a hierarchy of subjects suitable for the serious artist. History and myth were 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.
Watercolour doesn’t necessarily come to mind when we think about contemporary art, but this perception is being challenged. “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!”
Here, Löhr and other artists engaged in contemporary work discuss the use of watercolour in their practice.
On contemporary applications
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 methods.
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, and at other times to move on rapidly. For Tuckwell the special material characteristics of watercolour are both an idea in her art and a practical application.
“My work is a response to the edges of landscape, the meeting of land and sea, where mass meets fluids,” she says. “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.”
Carol Robertson, who won the 2005 Sunday Times watercolour competition with her abstract paintings embracing the transparent qualities of watercolour, loves the medium for its luminosity and the way it soaks into paper. She believes watercolour brings a quality of light from the back to front and appears to reflect light. Robertson 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.
Barbara Nicholls’ watercolour paintings, made with Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour, suggest the stratification built up over millions of years in geological formations.
“I start by creating puddles of water on large sheets of paper,” she explains. “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.”
The historical association of watercolour with sketching is part of the way London-based artist Alf Löhr 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,” he says. “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.”
On watercolour properties
Watercolour can have a particular luminous quality achieved by applying transparent paint to white paper. Once applied, watercolours are hard to move and artists respond in different ways to this challenge.
In a recent London exhibition Peter Haslam-Fox showcased a series of large-scale, highly detailed paintings.
“Watercolour by its very nature is unforgiving,” he says. “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.”
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 plus pigment plus light: neither greasy nor plastic like acrylics.”
It is unlikely that a contemporary artist using watercolour will win this year’s Turner Prize, though it is quite possible that this will happen some time in the future. Its strong traditions, rich history and special qualities make watercolour a valid medium for today’s contemporary artists.