the old masters

through books, museums and web sites, i gradually learned about watercolor painters from the past and the present scene.

these provided essential encouragement and images for emulation. unfortunately watercolors are displayed infrequently (curators fear they deteriorate under constant light), and art surveys or monographs tend to slight works on paper as incidental to an artist's "main" creations.

all that is changing, but i still found it quite difficult to get good reproductions of works by major watercolor painters. each artist encounter and exploration was a little story of its own.

david dewey had commended john marin, john sell cotman, charles demuth and joseph raffael.

charles leclair, another teacher i read fairly early in my explorations, had praised fairfield porter, carolyn brady, marin and charles burchfield. i knew little or nothing about these guys, and added them to my list of artists to investigate.

it was easy to find books about j.s. sargent (especially thanks to the touring exhibition in 1999), and i eagerly bought these as fast as i discovered them. he quickly became, and still is, one of my most admired watercolor painters.

a book on edward hopper watercolors, also an exhibit catalog, was released the same year. books on winslow homer were also easy to find.

claire conway at the ny metropolitan museum of art prepared a showing for me of homers and sargents when i was there on a business trip. she brought them on a metal cart into a small viewing room and placed them one at a time on a massive wooden slant board for me to inspect. this was an invaluable hour, because i was quickly able to identify the individual paints, paint mixtures and the sequence of brushstrokes — and from those could infer how the painting was made. sargent's technique was utterly dazzling.

i saw my first john marin at the whitney 20th century retrospective — the brooklyn bridge watercolor and three others. i saw others in galleries and a second whitney exhibit. the major catalog of marin's works was out of print, and cost me a lot of trouble (and $150) to acquire. with marin one doesn't think of technique so much as spontaneity ... an open window into his heart.

on other trips to new york i saw watercolors by david dewey, janet fish, carolyn brady, and the unexpected discovery of mary frank. i liked dewey's work, although it was limited to a hopper like run of new england houses.

reproductions of works by john cotman were very difficult to get a hold of. i finally found a book on the norwich school painters (at hacker art books on new york's 57th st.) containing five precious plates of cotman watercolors. later i found christopher finch's book on 19th century watercolors, which contained a handful more. hacker also had other gems, such as a rare book on english victorian watercolors. my understanding of the development of watercolors slowly began to cohere.

i picked up the exhibit catalog to wassily kandinsky works on paper at the royal academy of art in london, by way of a very long cab detour on my way to a flight out of heathrow airport. i pored over this while eating my last british meal in an airport cafe.

once i identified the definitive book on charles demuth i was able to order it through the used book service on amazon. this was another revelation, since most art history books do not show a representative sampling of his output. unfortunately the coverage of charles burchfield is also uneven, but i found myself increasingly fascinated with his works and dug up a reasonably comprehensive exhibit catalog from 1997.

a few superb contemporary artists are lucky enough to have their own monographs. joseph raffael has his own book from abbeville press (a company that seems to thrive on printing out of print books). i discovered books by and about lucy willis and trevor chamberlain, and by careful study of the reproductions managed to identify important elements of their painting technique. a recent massive survey of francesco clemente contains many interesting watercolors.

and so it went ... each artist a discovery, and each discovery a unique story. my only regret is that so many of these discoveries were solitary ones, and that i had been walking so far, and so long, with no companions.

only terry lukens had been following my progress, not always understanding, but never flagging in her support.

these artists opened my eyes to the technical possibilities of the medium and the expressive possibilities of painting. i continue to study and learn from them, gradually assimilating them into a wider experience of art that ranges from titian and velázquez to cotman, corot and cézanne.

of all these, burchfield, marin and sargent are the painters who still fascinate me: burchfield for his brilliant synesthesic codes, marin for his boundless romantic ardor and modernist radiance, and sargent for his deep human feeling and unrivalled watercolor technique.

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