Tuesday 25 October 2016

Delicate art of laying on washes

Published 07/10/2006 | 00:11

Watercolour painting is one of the more delicate forms of art. Its practitioners are like the poet, yearning for 'the heavens' embroidered cloths' but often ending up with 'the blue and the dim and the dark'. Like the poet, too, when they are finally done, they appeal to one's sensitivity and compassion.

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'Tread softly because you tread on my dreams,' they say. And it is true; the dividing line between achievement and failure wavers there with every brush-stroke. The watercolour artist brings an army of artistic weapons in the form of a simple palette of colours and employs a general's strategies in the laying on of washes.

Patricia Butler puts it well, in her book, Three Hundred Years of Irish Watercolours and Drawings, when she says that the medium cannot conceal what is underneath, 'the painted surface becoming a series of colour filters which allow the light to pass through them and reflect off the white surface beneath'.

Despite this succinct summary of the often intractable set of difficulties, the world is full of watercolourists and this supremely difficult and wonderful art form continues, each year, to attract new practitioners. One hundred and eight of them are exhibiting this weekend and for the rest of next week, in the County Hall in Dun Laoghaire, where the 152nd exhibition of the Water Colour Society of Ireland is taking place.

The Society evolved out of one started in 1870, in Lismore, County Waterford, by six women. Watercolour painting, though it included in its history great artists, perhaps the supreme figure being Turner, and many other men of great artistic talent and distinction, has nevertheless always been dominated numerically by women. These six, adding others to their number as they went along, exhibited in Clonmel, changing the name to the Amateur Drawing Society and then to the Irish Amateur Drawing Society, became penultimately the Irish Fine Art Society.

By the late 1880s it had attracted all the significant watercolour painters in the country either into the society or into participating in exhibitions, so it adopted its present title, the Water Colour Society of Ireland. Shortly afterwards it discontinued the practice of provincial showings and changed to an annual springtime show in Dublin, which for many years was in the Molesworth Hall, then in the RDS and, in recent years, in Dun Laoghaire, where it has space and fine overhead lighting.

As an art form it has been associated historically with leisure, the gentry, the country house, holiday painting, travellers either amusing themselves or recording in visual diaries their experiences. There was a hint of exclusivity enhanced by the elegance of the act itself.

'Pulling off' a good wash for the sky and achieving the shape and texture of clouds has about it a subtle finesse and gracefulness that can be enjoyed in an entirely private set of circumstances. Indeed, there is a natural diffidence about one's work that has to be conquered if the great leap into exhibiting is to take place.

In the current show in Dun Laoghaire, one is made aware from the start of the great variation in work, the multiple starting points, the diversity of approach. These days, there is more drawing than painting. Drawing and sketching were always part of the tradition, but purists believed and practiced an art form that, if possible, used the brush to define the structure of the work and viewed with circumspection the deployment of pencil altogether.

All of the late, great Turner water colours in the Vaughan collection in the National Gallery of Ireland are drawn with the brush, though it becomes hardly drawing at all in many of them.

The danger, for the amateur, is to draw and then colour-in. The process distorts the underlying principle of watercolour painting by using the shorthand of the cartoon representation instead of the closer reality of living material - be it landscape, figure, portraiture, interior - which has been the essence of the art since the great early masters like Durer.

I found this year's show impressive and stimulating, as I always do, each of the works - almost 300 of them - redolent of the battle with subject and materials. A show of this kind, with so many different artists taking part, so many approaches, so many levels, from neophyte amateurs to well-tried professional artists, like Tom Ryan, for example, is very rich indeed.

This former president of the Royal Hibernian Academy is more a portrait painter and started as a history painter having been trained in the good traditions of draughtsmanship that can be traced back through his teacher, Sean Keating, to Keating's much loved teacher, William Orpen.

The line is part of the magic of Irish art. Ryan has two quite modest watercolours, a study of the Rialto Bridge in Venice and a lovely little watercolour of the Weir at Slane with a figure sitting on part of the stonework overlooking the water.

George McCaw, a stalwart of the society, has clearly been to South Africa and with classical restraint recorded two quite charming works, one of them showing a lovely Dutch-style manor, now turned into a winery, the other a landscape with mountains.

The Sligo artist, Bernard McDonagh, has a single work painted in Brittany, restrained and careful. Other traditionalists, admirable for the definition, include Jim Flack, Thomas Wilson, Nancy Larchet and a lovely view of a Czech village under snow by Valerie Empey, a new painter to me, who has recorded well a moment less familiar than it used to be as a result of global warming.

There is a good deal of less traditional work, perhaps too much, that would have puzzled or astonished those purists of long ago, Fanny Currey, Baroness Prochazka, Miss Henrietta Phipps and Fanny Musgrave, who started all this vital activity back in 1870, or indeed later artists of great accomplishment like Rose Barton or Mildred Anne Butler.

The energy is as great as ever, the determination to capture a view, a flower, an event, an interior, and I continue to admire and spend time encouraging others to go down this enormously rewarding route - the painting of watercolours.

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