The Magic Of Watercolour

Recently I was in London and realised three dreams I have held dear:


One was that I made a dash across Abbey Road in London. The very place diagonally opposite the EMI studios where the Beatles had crossed, and which was shown on the record cover of ABBEY ROAD. My daughter Andrea and I were photographed making the dramatic dash (a very busy road) one behind the other. She took the lead as I am not as fleet of foot as I was once. I was tempted to remove my shoes (as Paul McCartney had done) but decided against it and now regret that decision somewhat. If you are ever there and are prepared to make an idiot of yourself as I did, then why not go all the way? It was fun and I have to smile when looking at the photos now. I am glad I did that because I read a few days ago that the EMI Studios may soon be sold and that will bring to an end a great chapter in the history of modern music. It could well end up as a Mc Donald’s or something equally banal. I sincerely hope not.


The second dream was to visit the ‘Winsor and Newton’ factory, which my wife Ingrid organised. I was really excited when we arrived there and we were then escorted on a wonderful tour by the head of the watercolour laboratory, a charming and delightful lady named Cassandra. This was an amazing tour and I now view watercolours and in fact all paint-making through fresh eyes. If you have never been to Winsor and Newton see that you put it at the top of your list when visiting London. You have to phone and make an appointment though. That is essential.


The third dream was to visit the famous Artists’ Colourman, ‘Cornellisens’ of London.


Finding it was quite a mission but when we finally arrived in front of the blue door, with the brass letters announcing that this was the famous artists’ materials store I felt quite a thrill of excitement. Entering is a bit of an anti-climax though. The first impression is that it is quite tiny. Then as you become accustomed to being in there you find that it is absolutely jam-packed with every kind of arts materials imaginable. Things we never see or even hear of here in SA.


If I had a million pounds I could have easily left there with no change. Such wonderful stuff.


I bought one or two bits and pieces but my main aim was to buy a number 12 series 7 Winsor and Newton Kolinsky Sable Brush. The French gentleman that was serving me ducked under the counter and emerged with this beautifully packed and presented work of art. I tentatively asked the price and swallowed three or four times at his reply. If I took the brush I’d have to cancel the rest of my trip. How about the size 10 Sable Series 7 asked the French assistant? Still too much.


Eventually the choice was to take the no.10 Cornellisen’s Kolinsky Sable or buy a Carl Roberts sculpture. There was no choice! Without hesitation I took the watercolour brush. (Now we are even Carl, for what you said in your newsletter about painters! Find Carl’s website on


When I was about ten years old my dad surprised me on my birthday by giving me a proper Winsor and Newton japanned, professional box filled with artists watercolour half pans. It came with one number ten watercolour brush. I do believe that it was quite the most wonderful gift any parent could give to a kid who was mad about drawing and painting. Up to that point the best I’d used was the school type Reeves painting sets with the long pans of turgid colours, and a floppy squirrel-hair brush. This gift was like being given a brand new Rolls Royce to me.


My dad was a very good watercolourist and pastellist and I often watched him working with his ‘good’ stuff. I was not allowed to touch his paints and so this was heaven. I still have that now very old, well used and stained box, and it still has artist’s quality half pans in it. No substitutes after that.


This was for me the start of a love affair with watercolours.


When I went to artist, Johan Oldert, for lessons back then the first advice he gave me was to forget the watercolours if I wanted to become a career artist and reluctantly bowing to his experience and knowledge I did. However the beautiful and delicate medium remained close to my heart so when one day in a Johannesburg newspaper the summons for all artists interested in this medium to meet at a gallery in the then brand new Carlton Centre so intrigued me that I was there bright and early. The gallery belonged to Marge Bowen, a rather formidable lady artist, and the audience of about 60 + eager young people was quite electric. I seem to remember two or three such meetings and it was there that the Watercolour Society of South Africa was formed in the early 1970’s.


The concept of a Society it seems came out of an exhibition in which five watercolourists had participated, those being Marge Bowen, Richard Cheales, Cynthia Ball, Maisie Waite and Joy Krause.


Prior to that, although there had been a few committed artists using the medium it had been considered by many as nothing more than a sketching medium.


As with all such organisations group politics quickly raised its ugly head and after a while many of us left, but the Society carried on and still carries on and has done much for this, at times, much maligned and misunderstood medium.


After many years of oil painting, almost by accident, I was professionally reintroduced to watercolours, and today though I may now be better known to the public as an oil painter, for many years much of the work I did were watercolours for corporate collections. As those paintings were almost exclusively commissioned works they were rarely seen in the galleries but none-the-less in that period I must have produced close on a thousand large watercolours and never tired of the joy of using the medium.


Towards the end of that period there were things that impacted on producing corporate works and those included the repositioning of head offices, mainly to Johannesburg,( I live in Durban) and of course national politics. Big business wanted to be seen as being politically correct and so the drying up of corporate purchases had nothing at all to do with it being watercolour but rather about other political factors.


Perhaps because of the fall-off in corporate buying many galleries also stopped stocking watercolours, but for all the wrong reasons. This is when the rumours started spreading about the medium. Among those was that the public did not like watercolours. I do not think it was the public that decided this at all but were stories spread by misguided watercolourists and misguided galleries. Art is a form of communication and a language and the medium in which an artist communicates should not come into the equation at all.


In Europe and America these rumours never arose and they sell as many watercolours as any other medium. The reason being that they did not go through the political changes we did. Sales or desirability of watercolours were never affected there. Ours sales were, but here in South Africa they fell for political reasons and not aesthetic or any other reasons.


Before the creation of the Watercolour Society of S.A. there was also all the nonsense of watercolour not being a serious art medium, that it would not last, that watercolour artists were not true artists and that the public would not buy watercolours. Then in the mid 1980’s there was a huge swing to watercolours. It arrived with the interior decorators and the glass and chrome fashions. Many oil painters found themselves in a lot of trouble because all the galleries wanted then was watercolours.


I can’t remember the oil painters saying that there was a conspiracy against oils or oil painters? They had to take a back seat for a few years until things started balancing out once more. That is the nature of things. They come and go in cycles. Interestingly I painted the large bulk of my watercolours after the ‘high watercolour’ period. They still sell and perhaps that is because I somehow slipped under the ‘conspiracy net.’


Personally I believe that galleries who do not stock watercolours are doing watercolours and their customers a grave disservice. The medium is one of the great beauties and delights in the world and watercolourists have as much to ‘say’ as artists using any other medium.


Perhaps the watercolour artists and their societies must shoulder a great part of the blame for the rumours by often presenting exhibitions that though adequate technically, are pretty lame on thought, language and content. In many exhibitions the handwriting has overshadowed the message. Artistic pyrotechnics can never take the place of thinking and content. Perhaps it is time to redefine what art is for our watercolourists, there seems to be some confusion.


I do in fact believe that much of the current state of the medium and the resistance to it (If there is in fact such a resistance) can be blamed on the watercolourists and the organisations that represent the medium. I have read in their newsletters about conspiracies against watercolours and so much discussion about the negatives associated with the medium that many of those urban legends have been accepted by galleries and collectors alike.


The truth of the matter is that there is and never has been any kind of conspiracy against watercolours or the artists that use them. The negatives spread about the medium have been spread by ignorant people and in most cases can be easily remedied merely by proving that they do not exist.


One of a number of those negatives is that watercolour has a short life expectancy. This is nonsense and if an artist uses artists quality pigment and quality acid free rag paper and the work is well cared for there is no reason why it shouldn’t last as long as an oil. The pigment is in most if not all cases the same as oil, but instead of all the nasties like linseed and other drying oils it only has Gum Arabic added as a binder and a bit of glycerine added to keep it moist. These are pretty inert and harmless after drying. There are no varnishes to yellow and crack, and if properly framed there is no dust or noxious fumes that can reach the painting to darken the colours or fade or change them.


Most of the problems associated with watercolours come from bad, low quality paint or poor quality machine-made wood-pulp papers being used by artists. As much or possibly even more damage is caused to watercolour paintings and drawings by cheap or ignorant framers, using low quality tapes, cheap cardboard backings that soak up moisture and introduce fungus and mould into the support. The very best acid free hand-made rag paper can only take so much abuse. That nastiest of nasties, brown paper, stuck on the back to make the painting look finished or supposedly to keep dust out, is a killer blow to watercolour works of art.


One does not require a university degree to know that moisture is fatal to any work of art and more so to art made on paper.


Here we cannot allow the interior decorators and décor compliant framers to slip through the cracks. I have travelled to great Art Galleries and Museums in Europe and England and have never seen a perfectly flat watercolour in any of them. It is not in the nature of watercolours on paper to be perfectly flat. What then gives a decorator the right to take a ‘work of art’ and destroy it, all in the cause of flatness? They will get the framers to go to any length to flatten a watercolour or drawing, even to the point of pasting it on to the dreaded cardboard or mounting board or even Masonite. Shame on them. That is tantamount to ‘murdering’ a work of art and it should be punishable in the harshest way…


The second thing that we can thank the decorators for is the painting hung flat against the wall. All for the sake of décor. Again, in the great Museums and Galleries, nowhere do you see paintings being hung flat against the wall. It just isn’t done. The painting, be it oil or watercolour, needs air to circulate behind it and of course walls, especially walls that are on the outside of a house will have a certain amount of moisture in them and this will be passed straight into a flat hung painting.


For 400 hundred years or more paintings have been hung leaning forward, that till the all-knowing Interior Decorators arrived in the mid eighties and trashed 400 years of knowledge and experience.


Now if these little things mentioned would be adhered to there is no reason why watercolours shouldn’t last as long as any other art work.


If one takes the bogus stories out of the equation there is no reason whatsoever for galleries not to stock watercolours or collectors not to buy them. All it requires is a bit of education and for watercolour artists to do a bit of homework.


There is one more misguided story that is spread and that is that watercolours are always wishy-washy. Why would they be unless they were painted by wishy-washy artists and accepted by wishy-washy galleries? As I said a moment ago that the pigment used in quality paint is essentially the same as that used in oil or acrylic. It has less stuff added that may alter colours so it should be as bright, if not brighter than its oil and acrylic counterparts. It is not the watercolour medium at fault but the artists who use the medium and who give their preferred medium a bad name.


We know that watercolours have a tendency to lighten slightly with drying but adjusting the intensity of the paint is not really much of a problem.


There is little in the world that is quite as beautiful as a well executed and presented watercolour. Any collector or gallery who does not stock watercolours does their clients and society in general a grave disservice. Shame on you!


In the last few months there has been much soul-searching and debate on the matter of watercolour painting and so too in and about the organisations and societies that exist to nurture and mentor this medium. There has been a general shake-up in many of our visual arts organisations and so too the watercolour community. Perhaps it’s too early to make any pronouncements on what has or will come out of the debates and brainstorming sessions that have been held, but I for one hope that something really good and positive will emerge.


In the last decade or more our art has to a large extent been deteriorating and I believe one thing that is evident is that watercolour has been allowed to slip even more than the others. Standards by artists and arts collectives have not been upheld and management and information have been tardy to say the least. I generalise (Some have done some great work) but in the main there has not been much to be proud of.


I think most of us who love art are tired of all the copying, spin-doctoring, poor leadership, misinformation, tired uninspired exhibitions, lazy artists, tired and unimaginative galleries and mediocre art work, and pray that we are now entering an exciting time of artistic dynamism. Hopefully when the dust clears watercolour painting will be there standing shoulder to shoulder with the rest if not leading the way.


These are my thoughts, you must have yours?


Till next month….


Written: April 2010



  • Pat Bowen

    Very interesting. I remember the period when my mother, Marj Bowen, started the watercolor society. I also knew the other artists to whom you referred. It was an interesting period. I worked at the Carlton Centre Gallery part time for a few years.

    • John Smith

      Thanks for that Pat, I remember your mom well!
      Those were such exciting times. Somehow people seem to have lost the plot!

Post a Comment