Mastering the medium

It is only in my mature years that I have fully appreciated the true diversity of watercolour as a medium. My father was the first to introduce me to the complexities and techniques by teaching me to lay a wash aged five. Since then I have continuously experimented and tried to push my skill level with more and more challenges.

Interestingly, I have probably learnt most about the medium by teaching and writing about it for the last thirty years.

People who know my work wonder why I do not concentrate on one particular style that they can identify with. For me I always want to try something new. Not only that; each different subject whether portrait, landscape, waterscape or flowers demands different approaches. In some cases a broad brush method is more expressive, whereas another subject say marine painting with it’s fine line rigging needs to be handled differently. People often say “ but what is your favourite subject? The truth is I’m fascinated by just about everything and considering I believe I only have one life I want to try it all.

The interesting thing about watercolour is peoples’ perception of it. When I went to art school in the sixties it was considered an inferior medium fit only for amateurs. When you consider that some of the giants of the History of Art Leonardo, Raphael, Turner, Cezanne – not to mention almost all the artists of India, China and Japan utilised it, then to denigrate watercolour as a viable medium for expressive and meaningful art seems simply crass.
In fact the major influences in my work consist of all those mentioned with a healthy injection from the Victorians.

I believe that one of the reasons that the average art student, historian or critic denigrates the medium is that they are unaware how notoriously difficult it is to master.
It is very hard to be freely expressive as most students are not taught how to use a brush but rather to rely on the European way of painting which is to draw an outline and then fill it in with colour. This is why I studied the Oriental artists who use their brush in a particularly expressive way.

Pure watercolour relies on transparency. The special quality that is embedded in a beautiful watercolour relies on light passing through the particles of paint to produce the painting luminosity. No other medium does this – hence my continued fascination, and why I will never stop experimenting with it.

Paul Riley – May 2012