Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Watercolor Landscape by J. W. North

On the recent post about the misty landscapes of John William Tristram, you all had some great insights about methods with watercolor and gouache, in particular about painting over a ground primed with white gouache.

John William North, Spring, watercolor, Metropolitan Museum

The funny thing is that I ran across John William Tristram while searching for John William North (1842-1924), an English known for his experimental methods in watercolor. 

Here are a few quotes I discovered about him:

"1895 he entered a business venture with the Hayle Mill to develop a 100% linen watercolor paper (sized with pure, sterilized gelatin) that was extraordinarily hard and resistant to lifting and scraping techniques. This "OWS Paper" produced blotchy washes (North reputedly always had trouble with his skies) but it withstood any abuse and could even be ironed from the back, like a starched shirt. On this and similar papers North experimented for many years to produce a highly detailed painting style using only transparent watercolor and no gouache. His characteristic late paintings use a peach, brown, rose and violet color scheme (with accents of dull green) to produce the effect of an autumnal and decaying light, with overgrown grasses, stagnant waters and dwarfish trees that seem to luminesce inside their dark edges — an effect at once mystical and vaguely disturbing. North built up his forms through microscopic dots and touches of pure color, anticipating by more than a decade the better known pointilliste effects of 20th century French artists; his relentless attention to detail led a few contemporaries to suggest that he painted while using a telescope. Reclusive and somewhat eccentric, and inclined to putter unproductively until seized by a poetic inspiration, North's landscapes were most influential on young painters whose work extends into the 20th century."

A contemporary wrote of North's method:
North's interpretation of nature was that of a poet. He did not sit down, like the average landscape painter, in picturesque scenery and arrange it improvingly; but living his life full of varied interests he waited until an entrancing moment in the passage of light or some human episode happily related to its surroundings awoke in his heart the ecstasy which is the poetic state. Then no sacrifice of time or labour was too great in the searching of nature to aid his revelation.
Online resources
John William North on Wikipedia

Books with related content:
Breaking the Rules of Watercolor by Burton Silverman

My new app:
Living Sketchbook, Vol. 1: Boyhood Home is available for iOS on Apple phones and tablets at the App Store and for Android devices at Google Play.

"The 'Living Sketchbook' app takes a classic Gurney Sketchbook and adds audio, video, and written notes on the inspiration, palettes, and thinking behind the art. It's as if you were a friendly ghost watching the creation of every page."
Iain McCaig, concept artist for Star Wars, Jungle Book, Avengers


Tom Hart said...

Several years back (I wish I could remember where) I read a description of a process using a gesso ground for watercolor (gesso on watercolor paper, though I can't see why the type of paper could matter much). The article or post that I read greatly extolled the durability of the surface. I tried it once or twice but found the surface too odd for my working method at the time. I wonder if gesso would be very different from a gouache ground.

XaviC said...

Hello James,
Really interesting subject. Have to try the gouache primed techinque for watercolor.
As far as I know, Josep Tapiró also used this techinque in his Tangerian portraits. I heard an introductory lecture of his life and work during the great exhibition dedicated to Tapiró in the MNAC museum in Barcelona, some time ago.
Thanks for all the information.

Xavi C.

Daniele Guadagnolo said...

Hi Tom,

maybe the article referred to traditional gesso made with rabbit skin glue and gypsum or chalk; this gives a very absorbent ground which reactivates a little under a wet brushstroke commonly used for egg tempera. The surface is completly different from modern acrylic gesso an requires a dry-brush technique, and can give a finish comparable to a chinese white ground.

When painting on a gouache (or white watercolor) ground, remember that zinc white is necessary to achieve delicacy, titanium white is too aggressive and can 'chalk the paint up' very easily.

GJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Hart said...

Thanks Daniele! That might certainly explain why I didn't find it to be "friendly" surface.

jeff said...

Very interesting post, thanks for info on J.W. North. I have a book on the watercolors of David Levine, who's one of all time favorites in the medium, and as I mentioned in the other post about surfaces he used plate illustration board. I also found a few paintings that he did on silk. Silk was used a lot by both Japanese and Chinese painters. I have no idea how this would work, but the few Levine paintings done on it are something else. He also used clay coated boards.

Another interesting watercolor painter was Whistler, who would sometimes sand the paper after applying a wash which would not only knock back the wash but raise the paper particles which would then pick up the next wash.

On the subject of casein grounds, if I'm not mistaken a casein ground would completely seal the paper and the watercolor would just sit on top.

James Gurney said...

Jeff, you're right about the casein sealing the surface. I've painted gouache over casein, and it sort of floats on top, almost beads up when it's wet, which is a weird feeling. Adhesion seems to be good, though.

jeff said...

I was reading about how to make your own casein ground and I came away wondering why it's not used as a ground for oil painting on rigid supports. Seems to be a better option than traditional gesso made with RSG.

James Gurney said...

Jeff, casein has been used traditionally as a priming or underpainting for oils. Casein is the oldest paint known to humankind, going back 50K years. A caution, though, it should be used on panels because the emulsion strength is not as strong as acrylic gesso, so impastos could crack off of canvas if they're put on too thick.