There is plenty of advice for the aspiring watercolourist in how-to books – about brushes, washes and paper surfaces. What is harder to find is the critical prospectus: where next for watercolour? Contemporary art feeds on polemics, on what some call the ‘discourse’: arguments about Postmodernism, the claims of new media, the legacy of Gerhard Richter, retro fashions, art fairs, and so forth. Watercolour world feels like a refuge away from the busy cosmopolitans: a traditional craft free of technology, a retirement village overseen, perhaps, by the National Trust. I have met watercolour painters who have made a point of never visiting Tate Modern.
It doesn’t engage. It is such a wonderful medium, and yet we have forgotten that in its past there were major innovators.
You might say watercolourists have only themselves to blame. They form independent societies, and if they updated their mindset they could break into the circus of contemporary art. For all that is said against ‘the art world’, it does actually work: reputations rise and fall, ideas get passed around, and each season brings a surprise. The problem for watercolour painting is not the modern versus the traditional, but that it just isn’t there. It doesn’t engage. It is such a wonderful medium, and yet we have forgotten that in its past there were major innovators. Without the overview, or historical perspective, anything truly original might just get dismissed as quirky. Watercolour societies were started early in the nineteenth century because the artists concerned felt their medium deserved more respect.
Painting, in general, no longer rules supreme; it sits alongside new media, photography and the video installation. The genre of landscape, favoured among watercolourists, is some way down the pecking order, sometimes seen as exhausted, in need of ‘attitude’. ‘Criticality’ is the key term. Amidst the swirl of exhibitions and pop-up galleries, there are painters logging their position in the discourse, uploading to Instagram, keeping a few smart steps ahead. Watercolour hasn’t been touched by art theory, by critical anxiety. It isn’t even on the grid.
Part of me says that this doesn’t matter. Let's keep it as it is. Huge numbers of part-time artists get pleasure from achieving a picturesque harbour scene, even if it is from a photo. And then I wonder how painting can compete with the smartphone, the ever-present flicker of news updates and visual tweets. Perhaps it just has to be an anachronism. But any art form, even watercolour, needs to stay alive.
Putting the debates about relevance or irrelevance to one side, I should remind myself that watercolour is just one method of applying paint, a direct way of using colour, with the white of the paper providing the light source, not unlike the computer screen. The art is in making it look effortless. Every touch is exposed. You have to be as mentally fluid as the medium, and this needs constant practice. In my own case I make at least one watercolour a day, just to keep in touch. I want the pictures to look like they happen without me, to unwind with their own rhythm. Like others I work at the same time in oil paint, and at a larger scale, and use other methods.
Some 30 years ago I began experimenting with ‘digital’ paint, and have been addicted ever since. It has never taken the place of ‘normal’ oil or watercolour, and I switch back and forth, integrating one with the other. The first software I used was ‘Dazzle Draw’ on an Apple II, and there were just 16 colours. Something as simple as being able to scribble a fat yellow line over a field of black opened up a new dimension. I learned to work faster, to switch colours about, to adapt the methods of one medium to another. This has a long history. Turner developed the pearlescent light of his oil paintings from watercolour washes.
I have another reason I am a little detached. I collect obsolete instruction manuals. I have around 150 how-to-draw books dating from 1880 to 1960. ‘Modern Art’ is kept in the margins – here and there airily dismissed as ‘continental’. There is a curious affinity with computer graphics, at least with the paint programs of the 1980s. Their interface has the look of the Edwardian drawing manual: the tools on the left, a row of pen sizes like drill bits below, with curves, textures, fills, menus and options. Diagrams show you how to hold the pencil, just as computer manuals once showed you how to hold the mouse. They were rudimentary construction kits, breaking tasks down into components and processes. My favourite chapter has to be ‘other vases in difficult positions’. If I take up marine painting, here I can find formulae for merchant shipping, albeit a bit dated.
I have advice too. One book ranks English counties in terms of the best scenery for the bicycling watercolour sketcher. Others fly off in a rage against wrong-headed teaching. I treasure the illustrations, which inattentive students have traced, instead of following the advice that they should practise and make their own drawings.
So. I am no nearer to answering my question: can watercolour break free of its stereotypes, and get smart? Is it back to the well-tried repertoire of Middle England, with here and there a few touches of ‘modernism’? At least I have a problem to work on.
James Faure Walker
You can see more of James' work on his website.