The Long View - Six Decades Of Watercolour

My involvement with watercolours spans six decades, I have no idea how many paintings I have created and where most of them are.

After so many years of painting my output has undergone many changes.  The most important of these would be that with maturity one no longer paints watercolours, but paints with watercolour.

Every painting is a new experience.  They will present you with new challenges, whether they be technical or aesthetic.

At 15 I attended evening art classes in drawing and composition and it was here that I first saw original watercolours.

In 1954 at the age of 17 I joined a still life wash class (watercolour class) at the National Art School ESTC.  On the first night I watched a demonstration of the medium by the artist Alfred H. Cook who was originally from New Zealand.

If one can point to a particular moment in one’s life, when life changes this was it for me.  Five years later I was teaching this class.

In 1955 at the age of 19 I first exhibited in the Annual Exhibition of the Australian Watercolour Institute, the leading Society in the country devoted to displaying and promoting watercolours.   2017 marked my 62 consecutive time I have exhibited.

Hanging in such prestigious exhibitions amongst so many leading watercolourists of the day was a great learning experience.  In the beginning my work was rather too small and grey to hold their own amongst such company.  To progress changes had to be made and the first change was to paint larger size works.

Over these many years I have been privileged to spend a total of eleven years as President of the Institute.

In the initial stages of my painting career, I mostly painted tree scapes from the surrounding district.

Originally I did plein air painting which I never found satisfying because of problems with the weather, be it wind or rain or the changing patterns of light and shade.  However, the biggest distraction I found was the unwanted onlooker

To overcome this problem the next phase was small sketches on site where I  indicated the major light and shade patterns in the landscape.  A large drawing of such images would be transferred onto watercolour paper for a studio painting.  In this period at the age of 20 I was to win my first art prize.

Later when struggling on a landscape with a complicated structure of branches of a tree in exasperation I discarded the half finished work.

I picked up a new piece of paper, wet the surface and without much thought applied colour.  This was not to be an evolution in my working procedure but more of a revolution.  So for the next decade or so the watercolours I did were inventive paintings without reference or preliminary drawing they were imaginary impressionistic landscapes.

It was for me a new approach to landscape painting and at that time I started a series of abstract works.

The method was the same for both; spontaneity and speed were of the essence in attempting to create images whilst paper was still wet.  When dry I would reassess the composition re-wet the paper and continue the next stage of the painting.  If necessary repeat process until work finished.

On some occasions if unhappy with the first stage I would take a wet sponge and wipe the paper to as clean as one could get it and start the process again.

In the main during these years I used a French paper which was suitable to this method and on many occasions I would move the paint around with the side of the palm of my hand and/or fingers to create what I considered to be interesting textures.

There was a great freedom in painting in this manner, no restriction of subject matter or being confined to paint with the restrictions of working within the confines of a pencil drawing.  These years were successful ones in establishing my reputation as a watercolourist.

In my initial painting of the Australian Coastline I approached my subject as I would a landscape painter; foreground, middle distance, distance then sky (these elements such as sand, rocks, shrubbery, sky).

As time passed I eliminated the sky, then the distance.  I started to focus my attention on my immediate surroundings of foreground and nearby shapes.

It is still a non-descript smallish headland of 200-300 metres long.  Nothing picturesque about the setting, a landscape painter would not find anything of interest but now to me it was magic.  What was beneath my feet was subject matter that would occupy me for years to come, which has resulted in more than 200 paintings from this site.

For some time I concentrated on rockscapes.  But one of the advantages of Crookhaven Heads is its location.  After each storm a covering of driftwood appears.

Driftwood was added to the rockscapes for a more dynamic composition where the verticals and diagonals created by the timber made for a more interesting, inventive designs. Eventually some of the works were of driftwood only, which could be the most difficult to draw as a branch of one gets entangled with other branches.

When shapes are unsympathetic to the overall design, I do not hesitate to make changes to my reference for the sake of the painting.  It was this series that attracted international attention to my work.  Sydney, Australia, is a long way from the cultural centres of the world and when I first started exhibiting in the mid 1950’s there was little contact with the international art scene.  This was the situation as I established my career in isolation from what was happening overseas.

Australia has a heritage of great landscape painters but none had ever viewed the Australian Coastline as I did.   I was painting an aspect of nature that no-one had concentrated on before.  This body of works I created over the years were my concept and not the continuation of a tradition established by others.

Retiring in 1990 from teaching allowed me to concentrate on my paintings and around the year 2000 I felt the need to broaden my horizons for different subject matter.  My wife and I made a number of interstate visits in this quest.

Australia is a big country, a continent, and one has to spend many days on the road travelling.  It is from these trips that my studies of inland Australia has come.  The outback, the paintings of the deserts and ghost towns.

It was back to landscape painting; foreground through to skies, aerial perspective, different colour schemes to portray the desolation, the harshness of the land.

A new approach was needed, more working on wet paper, larger brushes, a different technical approach to my coastline series.

Such trips have provided the framework for a number of award winning works.

The latest theme that has captured my attention, and it is a popular one for many artists, has been doorways, with special interest in the locking devices.

With the knowledge that I would have to undergo eye surgery and that it would be some months before new spectacles could be prescribed, I looked for a subject which in the main had larger shapes and less detailed work.

Since 2010 I have travelled to Asia on nine occasions and been privileged to meet and exhibit with so many talented Asian and International Watercolour Masters.

I am proud to achieve International Awards in Asia and honoured to hold the first solo International Watercolour Masters Exhibition in Shanghai/Zhujaijaio titled ‘Sand, Sticks and Stones’ 2011.

As I review my painting career, my greatest achievement is that after six decades I am still working in the watercolour medium.  It seems like yesterday but over 60 years have past since I first saw a watercolour demonstration.