Watercolour through the Seasons - EDWARD WESSON, R.I., S.M.A
A Pond at Abinger Hammer, watercolour, (13x18in)
What thoughts are conjured up at the very mention of the word spring! For most of us this will mean fresh hopes and aspirations, and visions of new life bursting upon us. Certainly all painters will be sallying forth with renewed vigour in the hope of better results than previous seasons had produced.
It was with these thoughts in mind, when I was invited to write these articles that I decided to approach the subject from the angle of the four seasons of the year, with their peculiar charms and their particular problems. Further, I was given to understand there would be another series running con currently which would be dealing with the subject much more from the beginner's angle and in which, I am sure, much space will be given to the correct equipment and materials to be used. I shall therefore, be addressing my remarks to the more advanced student though touching on these basic matters wherever I think it may be helpful.
Painting regularly, as I do, in all four of the seasons, I would like to say that I do not consider the spring the easiest of seasons with which to start such a series, though for chronological reasons it must be so. I say this because I find it the most difficult and elusive to capture. It may be the tremendous variety of March winds, April showers and sunshine and the ever changing effects of bursting buds and blossoms which throw me into confusion and make it difficult for me to decide exactly what it is I am trying to say. Added to this we are, of course, dealing with a most elusive medium. Or is it this very quality in watercolour which gives it an affinity with the effects of our changeable climate? May be we are a nation of watercolourists because this medium enables us to capture, in some degree, these changing moods more quickly; for at this season, perhaps more than any other, we must be prepared to sum up and act quickly.
Virgins some of us can never be, but all of us would be foolish if we did not set off with our colour boxes well-trimmed and our water bottles fully charged! A few notes on my own equipment might, at this stage, be helpful. Plenty of water is essential and I carry this in a gin bottle with the clip-type lid, and I find a jam jar as good as any thing for a container. I know there are more modern vehicles-plastic and otherwise which m ay weigh less and carry more, but I am confining my remarks to my own methods knowing that my readers will ignore my suggestions w h ere they know of better ideas. My colour box is of the palette type with several good wells for mixing washes and with adequate sections to receive colour squeezed from tubes. I use tube colours because they are always fresh and because they are quicker for I find pans are sometimes hard and need damping. Fresh colours from tubes are kinder to your brushes - a consideration when you take into account the cost of good brushes today! My easel is a makeshift one, being an adaptation from the rather useless type often given to children. Not being a carpenter I will not attempt a description of it. Sufficient to say it is light in weight and simple to handle. I do not use a stool, as I prefer to stand while working. I feel in this way that I have more control over my work. At the same time I am able to step back freely if I need a more detached view of things.
The question of papers, I feel, is a personal one and most students will have found something to suit them from the very wide range available. My own preference is for a slightly absorbent one. I use a French paper which seems to be unobtainable in this country, so I will not dwell on it, except to say that it is soft, absorbent and very sympathetic. It is light weight and needs to be stretched. However, for all practical purposes I have a very good substitute in a Bareham Green product called Bockingford, which in 150lb. weight is very similar to the French one in its qualities, with the advantage that it does not have to be stretched. Furthermore it is not only sympathetic to my style, but to my pocket also. At Is. 4d. an Imperial sheet this is quite a feature, since it makes for a freedom of attack which I could never bring myself to have if working on expensive paper! It may be that I am being mean about this, but I believe it to be a point worth mentioning. By the way, I have always felt that half Imperial is quite big enough for watercolours.
Spring Light in Como, watercolour, (11x15in)
Now come with me along the river bank to the scene of the colour plate and let us see what we can make of it. It is a fine spring morning, late enough for the sun to have dried out any humidity in the atmosphere. Having decided on the subject matter and given due regard to composition, I proceed to pencil in, very roughly and lightly, the position of the main features. This is no attempt at drawing, being merely a guide to me when I commence to lay-in my colour. In doing this I am deciding where I shall leave the paper white in the early stages.
I am now ready for my first washes and commence with the sky. This is predominantly blue with traces of light cloud which are rather hazy and without much form about them. These I indicate with well diluted raw sienna, and then, with cobalt tempered with a touch of Payne's grey, I run a wash down being careful to avoid the cloud shapes. Diluting the blue and adding a little Reeves blue I continue down the sky, adding a touch of raw sienna and light red near the horizon. During this process I must be careful to leave white the shapes of the poplar tree and mill building. But, apart from these white passages, I continue the wash down into the foreground leaving again the parts which will indicate bright sunlight, but making the tone a little lower, since the reflections are usually darker than the sky they reflect. Note the white spaces left in the immediate foreground in the water. These are left to suggest movement.
By now the sky should be dried out enough to enable me to put in the middle green tone of the poplar tree and, at the same time, to soften off the edges of the clouds. Also the greens in the near bank can be laid in, together with the warmer passages in the fence on the left and the base of the tree.
If the sky is now quite dry, the distance beyond the mill and the other trees should be put in. These trees are still bare and afford a contrast with the warmer colours in the foreground. This is a welcome contrast and is one of the surprises that spring has for us. For these passages cobalt, Payne's grey and light red are used in varying proportions. I am also able now to add the darker reflections of the mill and the right bank, since the foreground wash will be dried out. These darker tones are obtained by the addition of burnt umber to the blues. In the shaded side of the mill some raw sienna was added. Raw sienna is a useful colour for dropping into a shadow. It gives a luminous quality and helps to avoid the flatness which we see so often in shadows. The stronger reflections of the near bank are obtained with ultramarine mixed with raw sienna and burnt umber.
Up to now we have a kind of patchwork of, I hope, bright and luminous colours, and these will need to be pulled together. So far I have been using a large brush, but as some drawing is now indicated I must take a No. 10 and, with ultramarine and burnt sienna or burnt umber, underline some of the shapes and strengthen shadows where necessary. The dark passages in the poplar and its shadow on the bank, the eaves of the mill and the railings beneath it and the accents of d ark tones where the banks meet the stream, all these help to lift the main shapes.
There are still some places where the paper shows through white, but with the accents. I have just added I feel that a sense of sparkle has been suggested which is in keeping with the clear, crisp light of the moment and it only needs a touch of lemon yellow around the tree and some burnt sienna in the roofs to give an effect of sunlight .
And there I think I will leave it, for I feel that any further additions would destroy rather than increase the sense of sparkle. As I said at the outset, spring is difficult enough to capture and it would be a pity to lose what little we have recorded by overdoing things. There are times when an understatement is most effective and I believe spring is just one of those times.
Spring on an Essex Stream, watercolour, (13x18in)
If my reader has been able to follow this rather catch-as-catch-can method of mine he may still be wondering just what my approach to watercolour is. In the next article, which will deal with the more leisurely summer months, I hope to have time to discuss this.
Click here to see Edward Wesson’s Watercolour through the Seasons, Summer
Click here to see Edward Wesson’s Watercolour through the Seasons, Autumn
Click here to see Edwards Wesson's Watercolour through the Seasons: Winter
This feature is taken from the March 1962 issue of The Artist, which also formed part of volume sixty three (March - August 1962) a hardbound alternative to the monthly magazines