Archive for October, 2012

In late September 2012, I paid a visit  to Bankside Gallery in London, the home of the Royal Watercolour Society.  It is  on the ground floor of a building literally next door to the Tate Modern.  Below is the view from the Thames River walk.

Unfortunately I was a week early for their member’s annual watercolor show although there was a good exhibit of recent prints by the group that shares the gallery, the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers.

There are two Royal watercolor societies:  The Royal Watercolour Society, “RWS “(above) and the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour, “RI”, both in London.   There is also a Pure Watercolour Society (PWS).   The RWS was founded in 1804 and the RI in 1831 leading to the RWS being called Old Watercolour Society (OWS) or just Old Society, and you can sometimes see “OWS” next to an artist’s name  rather than RWS.  That led, of course, to the RI being called the “New Society”.  I couldn’t find a way to communicate with the RI and actually couldn’t see any evidence of their presence in the Mall Galleries where they are supposed to have some sort of  office or gallery.  (The Mall runs from near Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Place and there is a low building  along one side at the Trafalgar end where the galleries are situated.)  That is also were the PWS is supposed to have a presence.

The motive for the founding of both societies was  the Royal Academy of Art’s refusal to accept the medium of watercolor as a serious art form (that is, hang watercolors at their exhibits).  These societies were founded to exhibit and sell member’s watercolor paintings.   Here they are below hanging a show,   Gilbert captures all the gestures wonderfully:

The Hanging Committee of the Water Colour Society 1870
Sir John Gilbert RA PRWS

The RWS cleverly established early on that any member elected to it was required to donate a painting to their “diploma collection”, and that is why I was there.   There is a book, “The Glory of Watercolour, the royal watercolor society diploma collection ” by Michael Spender published by David and Charles, London in 1987 which has many illustrations of the collection.  It is still around but expensive.  I got a relatively cheap one that had been discarded from the Dover, Ohio library.  After consulting it, I had arranged to see nine of their extensive collection which the arts administrator in change arranged to be waiting for me.

Here I am looking at one.  The plastic gloves are rather unusual.  In my experience there are usually white cotton gloves for this purpose.  The collection was housed in a balcony above a small office at one end of Bankside Gallery.  They don’t have much space, but they have managed to collect a lot of valuable paintings, books, and memorabilia.  The watercolors are usually packed away in large cases, and there is a charge to take them out.

Here’s the Sargent that they have, called “River Bend”, which is very often asked to be sent to exhibits.  There may be a problem with this reproduction since I don’t remember it being so relentless gray (“grey” would be how they spell it in the UK).  It is, however, a tour de force of watercolor description with some white gouache.

Here, below, is a more developed “Mountain Stream” that’s in the Metropolitan Museum in New York (but, like most of their watercolors, almost never on display).

I can’t help feeling that Sargent gave them a “second” that he didn’t expect to sell and that, perhaps, he didn’t finish.   (Actually he did watercolors predominately for himself anyway.) Little did he know how popular his watercolors would be.  On the other hand the violet in the Met’s painting is a little strong and less realistic than the rest of the painting or the one in the RWS.  It’s not that high key colors are bad, just in my mind that they don’t seem to fit in this specific painting which is an otherwise naturalistic painting.  By the way Sargent knew is artistic anatomy:  Notice the “separation of the functions” in the upper right leg of the man and where the back bends.

I looked at the following 9 works”

Sir Hubert von Herkomer: “Portrait of Henry Stacy Marks”

Samuel Palmer: “Shady Quiet”

I’m going to comment about this below where there is an image.

Edward Seago: “Green’s Farm”

Green’s Farm Edward Seago RWS

Peter DeWint: “The Thames at Windsor”

The Thames at Windsor
Peter DeWint OWS

Thomas Charles Lesson Rowbotham : “Cliven Reaach, Thames”

Cliveden Reach, Thames
Thomas Charles Lesson Rowbotham

“John “Warwick”  Smith: “The Copper Works in Parys Mountain, Anglesey”

The Copper Works on Parys Mountain, Anglesey
John “Warwick” Smith POWS

John Varley : “Cader Idris, North Wales”

Cader Idris, North Wales
John Varley OWS

My overall impression was that the early watercolors had such a high degree of “finish” with no brush marks, no variation in the paint in passages, no evidence of the artist at all that they looked like good colored illustrations in books that were very much reduced from the original, and it is hard to learn anything about technique from them.  That is, nothing like the Sargent or Seago and maybe Rowbotham above which were more open and revealing possible to learn from.

You could see in these paintings that spanned many years to change in watercolor to the transparent, informal, where the empasis is on “washes” like in the Seago.

The painting I liked the most was by Samuel Palmer RWS (1805-81).  I don’t have a good photo of the whole painting which is 7 7/8″ by 16 1/4″ but here is an over all view (which will be followed by better shots.)

The composition is unusual.  The painting is of a flock of sheep under a tree with a shepperd and a dog with a distant view beyond the tree.  However, there is another path leading the eye out to the right through a grove of trees from which I woman approaches.

To my surprise you can purchase a reproduction here.

and here are some shot that  I took of details.  He gets a very nice warm/cool vibration with  the blue against the browns.   His use of multiple spot like marks foreshadows the impressionist use of what they called the “tache” which they could make because brushes had metal attaching the hairs, so there could be flat brushes.  I don’t think Palmer had this kind of brush.   Here is some detailed shots that  that run together:

That’s it.


If you’re in London, I recommend you check The Royal Society.  They need advanced notice to get painting out of storage.  Check on their website for how long they want.  They accommodated me even though it was less time than their website says.  Unfortunately the only way to figure out what paintings at which to look requires you getting your hands on a copy of the Michel Spender book called “The Glory of Watercolour”, perhaps from a library or inter-library loan.  If you go there, give Hannah Hawksworth my best.

London’s rather different than the US as these two photos suggest.   This happens to be directly in front of a pub called “the Sherlock Holmes” which you can just see behind it.

and here’s pay by phone parking!

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When you want to use a reference of some sort (a sketch, a photo, even a reproduction in a book) but have to enlarge it, often the fastest way is to “square it up.”  The end result will be squares on the original and the new blank support of different sizes but in the same proportions.  Here is Ingres’ squaring  of this sketch for a portrait.

Above is the “up” part of the squaring, the painting with subsequent changes that Ingres made in the final version like the tilt of the head in the Frick Gallery in New York.

OK, so how to you do this.  There are two ways.  One is to measure with a ruler and divide and multiple.   That is the math way. The other is to use a geometric way.  I find the geometric way the easiest. All you need is a ruler.

There are actually two separate problems:



the over all proportion of the new support

O.K. you have this great sketch in flimsy paper and you want to do a painting on good paper in a half sheet size.  This blank support, on which you are going to paint, has to be in the same proportions as the original.    In the above example the pencil sketch by Ingres and the canvas have to be proportionally similar, or more specifically the squares on the the sketch and the canvas have to have the same proportions.

You do this by putting the sketch in the lower right corner of the new support and drawing a diagonal line from the right bottom to the left top of the sketch and keep on going on the new support.

explanation of diagram:

1.  You first draw the line DB  through the corners of your sketch and continue on.

2.  Any two perpendicular lines from the same spot on DB to the edge will create a box in the same proportion as the sketch.  AB to EF are in proportion as is DC to DG.

To give you an example, I was using a square photograph from a magazine for an image on a quarter of a standard sheet of watercolor paper which is not square, so when I did this, I wound up with square outline on a larger rectangular sheet of paper.  there was a band of paper left over on the right which I cut off.

making proportionally similar squares on the sketch and the new paper

this is what you have on your support, the paper you are going to work on (if you extend the line where the sketch was) and the sketch.

By placing a straight edge from the upper left corner to the bottom right corner, you can make a mark exactly in the middle of line AB.  You are going to do this on both the sketch and the new support.   No need to draw the line from corner to corner because you will have to erase it later.  All you need is the center.

Now you draw lines perpendicular from the sides through the middle, and you have two squares. You are going to do this on both the sketch and the new support.

Now we repeat what we did on the whole support in one of the boxes we created.  We draw line CD and bisect it like we did with line AB. You are going to do this on both the sketch and the new support.

We draw lines GH and EF.  We can draw similar lines in the box below and the start on the other side. You are going to do this on both the sketch and the new support.

When you’re done you will have similar boxes on both the sketch and the final support (piece of paper, board, canvas, etc.)

That’s all  there is to it.

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