The last and greatest art, the art to blot. - Pope
Water-colour painting is notoriously difficult,
so much depends on directness and speed, and certainly of intention.
Tentative or fumbling touches are disastrous, for they cannot
be obliterated easily. The best landscapes in this medium are
not only those finished on the spot, under the influence of a
great enthusiasm for manifest beauty, which lends courage to the
weak, and decision to the hesitant. Many of the old masters water-colour
painted from notes, with enthusiasm either unabated or renewed.
It is hard to assume the same degree of concentration in the studio,
but not impossible.
the most admirable method is that by which each wash of colour, large or small, is never disturbed. It admits of practically no overpainting, sponging or scrubbing. the colour stays where it is put. Such perfection of technique is rarely achieved by the most experienced painter. Some manipulation is nearly always needed - whether a trifling reduction of tone, or a superimposition of another wash of colour to strengthen the first.
A direct wash dries with a surface bloom, considered a desirable thing, and indeed is beautiful to the initiated. Bloom may be seen in the blot of ink that has dried unnoticed. The free use of a very full brush in water-colour is described as the blot method, or the blottesque, a term improvised by Ruskin and now authorized by virtue of its inclusion in the dictionary. It will be observed that a blot dries with a dark edge, due to the raising of the paper beneath it, like a blister, and to the subsequent flow of pigment to the lower levels, that is, to its edges. The blottesque does not demand an invariable and indiscriminate, but a judicious, employment of accented edges, and while it may display the charming qualities of water-colour to the best advantage, it is not the only method. I recall an old men, whose ruddy, bearded face, and rusty clothes, were familiar in the small cathedral town in England where I lived. He painted street scenes, and would occupy the same stand for quite two months. His deliberations were protracted, but he never was uncertain. Naughty little boys would kick at his easel en passant, and throw things at him from ambush. He would spend a day over one red brick in a wall, reproducing its stains and its textures, but his love for detail did not explain his long-drawn dalliance with it. He painted in the faintest tones, so that an intense colour might represent the accumulated residuum of forty washes. Strange to say he achieved luminosity in colour instead of the opaque and teased effects that might be expected.
At the other extreme is a very popular and high-priced water-colourist who deals in bloom and breadth. His paintings consist of beautiful washes so obviously considered, so excessively mannered, that the spontaneity they were intended to indicate is utterly lost.
Another disciple of wash and bloom, on the other side of the Atlantic, is so unmannered and free that he fails in expression completely. He was nothing whatever but bloom and wash, the latter so summary and amorphous, that it suggests whatever you wish, like the leaves in a tea-cup.
It is remarkable how very individual technique becomes in water-colour. Every man of personality finally arrives at a method peculiarly his won, as unique as his own finger-print. When technique is obtrusive it becomes mere mannerism, a conscious striving for effect. It is only a means to an end - the manner of putting paint to paper. It hardly embraces the expressive side of painting.
I have imposed my manner upon many in the course of teaching, not from malice per pense, but in the hope that each pupil will gradually build up a manner of his won, that expresses his ego and not mine.
Some painters, as well as some statesmen, have weak intellects and are everlasting imitators, not artistic. A painter may be an abandoned mimic, at school he copies his teachers, which is only right, but he copies in turn every artist in town, which is not. He may do you that honour. After suffering a Nash complex, he graduates as a disciple of Cezanne, insofar as are concerned his lapses as a draughtsman. He will pass forty, and not paint anything he can truly call his own.
Wet Paper -
The technique of the companion of one summer's day might be described profitably. He takes a large, half-imperial sheet of water-colour board, and, as a preliminary, drops it in the lake to soak thoroughly. There was no pen or pencil work, no tentative lines in charcoal; the frenzy of creation was upon him - it brooked no delay. He attacked the wet board furiously with a big sable brush, and floated colour upon it with mighty sweeps, the large areas first, such as the cool expanse of sky, but with an eye for cool and warm tones, especially in masses of foliage. As the paper dries he turns to the modelling of smaller spaces, and finally introduces sharp accents, such as the dark inner bark of a silver birch, the shadows at its roots, and flecks of colour to suggest leaves against the sky or orange lichen on the rocks. In a few minutes he has produced a fine landscape - broad, a trifle amorphous perhaps, but tender and true.
This method is most satisfactory on a dull day, when tones tend towards flatness. But at the lake the sun is nearly always shining, creating sharp shadows, sparkling lights, and a definite divergence between cool and warm colours. The atmosphere also tends to define the whole landscape with a clarity and a strength unknown in damper climates. Distances that would be blue elsewhere, here retain their local colours, and the blues are driven to a more distant horizon. there is little or no haze to suggest mystery and breadth, but Mr. Brigden, who has sketched with me also, seizes upon the suspicion, and with it, invests his landscapes with a glamour that adds much to their beauty.
A London critic once claimed that certain Canadian paintings make no pretence at atmosphere'. Perhaps he was an office boy, and not a real live critic at all, for his conception of landscape was so obviously influenced by the precincts of London, and its fogs. The proper relation of tones is a most important thing, and much more subtle here.
Canadian air, being clear and dry, adds other difficulties to the practice of water-colour. That is why my friend had only a few minutes for his sketch. In more humid climes he might have had the whole summer. The dry method is the most serviceable, whereby a sketch is built up with contiguous patches of colour, like tessalae in a mosaic, and never afterwards disturbed. The analogy is faulty in that the touches vary considerably in size - one may be a wash representing an expanse of sky, or a sheet of water, another a leaf, and the large majority of them are gradated. It is difficult, however, to paint with the infallible exactitude this ideal method demands, to complete a sketch without correction. More generally interior forms, textures, and some detail, is painted over a preliminary wash of colour that has dried, but as carefully and as little as possible. The majority of subjects demand this treatment. I dislike retouching a sky and hesitate to undertake such an important operal on as the modelling of form by overpainting.
The purists among critics and painters would
have us believe that an observance of the English tradition strictly
precludes the employment of body-colour (that is, the addition
of white to all pigments to give them body, or opacity), of paste,
ox-gall, sponge or scraper, or pen. or charcoal, but such have
always been used, and have contributed interesting effects to
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