Some Canadian Painters in Water-Colour

Charles John Collings -

Nothing is more strange in art than the way that chance and materials seem to favour you when once you have conquered them. - Ruskin

In view of the long and vigorous practice of the art of water-colour, it is only reasonable to suppose that every possible method of handling has been exploited long since. but in 1912 Mr. Collings proved to the satisfaction of the London critics that such a supposition was mistaken. He showed a group of water-colours of Canadian mountain scenery at the Carroll Gallery, and they were defined as:

exquisite, among the most remarkable achievements since the days of Turner, little lyrics in paint, veritable poems in colour, of rare quality and beauty, hardly equalled by any other living painter.

Inspired art, said the Times. Collings was described as a colourist of the first rank, as one of the most original as he is one of the most entirely pleasing of the artists in water-colour of the day.

He provided:

a new revelation of the beauty of which water-colour is capable. And the critics have reviewed many exhibitions subsequently with equal enthusiasm, with many comments on the new technique, and the marvel of its invention.

Northcote said, "It should be the aim of the artist to bring something to light out of nature for thefirst time - something like that for which in mechanics a patent would be granted; an original invention or a decided improvement. Patents are not give for making a time-piece or a telescope as long as it differs not from others." A new revelation comes but seldom. Many of us, alas, add nothing to the sum of the knowledge of beauty, but Mr. Collings shows there is much behind and beyond the ordinary vision, not expressed by abstractions, but by colour and form related to nature. He depicts majestic peaks silhouetted against the sun, or in a blaze of light, or wrapped in mist, wreathed with clouds in the mystery of half-light, enveloped in snow, in all conditions, and placid lakes that mirror them. He invests forests, waterfalls, hillsides, burnt timber lands with a strange and compressing interest, converting them into fantasies whose variety has no limits, and whose colour displays a magnificence that suggests another world, if it be not a new vision in this.

If the beauty in nature is merely a reflection of that in the mind, Mr. Collings will ever be appreciated by thoughtful people conscious of its many manifestations.

Charles John Collings was born in Devon and trained for the law. Determined to paint, he sought lessons from N. J. Baird, who, in a very short time, confessed that he could teach him no more. Mr. Collings exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1887 to 1898, when he sent instead to the International Society of Sculptors, Engravers and Painters. Since 1900, in spite of the praise bestowed by the newspapers and art journals, the public has had few opportunities of seeing his work save in one-man shows. In 1910 he left England, and sought a retreat in the wilderness, amid the mountains. He set up his tent in the deep snow that winter, thirty-five miles from Sicamous, on Shushwap Lake. The next year he began to build a house on this site, and this is now far more comfortable than its remoteness would suggest.

His wild surroundings minister to the needs of his brush, and it may be, have helped to determine his final method of expression. at any rate his technique is most appropriated for the subjects he chooses, more than that, manner and matter seem to be wedded.

His method is explained in a few words. he soaks a sheet of hot-pressed, that is, smooth paper, for a day or two, and, ready to paint, lays it on a sheet of slate or glass (latterly he has used a slab of cork), in order to conserve its moisture. He paints with pure pigments of full intensity, mixing them only on the paper, and removes any superfluity, or reduces intensities, with a clean brush. Certain passages would seem to indicate the admixture of paste, but he does not use it. The masses of floating colour, where they meet and combine, often create forms and hues of great beauty, fortuitous perhaps, but coherent when manipulated by an artist like Mr. Collings. The painting is finished by the time the paper dries, when, formerly, it was burnished to increase its brilliance.

Brangwyn is responsible for an apt description of Mr. Collings' style. At one time the two of them, together with J. R. Weguelin, also a delightful water-colourist, had studios in the same Kensington block, and exchanged visits and ideas. I have heard it asserted that Brangwyn grafted some of Mr. Collings' grace and exquisiteness on his own, but that does not pertain to his water-colours. Admiring a living spray of apple-blossom, the latter remarked that he could never paint it. "Oh", said Brangwyn, "you'd soon cut it out".

Cutting out is exactly what Collings does, with a sable brush. Instead of building up form with superimposed washes of colour, or even of defining form with brush strokes, he achieves all his middle and higher tones by lifting the pigment which is floated all over the paper in the earlier stages of painting. There is practically no evidence of dry painting in any of his work, bo dry accents, or hard edges. His colour is diffused in soft and graceful effects, and has, on occasion, the purity and brilliance of opal, or the richness of agate. Passages of tender green and rose, within a setting of pearly grays, have all the quality of jewels. Always the elaboration of a natural theme, his colour is a transmuted and extended harmony, a symphony in pigment.

All the painting is done within doors. A pencil drawing that embraces the facts of a landscape, and suggests an adequate arrangement, is all that he needs. Thus his imagination has free rein, unhampered by masses of detail in tone and colour. These drawings are interesting in themselves, vigorous and direct.

Mr Collings makes good use of black pigment in mixtures, especially grays. For the rest, his palette is one that any water-colourist might use. He does not use colours that spread unevenly, such as French ultramarine or cerulean blue, out of regard for surface quality.

In his famous symposium of the advantages of old age, Cicero failed to include the enduring joys of a natural and acquired faculty for the perception and appreciation of chromatic beauty, or grace of form and line, of graphic rhythms and harmonies. Yet of all the arts its enjoyment is the least dependent on passing years, and becomes a thing of the mind, pure spiritual vision, rather than more physical seeing. The man who is able to record his visions of loveliness is thrice blessed, for he is the apostle of beauty. An artist leans more on the perception and expression of beauty in colour as he grows older.

Such is Mr. Collings. at eighty he is producing pictures which manifest as much if not more enthusiasm, freshness of conception, and skill, than ever before. His vigorous virtuosity was never more apparent, nor the remarkable quality of technical perfection that his small paintings have always displayed.

I saw him last in 1928. He was on his way to Banff to get some snow studies, virile and eager as a youth. He was smoking a brand of tobacco far too strong for my taste, and spoke of teaching the hotel chef to make a Welsh rarebit, which he liked to eat before retiring. The years have passed him by lightly.

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