standard-bearer of watercolour

August 15, 2015

Touted often as being the most difficult of mediums, and sometimes even as ‘the medium of mediums’, not everyone holds watercolour in such honour.  Indeed, oils are deemed the zenith of painting mediums.

‘Blowing the horn’ about watercolour as the ‘medium of mediums’ is a bit rich, perhaps.  That is, until one tries to master its elusive qualities and discovers how the more it is controlled, the less it is allowed to be what it is: a medium set free by water.

Perhaps no greater example of the power of watercolour allowed to find its own way through minimum control is by the hand of its greatest advocate, J. M. W. Turner.


‘Incident At The London Parliament’ 1834

“If I could find anything blacker than black, I’d use it” is a quote which highlights Turner’s love for the power of contrast, which is what watercolour achieves spectacularly when the snow white of the paper is allowed to breathe while then bordered by the darkest dark.

'Duddon Sands' circa 1825-32 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

‘Duddon Sands’ circa 1825-32 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Joseph Mallord William Turner is sometimes referred to as ‘the father of the abstract’.   It is possibly due to the apparent pleasure he took in allowing the medium to run wild, catching it back at just the right moment to indicate location.


a Venetian watercolour, ‘Untitled’, JMW Turner

Somewhere there is a story about how Turner was very guarded over letting anyone watch him work.  But at some sort of gathering Turner asked a young boy if he wanted a picture of something he liked.  The boy asked for a Spanish Galleon, and the artist took him into his studio, and not too long afterwards the boy immerged with a small and perfect depiction of a great ship in tossing waves.

Grilled by others about how the master had gone about producing it, the boy dazzled them in claiming Turner was very fast–almost phrenetic–using one unusually long fingernail to rather frantically scrape and tear at the paper for crests and foam of storm-thrown waves.

10 Responses to “standard-bearer of watercolour”

  1. Oh, I do agree that watercolor is the most difficult of mediums. And I do love the direction that Turner took in his watercolors. Great post.


  2. Russell. said

    Great post—have you seen the Mike Leigh film about Turner yet?
    (I’m still on the library waiting list.) Best regards, Russell.


  3. Debi, you are so right that every single medium is unique, and uniquely positioned to provide expression and spread joy. I personally thought watercolour the most difficult–too difficult– until I tried egg tempera. Suddenly, I was in love with watercolour, hahahaha. It is (for me) not a struggle with the medium, but rather a struggle with Lance. And that is why I have found over the years that it teaches me far more than how to paint. Thank you for broadening our thinking.


  4. Rebecca, that sketchbook book looks AMAZING. So far, it seems, it only ships from Great Britain, so I will wait a month or so and see if a domestic seller acquires it (to make it more affordable) and then I’ll snatch it up!! Thank you for telling us.


  5. Cynthia, for me, you’re the soloist of your medium


  6. debiriley said

    great to see Mr. Turner and his work ! I think that each medium has their assets & liabilities- the trick is to try to work around those pesky quirks 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Rebecca said

    I’ve been lent a book called ‘Turner’s Sketchbooks’ and I’d recommend anyone who’s interested in Turner to take a squint at it. It has some interesting notes, and it’s very educational to see the sketches which informed the more polished paintings.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love Turner. And watercolor is where it’s at, for me…tooting it’s horn, in this case, is preaching to the choir!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. hahahahahaha–aren’t they, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Barry Comer said

    Pardon the blunt talk…. watercolors are a “bitch”. (:

    Liked by 1 person

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