Exercise: Experiment with landscape painting in watercolours

The best-known names in nineteenth-century English landscape are JMW Turner and John Constable. As always, new materials and process were important. Both painters worked in watercolour and oils; Constable made his preparatory studies for the large oil paintings in watercolour. Turner retained historical or mythological references in some of his pictures, especially his oil paintings. Constable, on the other hand, was a strong advocate of landscape as important in its own right, independently of such references.The growing popularity of the genre in England saw the appearance of numerous books of instruction for the landscape painter, each with their own approach. Writing in the late eighteenth century, the English watercolour artist Alexander Cozens emphasised creative imagination and the demands of the picture as a whole. By 1814, David Cox was more concerned with picturesque incident, encouraging the student ‘ever to keep in view the principal object which induced him to make the sketch’, such as ‘thatched cottages, ivied ruins, old windmills, rustic bridges, dock-fringed pools, stooping willows’. In 1842, T H Fielding was publishing an elaborate chart of colours with comments on their use.

Writing about a watercolour of Cayne Waterfall by Thomas Girtin, Laurence Binyon said:

“The cartridge paper which he was the first to use has a warm tone, yet by a cunning opposition of blues this same paper, where it is left blank for the gleam of falling water, appears pure white. The precision of the brush seems perfectly spontaneous, as it moulds the rocks and evokes the shapes or foliage and defines the interrupted threads of spray.”

In watercolour, accurate attention to effects and the means which produce them is vital; washes and opaque passages have their own qualities. If you’ve never worked in watercolour, now might be a good time to experiment with this medium for yourself.

If you don’t feel confident enough to attempt some watercolour work, do some research into early nineteenth-century watercolour landscape painting. (You don’t have to confine yourself to British artists.) In your learning log, reflect on the properties of the medium that made it so popular for this type of work, both for artists and audiences. (course notes p121)


Watercolour rise to prominence along with the growing interest in ‘landscape’ painting. Encouraged by 17th century Dutch landscape painting and exposure to Italianate landscape painting as part of the Grand Tour classical education. Claude Lorraine’s paintings ‘particularly haunted the British imagination, their sun drenched views of Italy echoing the tourists’ nostalgic memories of their youthful travels.’ (V&A,2016) 

English landscape watercolour grew from the need for topographical information, military maps & surveys & landowners surveys eg  Paul & Thomas Sandby

During the industrial era, nostalgia for fresh air and simple country ways provided the impustus. 18th century writer, William Gilpin , published ‘Tours’ of Britain, in 1782, which he codified what he defined as the ‘Picturesque’ in British landscape, ie those elements of a landscape which could form an appropriate landscape painting.

The watercolours of the 18th century are more like lightly washed tinted drawings on paper. I noticed (through a quick google image search) that they are often incredibly detailed and accurate looking and not at all like the wishywashy watercolour that i remember from A-level art 20years ago.

A Country House and Park, Thomas Malton II (1748-1804), 1779, watercolour. Museum no. P.8-1951, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


I decided to have a go at painting st pauls in my lunch hour in the 18th century style. The result speaks for itself, I think i’d be thrown out of 18thC art school for inaccuracy!

On reflection I can see a few things that would have helped me get a better result (short of extra talent or training in watercolours, one of the reasons for doing a photography degree).

I was using the wrong paper. I used my normal sketchpad, not the lovely, thick, textured almost card paper of a watercolour pad. Consequently when the paper got a bit wet towards the end it started to curl. Not helped at all by the wind which had picked up during my time painting which seemed to whip in under my brush and curl the paper. Also, I was cold and short on time. Had I had more time (45mins lunchbreak) I may have attempted more of an undersketch in pencil to better define the structure of the buildings details and perhaps been able to add more details to the painting bits. I was sitting on the low wall outside St Pauls so my bottom and hands had completely frozen by the time I left so I’m not sure more time available would have helped, maybe waiting until the summer! I found that if I painted one bit I had to work on another bit to wait for it to dry before I could continue with other details, so I guess the wind did help a bit there. I could have also had more than one brush with me (in fact I did have another but I only used one). The English weather turns so quickly, it was nice and sunny when I sat down and did the sky but quite overcast when I did the building so all the deep shadows had lessened. I think my picture looks a bit washed out. Perhaps with some ink rework over the top it could be salvaged. Perhaps not so bad for a first try though.


V&A. (2016) British Watercolours 1750-1900: The Landscape Genre At: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/b/british-watercolours-landscape-genre/
(Accessed on 25 Apr 17)

Victoria and Albert Museum. (2016) British Watercolours 1750–1900 At: http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/b/british-watercolours-1750-1900/
(Accessed on 25 Apr 17)


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