WHISPER-COLOUR

watercolour impressions of joyful mundanity

My two favourite painters, Vermeer and Hopper, shared an amazing knack for turning unremarkable moments and scenes into images packed with dramatic nuance and eternal resonance. Their most famous paintings offer graphic testimony to the enormous power of the “small still voice”, where the importance of the message belies its volume.

Lacking those two gentlemen’s genius, and in common with most regular artists, I was typically more of a megaphone artist when attempting to get my own pictorial messages across, relying on devices like huge canvases and epic subject matter.

However, even an artist of my own normal abilities could occasionally succeed in imbuing the mundane and the ordinary with a little charm and presence, especially, when I resorted to watercolour. For me, watercolour painting was an antidote to everything else I did, in oils and even gouache – a therapy almost – a sort of breathing exercise with brushes and colour, whereby I visually inhaled a scene; processed the scene in the blink of an eye; and then exhaled the scene through my water-sodden brush.

The pictures presented here are good illustrations of how a few simply applied watery daubs can raise a mundane suburban sitting room into a theatre of colour and light. No overthinking; just a touch of keen observation and easy application, and the everyday is morphed into the exotic. These watercolours are the closest I ever got to successful whispering.

(Incidentally, I should mention that I still have the originals of most of these images from my old watercolour sketchbooks and I’m happy to sell them for £400 each, plus, they reproduce beautifully as digital prints on fine papers for £100 each, plus postage and packing. All images, original and repro’ about 25 x 18 cm)

HARTLAND LOUNGE 1 (BILL’S NIGHTSCAPE DAFFODILS) – watercolour on paper – 1982
HARTLAND BEDROOM 1 (MUM’S DRESSING TABLE WITH CURTAIN) – watercolour on paper – 1982
HARTLAND DINING ROOM 1 (DINING CHAIRS AND TABLE) – watercolour on paper – 1982
HARTLAND KITCHEN 1 (THE WASHING MACHINE AND WINDOW TO FRONT GARDEN) – watercolour on paper
HARTLAND DINING ROOM 2 (TABLE WITH BILL’S WOODLAND SCENE) – watercolour on paper – 1982
HARTLAND LOUNGE 2 (REAR WINDOW) – watercolour on paper – 1982
HARTLAND DINING ROOM 3 (CHAIRS) – watercolour on paper – 1982
HARTLAND LOUNGE 3 (BOB’S NIGHTSCAPE WITH DAFFOLDILS II) – watercolour on canvas – 1982

PHOTO-REALISM v’s PHOTO PLAGIARISM

…and the stark difference between copying and INTERPRETING.

This is not the post I had planned. But that was before I had the great misfortune, not to say fright of seeing the latest portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A few posts ago I discussed how I came to paint from photographs, and how and why it can work brilliantly in the right hands. What I did not discuss however (and perhaps I should have done), was the converse of this, when photographs are simply copied as a form of craft, with the art all but forgotten.

Well, this latest portrait of HRH (https://ewn.co.za/2020/07/26/queen-elizabeth-sees-new-portrait-unveiled-at-britain-s-foreign-office) not only manifests as easily the lousiest in a long line of dire images of the United Kingdom’s longest serving sovereign, but also exemplifies all the worst elements of painting from photographs.

The “artist” has succeeded in confirming every prejudice I ever had thrown at me by detractors of “photograph-method”, and arrived at a plasticised and peculiarly scary image, obsessed with technical finesse while utterly devoid of empathy and artistry. This is not so much a majestic portrait as a grotesquely kitsch, 2-dimensional waxwork. This is the produce of a copyist and not an artist all, and says much – none of it complementary – about the judges of the BP National Portrait Award; the winning of which landed the alleged “artist” this most august of portrait commissions.

As I attempted to illustrate in a previous post, copying from photographs offers so much more than the absolute stability of the reference material (i.e. total stillness and unchanging light). IN THE RIGHT HANDS – from Vermeer (with his Photo Obscura) to Rockwell – it offers up an essence and intensity of “moment” that resulted in some of the most empathetic and compassionate pictures ever achieved.

While I would never be so hubristic as to place my own photograph-method creations on a par with those of the great masters of the past, I dare to claim, that at their best, my efforts do at least show some of the positives of the genre. Three of the pictures below were not only exciting and fun to create, they are human expressions accentuated by technique rather than masked by it. The fourth picture is an example of my own, of what happened when I allowed technique to subsume the human moment.

Jolanda – 1983 – oil on canvas:- Jolanda was the first love of my life, as I hope and believe this tender portrait betrays. Using a tiny snap from a then-recent visit to Cremona, I wanted to capture the romance of her, bathed in the Renaissance tones and light of her native Lombardy.

Lynne – acrylic on board – 1996:- Lynne was an ex-ballet colleague of my wife Dido and a close friend. I can’t recall if this was a commission or a gift, but it comes from a series of images of her, and her and Dido, dancing for my camera at our house in Spain. Again, I used the photo as a sketch upon which to elaborate both Lynne’s graceful movement and her vibrant personality, and all drenched in the bleaching Andalusian summer light.
Marie and Juan Junior – 1998 – oil on canvas (detail):- Juan and Marie were our only full-time neighbours when we first moved to our country home in Spain. However, unlike us, who sought solitude and lived remotely by choice, they were outcasts from the local village and desperately poor. Nevertheless, they were a cheerful and extremely loving couple, always pleased to offer us the modest hospitality they could. In this picture of Marie feeding her new baby boy (and second child) I tried to express a mixture of our compassion for their kindness, and our admiration for their dignity, despite their arduous circumstances.

Margaret and Pete’s Party – 1994 – gouache on Daler Board:- In fairness, this was always intended as more of an exercise in technique and excruciating attention to detail, than as a work of artistic expression. The drawing alone took me the best part of a week, and I think I spent over four months on the piece altogether (it was also intended as a way to help me pass the days during the months of depressing boredom while stuck in Boulogne sur mer ). Although not quite so dire as the Queen’s new portrait, it is equally sterile, and that probably explains why I never completed it. Interesting to note, that the hands on the nearer completed figure (actually yours truly), despite being immaculately drawn/copied, have the same “banana bunch” feel as those of Her Majesty in the new portrait.