Trevor Chamberlain (born 1934) was the son of a Hertfordshire painter and decorator. He began painting at age seven, and at 12 enrolled at the Ware Evening Institute in painting classes under Alfred Wright, who taught Chamberlain oil painting and fostered his love of painting outdoors. He also took architectural drawing classes in the offices of Eadred Lutyens, but essentially taught himself to paint. He worked as an architectural draughtsman in London (1949-1964, with a two year stint in the armed forces), then quit to pursue painting full time. He joined the Wapping Group of Artists in 1969 and the Royal Institute of Oil Painters in 1972. He made his first painting trip abroad (to Venice) in 1970, and subsequently painted on every continent except Australia. He spent the entire year of 1974 teaching himself how to paint in watercolors ("through sheer perseverance and much experimenting," and careful study of past watercolor artists), emulating in particular the "fluid, wet" style of Jack Merriott (1901-1968). He made his first extensive painting tour of England in 1977.

The most striking aspect of Chamberlain's style is his great economy of means. This is partly his adaptation to the demands of painting en plein air where the light or weather can change in a matter of minutes and the most important thing is to "seize the moment" rather than find the perfect vista. But it is also a traditionally English approach to watercolor that goes all the way back to Thomas Girtin. A very revealing and beautiful example is found in Naghshe-Rostam, Near Shiraz (1994, 35x54cm). Technically this is a painting made in three passes: the first is a pale yellow (raw sienna) wash that is carried over the entire page, leaving only a few white highlights along the edges or ledges of stone where reflected light is most intense, and adding hints of darker color at right on the bare rock face and at bottom under the ledge. (Chamberlain always quickly covers as much of the white paper as he can with the average or middle tone of the painting, as this makes subsequent layers of color easier to judge.) The second pass added complex shapes of darker color to define the shadows of the rock sculpture; these areas were modulated by added burnt sienna or ultramarine blue to push the color toward dull orange or gray. When these passages have dried, he added a final layer of a near black mixture (probably burnt sienna and ultramarine blue) to model the figures at lower right and the deep cracks in the rocks. Chamberlain's art is expressed in his choice of subject, which is strongly characterized by light; in his use of a restricted palette; in the precise but brief indications of his brushwork; and in the inclusion of telling details — the hems on the women's robes, lifted slightly by their walking, the slight lightening of tonal values from right to left, and the color variations within shadows such as the rump of the stone horse, which changes from white through a neutral gray to a dull orange to a brighter yellow. You can learn a great deal about the classic English watercolor by copying this painting.



Chamberlain's painting is motivated by a deep love of the outdoors and countryside, and an intense interest to "arrest time by capturing a beautiful moment." Many of his watercolors are small, often as small as a 7"x10" format, and have the compact quality of a lyric poem. Marsh Mist, Waterford (1996, 24x34cm) uses almost an identical palette to the Egyptian painting, turned now to express a picturesque morning in England. The design — a large tree in the middle distance, silhouetted by a central area of bright light, and a foreground stream that wends away over a flat expanse of land — echoes many outdoor paintings by J.M.W. Turner and, through him, the conventions of the poetic landscape. There are a few more wash layers used here, and the palette includes quinacridone violet to mix the pale purple haze of morning. By mixing the grays from burnt sienna and ultramarine blue, Chamberlain gets a grainy flocculation in the trees and water that turns the lack of detail into a convincing mist. The right side of the trees was laid down while the paper was still moist from the previous wash; the branches were added as the paper was drier and capable of holding crisp edges. The foreground is built from more layers to include the vague reflections in the water and the hints of plant stems and leaf clusters. The keys to this painting are the precise control of high key tonal values, which vary within a very limited range, the use of color temperature — from yellow to violet — to model areas in light or in shade, and a superb eye for the surface wetness of the paper, which allows Chamberlain to create outlines ranging from hazy to almost crisp.

Although he claims not to be a topographical painter, many of Chamberlain's works are based on scenes around Britain, Europe and the Middle East. He also uses a rather traditional palette that relies more on dull earth (iron oxide) pigments and viridian than on brighter cadmiums, quinacridones and phthalo blues or greens. And he is an avid marine painter, producing many fine views of the English coast and seaports. Falmouth, Dry Dock (1992, 33x24cm) shows how Chamberlain resists precise details even in an extremely complex subject and larger format, yet is able to convey the cluttered dock and deck of the ship in a completely convincing way. The small touches of incident — the gangplank and mooring ropes, the upraised steelwork of the cranes, the work being done at the bottom of the prow — are all contrived to be seen out of the corner of the eye, and make the picture compelling as a whole; looked at directly, these details dissolve into insufficient smudges. Everything is controlled by the forward thrust of the ship and edge of the dock, which create a strong and unifying sense of linear perspective. A muted cadmium orange is used to define the waterline paint, set off nicely by the bold black arch of the prow and the background complementary color of ultramarine blue mixed with viridian. But this painting would achieve most of its effect if the ship were left unpainted, because the negative spaces of shadows and background, varied to represent the contours of the hull, receding dock and far sky, create the painting's value structure and feeling of depth. From the smallest to the largest elements in the painting, Chamberlain displays an uncanny knowledge of visual essentials — not an understanding of how the brush can symbolize things (the little tricks that hack painters repeat over and over), but an understanding of how the eye grasps things.

In an age when the simple beauties of this craft are disparaged by the high circles of manufactured art and glitzy biennials, it's worth repeating the keys to Chamberlain's accomplishments: he knows how to work with limited means and quick technique to capture a moment of light and atmosphere in a visual conception that solves, outdoors and in the moment, unique problems of observation, composition and execution. You either see the unique culture and high aspirations in that approach to painting, or you don't.

There is a fine collection of recent watercolors in Trevor Chamberlain: Painting the Light by Trevor Chamberlain and Angela Gair (David & Charles, 1999).