For many years I worked almost exclusively in oil paint. On demobilisation in 1946 I became dissatisfied with my painting and as a result began experimenting with various watercolour media. From the outset my aim, as in all my work, was to achieve as far as possible (a) a varied and rich tonality, (b) the preservation of draughtsmanship and (c) a structured design. In pursuit of these aims I gave up working on paper in preference to acid-free board. As topographical painting never interested me, I began working exclusively from drawings rather than sketching and completing a painting on location. This method of working provided more scope for invention and a greater opportunity for the rearrangement of selected material. Two or more drawings could be incorporated into one design, used in reverse, or even back to front.
During a working cruise on the Canal du Midi with my artist wife, I made many drawings in my sketchbook. The vessel moved slowly, at a walking pace, through lovely countryside which enabled me to observe and record from a moving, rather than a stationary position. This helped to give to some sketches an immediacy, a shorthand, which helped to record only essentials. One of these small sketches, here illustrated, formed the basic material for one of a series of ten large paintings upon which I worked for more than two years, and which I am using in this demonstration of my working methods and way of thinking.
Stage One - sketching in the design
Very early on I discovered that to obtain a rich and varied tonality I had to invent a means of preparing the ground so as to prevent applications of colour always drying flat. After a number of experiments, several of which were unsuccessful, I discovered that underpainting some areas in white acrylic gave me the results I was searching for, since this method provided a high reflective index for chosen parts of the picture. I begin a painting by sketching in my design. I continue by painting the textures of trees, water, architecture, stonework and so on in white acrylic. Using this method means that a considerable amount of work is now done before the development of the colour scheme has progressed very far. At this stage relationships between shape and tones can be established and adjustments made in the design. For example, in the present picture the conduit and the cottage on the left have been omitted and the main material moved to the left. The amount of sky has been reduced to emphasise subject matter, placing the essential elements well inside the format. In spite of my considerable interest in this subject I always try to bear in mind that subject matter is always secondary to treatment. The subject is not an end in itself but only necessary for the creation of a new image.
The painting now begins to make its own demands on the artist. A dialogue between the artist and the painting must take place if the search for an ultimate harmony of all the parts is to be successful. Of course there is no dividing line between one stage and another. From start to finish adjustments and alterations are on-going processes. Juxtapositions of warm and cool colour are carefully considered and a first commitment made in their use; the relationship between flat and textured areas thought about. As the strong darks evolve, the lights by contrast grow more intense. At this point I frequently decide on a source of light, remembering that light cannot be imaginatively rendered by a purely factual approach. This in turn governs the way I treat individual parts of the painting such as trees and architecture, even though some textural treatment lies in the underpainting.
Stage Two - painting the textures of trees, water, architecture, stonework and so on in white acrylic
I enjoy the use of counterchange to emphasis pattern and structure but at the same time making sure draughtsmanship does not become shoddy. This is where reference to the original drawing is so important; it provides a check on any part of the picture, the drawing of which may have become lost or blurred in the developmental process.
The evolution of a painting based on an initial idea, and the final solution, if ever found, concerns establishing a pictorial equivalent for an emotional or intellectual experience. Under the will and energy of the artist the work grows, sometimes for weeks, months or in my case, years. I need time. I enjoy re-painting over original acrylic textured or flat areas. I apply washes of colour; over these I frequently draw again with acrylic white, before applying more colour and so on, enriching the surface, sometimes using as many as 35 or 40 washes. I am fully aware that such a technique is in direct contrast to conventional practice. Is there a difference between a watercolour drawing and a painting made with waterbound pigments? I think there is. As the painting progresses, I find it helpful to work from the most distant parts, forwards towards the foreground, increasing the warmth of the colour or enriching tones to establish spatial values.
Stage Three - washes
I enjoy painting over original acrylic textured or flat areas with washed of colour, over which I frequently draw again with white acrylic before applying more colour. Sometimes I use as many as 35 or 40 washes.
There is today an understandable reaction against the speed at which most of us are forced to live. The demand for shorter working hours (in the main, a demand for less slavery to the machine) suggests the need for a greater participation in creative activities. The fulfilment of this need can be met by the creation of works of art, either in music, drama or the visual arts. The arts satisfy a basic need unique to man; the need to contemplate in some kind of permanent aesthetic form a concept of himself as inventor and creator. In these days of intense commercial activity, in buying and selling works of art, the true reason for their existence is often overlooked. Works of art, it has been said, are the quintessence of a perceptive kind of knowing, thinking and feeling. This can only be shared with others by enjoyment, through knowledge of the works themselves. A work of art is seldom preconceived, but grows organically, often changing size and shape in its growth; in this development selection and emphasis play an important part. It is the unfolding intuitive creative process which gives to a work its essential content. There is a function in the study of the arts that benefits not so much the advance of culture but its stabilisation, to which the work of the amateur and leisure painter makes a very substantial contribution.
Canal du Midi, watercolour and acrylic (33 x 41in)