Leighton is first and foremost a watercolourist in the English tradition. His most characteristic work consists of transparent washes often in alternating warm and cool tones laid over carefully observed drawing. This approach is never a formula. It ranges from loose and spontaneous "blots"4 with little or no underpinning in pencil to meticulously worked out drawings enhanced by delicate washes. A supreme example of the latter approach is the study of Cathedral Peak (Cat.#2.)
Leighton was an academician, proud to observe academic conventions. This is nowhere more
evident than in his compositions, which tend to rely on academic formulas. Emphatic foregrounds
in his mountain pictures act as a kind of proscenium to stage the view: a lower edge or corner is
often broken by dark foreground, usually a rocky slope surmounted by spindly conifers.
Leighton's characteristic handling of these trees is a big part of this staging. Slender, calligraphic,
and tapering to elongated points, they're a characteristic mannerism. In another sense they're just
figures, figures in the foreground, and figures didn't suit Leighton's vision. Even in his village
scenes, depictions of people no matter how sketchy tend to be distracting; they incline the
pictures towards illustration. His skies in the extreme background are conventional in their
own way. In watercolour they're often no more than flattish tilted ovoids with concave scalloped
edges; in oil they're often stagey, diagonal sun rays placed to exaggerate mountain walls.
Leighton escaped convention most frequently in the middle ground.5 In that area his carefully observed drawing
combined with delicate, muted colour to render rocks walls and mountain slopes with remarkable
fidelity. There, where his observation was less bound by convention, exactitude led to poetry.
Leighton escaped convention most frequently in the middle ground.5 In that area his carefully observed drawing combined with delicate, muted colour to render rocks walls and mountain slopes with remarkable fidelity. There, where his observation was less bound by convention, exactitude led to poetry.
As late as 1963, Leighton claimed to have always painted watercolours from nature, but this may overstate the case. I doubt that he camped at high elevation for extended periods after about 1955. The possibility that Leighton painted watercolours as well as oils in the studio is suggested by two groups of mountain photographs in the Leighton archives. Commercial photos of mountain scenery consist primarily of postcards and black and white photographs provided by the CPR and relate to the 1925-35 period. A second group of personal snapshots appear to be from the late '40s and '50s. These include several enlargements of snapshots from the Molar Pass/Skoki area.6 Leighton appears to have made a series of watercolours based on selected sections of these enlargements.7 If these works were worked up from black and white photos it may explain their bland colour, which sometimes impedes an impressive directness.
This may assume too much. Many of Leighton's English village scenes, obviously painted on the spot in the 1950s, are similarly drab, despite their delicate drawing. Throughout his career the colour in Leighton's watercolours tended to be restrained, exploiting dilute umbers and pale Prussian blue. He softened his colour further by working on tinted paper, or against prepared grounds of pale ochre or rose. He never used opaque white (body colour). Value contrasts were held in close check in the middle ground and background. This sometimes led to monochromatic pictures. The primary shift in value in Leighton's art tends to be from dark foreground to paler middle and background.
The medium of watercolour demands a sensitive and individual relation between paint and paper. In Leighton's art this is generally based on understatement. But in the mid '30s he broke out, and produced some of his most challenging work in the medium. He seemed to be groping towards a unique quality of colour based on velvety, semi-opaque washes. At first these derived from touches of cobalt blue (Floe Lake, Marble Canyon, Cat.#7) but eventually he discovered colour in finely-adjusted tones of grey (Twin Lakes, Cat #12 and, especially, Boulder Pass, Skoki, Cat # 15). These are remarkable accomplishments, bringing to watercolour a richness akin to gouache, but with no loss of delicacy. He might have painted even finer things had not this inspiration left him after 1936.
Leighton seems to have shared Ruskin's distrust of colour. In Modern Painters, Ruskin marvelled at colour's ability to suggest and even express, but felt it of secondary importance to drawing, design, and tone. To Leighton's eyes, colour declined too easily into vulgarity. Here, again, academic convention stood in the way of his great gifts for observation. Leighton's colour is never vulgar but often bland. When it breaks free, it rises to the subtlety of which he was capable. In Cathedral Peak, 1928 (Cat. #3), Untitled, 1934 (Cat.#12), Boulder Pass Skoki (Cat.#14), and Bow Pass Early Morning, c. 1950 (Cat.# 23), he joins the great watercolourists. These are some of the most delicate studies of alpine scenery this side of Turner.
5 Leighton professed a great interest in skies and did many studies of them. Most of his sky studies in the Leighton Foundation's collection are generalized and rather weak -- an oddity for an artist who drew so well with such a commitment to the specific.
>6 One small group is dated 1957. From the character of processing and biographical information, I suspect most of the others are from an earlier period: probably 1950-53. Leighton reports that he made a two-week trip to the Skoki area in 1950 and did a lot of work under trying conditions. Did "a lot of work" include taking snapshots? I am indebted to J.A. Millard for identifying the Skoki areas from the photographs and for relating a snapshot to a painting.)
7 Leighton appears to have used a simple snapshot camera with a fairly wide-angle lens. The telephoto lens wouldn't have been readily available to a casual photographer at the time.