Draughtsman and Watercolourist
David Blayney Brown
On major tours Turner tended to carry a number of sketchbooks and sometimes acquired more as he needed them en route, firstly in 1802 when he topped up his stock of English-made books with ones bought in Paris and Berne. They might range from small pocket books in which he noted his first impressions in pencil or ink, to much larger ones in which he explored their pictorial potential in coloured or composition studies. These might also interact with drawings made on even bigger loose sheets, which he carried in a portfolio. This practice of working across a range of materials was developed during early tours to the North of England, Wales and Scotland and reached something of a climax on the first Swiss tour in 1802. As he grew older Turner favoured smaller books for pencil sketching and larger soft-bound ones for watercolour. His use of pencil turned from clear outline and tonal shading into a highly characteristic shorthand, which could capture essentials with great speed and economy or combine a run of sketches on a single page like shots on a roll of film. Larger, landscape-format pages encouraged work with the brush and an expressive use of colour over minimal, but still precise, outline. Among many other examples, Turner’s highly focused pencil notation and broader coloured sketching can be found in sketchbooks used during his first visit to Italy in 1819 (figs.5, 6).
Drawing and painting in watercolour
Hence it was hardly ever the case that Turner simply ‘drove his colours about’11 until he arrived at what he wanted, although to encourage that illusion can only have added to his reputation as a prodigy. Exhibition watercolours of Alpine subjects based on his tour in 1802 (fig.12) are technical tours de force, extraordinarily elaborate yet at the same time austere and grand, and less finished or intermediate versions of similar subjects demonstrate how carefully they must have been prepared (fig.13). No sooner, however, had he brought watercolour to a level of equality with oil than Turner returned to exploring its own distinctive qualities, transparency and capacity for intimacy and freshness. Working in both media on the same subjects at the same time, outdoors from nature along the Thames where he rented out-of-town lodgings at Syon, Hammersmith and Twickenham from 1804, his methods were the same; but his understanding of watercolour on paper once again conditioned his use of oil, rather than the other way around. Just as he laid watercolour thinly, leaving the paper bare or exposing it to give highlights or reflections, so he brushed oils over an off-white preparation on canvas or board. The results show a new feeling for naturalism and the cool and luminous tonality that earned him the description of ‘white painter’. This soubriquet (intended as an insult) was usually applied to his oil paintings, but his most interesting technical experiments tended increasingly to be carried out on paper while traditional boundaries between oil and water were eroded or dissolved.12
If Turner’s media and techniques were in constant flux, in response to the task in hand or to actual or emotional experience, his choice of colour was no less various. It was instinctive and emotional, learned and theoretical, but above all pragmatic and rooted in practical experience. Well-versed in theories of optics, historical and contemporary, he was fascinated by the interplay of aerial colour (created by the operation of light) and material colour (made by pigments). He took full advantage of new colours as they became available, such as the ready-made watercolour cakes introduced by Thomas and William Reeves in 1781 and industrially-produced Mars colours which gave bright, earthy tones. When he was young, the absence of any true bright green required Turner, like all other artists, to mix it, usually by brown ochres in thinned Prussian blue which, with lead white, ultramarine, indigo, yellow ochre, red lead, vermilion and madder was already well-established.13 Cobalt blue and chrome yellow appeared after 1810, pale chrome in the next decade, viridian and emerald green in the 1830s and scarlet in the 1840s.
Turner gave as much thought to the working materials he made for himself as to those he made for engravers. His first large topographical series, Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England commissioned in 1811 and a related Rivers of Devon prompted a long campaign of research and preparation beginning with touring and using his sketchbooks on the spot. As well as final watercolours made for reproduction, Turner made independent studies in broad, often muted washes (sometimes tested in the margin). These served for future reference, for paintings or as exercises, getting him into the spirit of the locale (fig.16). His first systematic use of colour studies to set out a chromatic plan seems to have been for another topographical commission, Dr. Thomas Whitaker’s History of Richmondshire, while he first used the term ‘beginning’ for a rough coloured sketch (fig.17) for a watercolour of a sinking ship, made for another Yorkshire patron, Walter Fawkes. Unlike these, the papers ‘tinted with pink and blue and yellow’ that Fawkes’s daughters remembered hanging to dry on cords in Turner’s bedroom at Farnley in 181614 sound like underpaintings, to be worked up later, or trials of colour or brushwork. Turner made many coloured sketches for their own sake, to record passing effects or ideas or experiment with colour and paint, and their impact on his public or published work, if any, must have been more cumulative than specific. As Eric Shanes has pointed out, the hundreds of works in the Bequest named by A.J. Finberg ‘Colour Beginnings’ or ‘Miscellaneous: Colour’ fall into more distinctly recognisable categories, preparatory, exploratory or independent. Collectively, Shanes prefers to characterise them as ‘explorations’, and to distinguish ‘studies’ (made for known, finished works) from ‘sketches’ that were taken no further and remain entities in themselves.15
16 While the outcome of this creative frenzy was unquestionably finished, views of the Rhine bought by Fawkes in 1817 seem poised somewhere between sketch and completion, so freely and quickly painted, in watercolour and gouache over a grey wash ground, that Ruskin and other early admirers thought they had been made on the spot. It is now widely accepted that they were done soon after Turner’s return, referring to motifs first noted in sketchbooks. Fawkes’s purchase, for a large sum, indicates that he accepted them as completed, yet there is evidence in the Bequest for potential developments on a larger scale (fig.18). For Smiles, the lesson is that ‘the transcription of the original motif was but the starting point for a sequence of further sketches and studies towards the finished picture’.17 But it might be added that such distinctions were already breaking down. A recent fashion for exhibiting oil ‘sketches’ (or perhaps more accurately, pictures that looked like sketches) must have conditioned responses to watercolour too. When Fawkes opened his London house to visitors in 1819 and 1820, critics singled out Turner’s more informal and intimate works since ‘the sketches of a master possess more charms than the laboured results; and to all men of taste they afford grounds for the imagination to fill up, as fancy willeth, every vacant space and unfinished outline’.18
Transparent and opaque; watercolour and gouache
Synthesis, transformation and controversy: Turner’s later watercolours
The last decade of Turner’s working life, into the mid-1840s, saw an outburst of work in watercolour and the astonishing technical flowering that has won him his modern reputation as the supreme master of the medium. It is the more remarkable that this was achieved against a backdrop of changing tastes and clientele and an adverse trend of criticism that may have made him wary of showing his latest watercolours widely in public. This had been evident even in the generally enthusiastic reviews of Fawkes’s exhibitions of his collection in 1819 and 1820, while Turner’s Italian visit in 1819 appeared to mark a watershed when his earlier ‘natural, simple and effective’ works began to give way to ‘a thousand yellow fantasies and crimson conceits’.23 Greg Smith’s analysis of printed criticism of Turner’s watercolours in 1819 and 1820, and of subsequent publishers’ exhibitions, has revealed the breakdown of positive consensus in the face of a growing realisation that special allowances had to be made for Turner’s exceptionalism; and moreover, that the ‘broadly associative’ reading of his landscapes in which colour was thought to underpin morality, sentiment and ‘presiding mental purpose’24 was ill-equipped to deal with colouring that threatened instead to become ‘an idiosyncratic element of handling’.25 As but one example, watercolours shown at Moon, Boys and Graves in 1833 attracted comment for their sometimes high colour. England and Wales, for which many had been made, proved to be a commercial failure – though for the different reason that as a designer of topography Turner was now a victim of his own success, with so many prints after his work already on the market and depressing demand.
How to cite
David Blayney Brown, ‘Draughtsman and Watercolourist’, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, December 2012, https://www