Considering how long watercolours have been used by the masters, it’s still disappointing that they aren’t taken as seriously as oils. There have been many factors at play in keeping watercolours in the second rank. One which is seldom considered is the very limited role of a traditional workshop in producing watercolour paintings, which are almost entirely a solo performance for the master alone.
The techniques used in watercolour painting have also seemed simple in comparison with oils: there’s water, pigment, a little binder, and paper, and none of the media, glazes and alchemy of oils. In practice, though, as anyone who has taken watercolour painting seriously knows, there’s a great deal more to it.
At a time when most watercolour painting was still disparagingly considered to be ‘drawing’ for routine topographic views, Alexander Cozens developed specialist techniques, such as keeping ‘reserved space’ to let his white paper ground show through, wet on wet as well as wet on dry application of paint, and scratching out. He also employed both transparent and opaque paints for different effects.
JMW Turner did a great deal to advance both technique and the critical reception of large watercolour works painted in the studio, although even today his oils are much better known, with a few exceptions such as his sublime paintings of the Rigi.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Winslow Homer earned his place as one of the greatest watercolour painters of America during a period spent in a fishing community in north-east England. The advanced techniques which he used are shown well in The Watcher, Tynemouth (1882), and include both transparent and opaque paints, rewetting and blotting to remove paint for highlights, scraping, application of wax to resist the adherence of paint, and the use of pure gum solution as a glaze.
John Singer Sargent is one of a very few masters who consistently painted superbly in both oils and watercolours, although during much of his career he seems to have considered those watercolours as personal, between him and his social circle, rather than for exhibition to the public. His commercial success was such that he was able to use the latest and most expensive pigments, tubed paints, Whatman paper, and finest brushes. But no matter how good the materials might be, watercolours are most demanding on skill, technique, and art, which Sargent had in abundance.
Sargent was an early adopter of cadmium yellow pigmemt in watercolours such as Olive Trees, Corfu from 1909 (above), and An Artist at His Easel from 1914 (below), where it enabled his greens to be lightfast.
His watercolours of Venice show well how he assembled a series of marks, gestural strokes of the brush, into amazingly real images of the city, its canals and buildings.
At times, these brushstrokes appear so casual that it’s almost as if he was just doodling with pigment, as in the blue shadows of In a Levantine Port (1905-6). But they coalesce into the image which Sargent clearly had in his mind all the way along, and pop out at the viewer.
Sargent wasn’t dependent on sophisticated techniques, though: Rio dei Mendicanti, Venice from about 1909 works its magic almost entirely using a mixture of wet on dry and wet on wet passages. There isn’t even much in the way of a graphite drawing under its thin washes.
In the summers of 1909-11, Sargent stayed with various friends in the Bellevue Hotel, at the top of the Simplon Pass, enjoying the cool mountain air at a time when much of the rest of Europe would have been stiflingly hot. While his family and friends whiled away their days in leisure, Sargent got them to pose for a unique series of informal portraits.
They may have been reclining at leisure, but Sargent took those watercolours very seriously, and deployed an amazing array of techniques. Among the finest is his Simplon Pass: The Tease from the summer of 1911. For any watercolour artist, it is a lexicon of advanced techniques.
One of the most unusual, and extensively used here, is wax resist. Before applying paint, Sargent scribbled over areas which were intended to be vegetation, using a soft wax crayon, probably made from beeswax. On a fairly rough paper, the wax is deposited quite unevenly, and when painted over using the watercolour it shows the white paper through. This creates disruptive patterns of near-white in the midst of the greens, and a superb effect.
Most of the paint used is transparent watercolour, applied as a wash in small areas, and in highly gestural marks elsewhere. In the upper third of this detail, he has applied white gouache (opaque watercolour) sufficiently thickly for it to now have fine cracks. The large pale blue area crossing the middle appears to have been rewetted and some of its colour lifted to reduce its intensity, although most applications of paint over existing paint have been made wet on dry.
Complex details such as the faces and hands of the figures have clearly undergone multiple repainting, starting with the palest flesh of the face, and progressively darkening to near-black. In most cases, the clean edges of the marks demonstrate that these were applied wet on dry, with as many as six different layers in the hair.
In the midst of this complex assembly of layers, Sargent still keeps to the lines of his original graphite sketch, which he uses to give the parasol form, and maintains small reserved areas, here forming the spectacle frames in the white of the paper. He could have used wax resist here, but if using pure beeswax it is hard to keep the soft wax to fine lines, as he would have needed.
John Singer Sargent is the Chess Grand Master, the strategist whose moves at times might almost seem random or abstract, but in the end they all come together to bring this masterly watercolour to life.
Erica E Hirschler and Teresa A Carbone (2012) John Singer Sargent, Watercolors, MFA Boston and Brooklyn Museum. ISBN 978 0 8784 6791 4.