Material Matters: Artist Liz Elton on using Cotman Watercolours

Liz Elton on using Cotman Watercolours

Liz Elton is an artist living and working in London. She has a BA in Painting from Wimbledon College of Art and an MA in Fine Art from Chelsea College of Art and Design. She has shown widely, including recently in the John Moores Painting Prize Exhibitions in 2018 and 2021, and she has been selected for a Mark Rothko Memorial Trust artist-in-residence award in Daugavpils, Latvia.

Her large ephemeral works are often made on compostable food waste recycling bags and colour she extracts from kitchen waste. Situated in the expanded field between making and unmaking they connect narratives across time, waste, the materiality of bodies and earth. We talked to her about how she uses Winsor and Newton Cotman Watercolours in her practice.

I always begin with watercolours. Their wonderful ephemeral quality underpins the sense of shifting landscapes that is core to my work. I’ll take an image, maybe the patterns in a landscape or the structure of skin and make rapid drawings on paper, painting over them in transparent washes. Sometimes I load a very fine brush with a dilute solution of watercolour and draw a structure of shapes before adding washes and floating more pigment into areas where I want added colour intensity. I like to make a lot of these small paintings, letting the shapes and colours emerge and allowing my ideas to flow so I need my materials to be plentiful and affordable without compromising on quality.

Liz Elton on using Cotman Watercolours
Liz Elton on using Cotman Watercolours

Frequently I float paint into pools of water on paper and leave them to settle so watery patterns emerge, and colours burst through breaks in surface tension like the piercing of a cell membrane. During a residency on the Isle of Eigg in the Small Isles of Scotland the plethora of lichens reminded me of a heritage paint colour chart and I made lots of paintings using this pooling technique. I like to have materials to hand so I can make sketches and notes wherever I am. The little boxes of 12 Cotman half pans are ideal as I can leave an extra box at home to make notes when I’m not in the studio, or pop one in a pocket when I travel.

When making my large compostable cornstarch works using my kitchen waste colours I often add a few sections of watercolour for pops of a bright hue. Tubes of Cotman are useful here to mix a larger quantity of wash which I leave to dry into finely mottled patterns.

The full range of 40 Cotman colours more than meet my needs and I usually find I get lost in the paint and I mix intuitively as I proceed. Only if I’m thinking of a specific origin or meaning, say connected to Rose Madder or Caput Mortuum Violet, I might very occasionally buy a pan from the Winsor and Newton Professional Watercolour range to augment my Cotman palette.

Transparency is important to me, so the predominance of (semi) transparent colours in the Cotman range works well and I tend to favour building up intensity rather than looking for opacity in the range’s 4 yellows. I favour Payne’s Grey as a less dominant option to black. It’s such an interesting colour that can be quite different depending on paint range. The Cotman Payne’s Grey is quite grey, so a good alternative to black, whereas some other ranges might be more blue, and in a really thin wash the ultramarine in its makeup can be seen which gives a lovely effect. Other colours that I gravitate to are lemon yellow hue, alizarin crimson hue, ultramarine, sap green, hookers green dark and indian red.