Monday, 2 April 2012

Music and movement in watercolour

Excerpts from Chapter Nine:
Music and movement in watercolour.

You often hear the absurd statement “It’s only a watercolour”, prolonging the myth that a real painting (in Western culture) is in oils and it’s worth more.  Watercolour is often thought of as the feeble medium of the dabbling Sunday painter. But watercolour is a magnificent means of expression!  Think of the innumerable great Asian, American and English watercolour masterpieces – large, small and priceless.
Watercolour gradually became my preferred medium because of the nature of music. Music, movement and watercolour have something in common. The fluidity of watercolour can convey the illusion of movement, while the transparent glow and subtle layers reflect the transience of music.  This medium can vary in intensity from the most delicate tones to tremendous bursts of luminous blazing colour: if you like, from pianissimo to fortissimo.  Handled freely, it can reflect the energy of the activity of making music.  Laid down with sensitivity, it compares with the calm beauty of the slow movement of a string quartet. 
My earlier watercolours suggest a preference for the understatement, chamber music rather than symphonic grandeur, the misty view rather than brilliant sunlight. But the large, richly coloured watercolours of the Symphony Hall series or other recent works sing out strongly.  The brilliance of white paper, shining through a transparent glaze of watercolour, has a powerful emotional effect, comparable to the intense glow of light shining through the colours of a stained-glass window, or to the sound of the pure song, a chant or a ringing bell.

Valery Gergiev, 2005, watercolour 84 x 56cm, Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection.

I started to use exclusively Arches Satiné 300 grams watercolour paper, which allows the paint to float on the surface longer and gives it a brilliant transparency.
Like making music, watercolour painting requires great concentration, skill, fast reactions and inspired spontaneity.  Whereas a painter in oils or acrylics can plod along, painting over anything that is not quite right, watercolourists have to stay alert, aware of how the paint is spreading or drying in unexpected ways.  Changes often have to be made while it’s still wet, and it dries faster in some climates than in others. You can’t relax for a moment - it’s one of the most difficult media to handle well.
The organic qualities, freshness, luminosity and calligraphic effects of watercolour speak to our emotions very directly, in part perhaps because they are close to our common sensory experience of writing and also to our familiarity with the qualities of water in our everyday lives.
Roberto Benzi in action with the Netherlands Phil., watercolour 50 x 70cm.
For many years I’ve also been painting musical themes in a semi-abstract way, and I believe that graphic rhythms and certain colours have a synaesthetic effect, That is, abstract images can convey the illusion of sounds, and draw you into the action, even if you don’t immediately recognize what they are.  My hope is that the finished painting sings: that the spectator will not only recognize the performer’s characteristic traits and gestures, but will also hear the music.  To this end, the abstract swathes, splatters and splashes of colour surrounding many of my figurative paintings of musicians are just as important as the main figure.  The viewer may recognize music stands or violin bows here and there, but many of these brush marks are often my intuitive reactions to the music, echoing the movement - a sort of participation in the performance, with my brush as instrument.

One day, I left the studio, having abandoned my struggle with the first version of a painting of the famous cellist Paul Tortelier.  I left the painting laid out on its drawing board to dry, perplexed because I couldn’t get the painting to “sing” – my watercolour of this lively personality just looked dead.  Soon after I arrived home I received a phone call from a cellist friend: “Have you heard the news – Tortelier is dead”.   No wonder I couldn’t make my watercolour live!  I had been so deeply involved in this painting that it took me quiet a while to recover from the shock of this news.  Eventually, I made this second version in memoriam, more transparent, perhaps more spiritual.

Paul Tortelier (1914-1990), watercolour 84 x 56cm,1990/91, Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection. 

Next Monday: Excerpt from Chapter 10: The Beauty of Space and Silence.


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