By John Toft
John Yardley is one of the world’s best known living watercolourists. His work was first featured in Ron Ranson’s 1989 book Watercolour Impressionists then again in 1990 in another book by Ranson, The Art of John Yardley. In 1996, Yardley produced his own book, John Yardley - a personal view
. Susanne Haines wrote yet another book on the artist in 2000 and then in 2009, Steve Hall published John Yardley – As I See It
. The latest book, John Yardley, an Artist’s Artist is the work of Zhou Tianya, Curator of the Shenzen International Watercolour Biennial Exhibition. In addition, APV films have produced four instructional DVDs featuring Yardley and his work: Sunlight in Watercolour, Venice in Watercolour, Variety in Watercolour and Watercolour Moments. Yardley’s watercolours are sold throughout the world including New Zealand, where they are sold by Jonathan Grant Galleries.
THE LONG ROAD TO AN ARTISTIC CAREER
Yardley was born in 1933 in Beverley, Yorkshire. At the beginning of the Second World War his family relocated to Berkshire and then in 1945 to Hastings on the Sussex coast. He drew from an early age and was highly regarded by his art teachers at school until his last term when a new, ‘modern’ art teacher arrived and totally ignored him.
On leaving school in 1948 Yardley went to work in a bank where he remained, reluctantly, for nearly 40 years until he left in 1986 to become a full-time painter. Leaving the bank, he said, was the second happiest day of his life. The happiest was the day he married his wife Brenda, whom he had met at work. In those days the bank’s policy was that married couples could not work at the same branch so Yardley was transferred from Reigate to Piccadilly. The Royal Academy, the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour and dozens of private galleries were situated nearby so Yardley was able to spend his lunch hours visiting galleries and viewing the work of top artists. It was here he discovered the paintings of the two watercolourists he regards as his major inspirations, Edward Seago and Edward Wesson.
As luck would have it, the mother of one of Yardley’s colleagues worked with Wesson and arranged for Yardley to visit him at his studio. After viewing Wesson’s portfolio, Yardley purchased one of his paintings and was inspired to go home to tackle his first half-sheet watercolour. He became something of a Wesson disciple - his paintings of this era were very much influenced by Wesson’s style in the same way as Wesson’s paintings had been strongly influenced by the style of Edward Seago. However, Yardley was to develop a style and vision of his own.
Wesson mainly painted pure landscapes; Yardley extended his range of subjects to include interiors, cafes and restaurants, street scenes, seaside scenes, townscapes, and scenes of rural life. His other major inspiration, Edward Seago, was a master of incorporating figures into his paintings, depicting posture, body language, and even racial characteristics with a few skilful strokes of the brush. But Seago’s figures generally play a supporting role in his paintings whereas in many of Yardley’s watercolours the figures are the centre of interest, the rest of the scene playing a supporting role.
During the nearly forty years that he worked for the bank, Yardleypainted in the evenings and at weekends. He first submitted work to the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour in 1960 and in the 1970s began demonstrating at local art societies. He held his first one-man show in 1980. In 1983 his long time mentor Edward Wesson died. Wesson’s widow Dickie suggested that Yardley would be an ideal replacement at Phillips House in Wiltshire where Wesson had regularly tutored. During a visit to the Wesson household, the owners of the Alexander Gallery in Bristol who handled the majority of Wesson’s work happened to see two of Yardley’s watercolours.
This resulted in the gallery taking a considerable quantity of his paintings, which sold readily. Convinced that he could make a living from the sale of his paintings, in 1986 at the age of 53 he left the bank to become a full-time painter. Yardley has gone on to become one of Britain’s - and indeed the world’s - best known watercolour artists.
MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES
Yardley executes most of his painting using a single brush, the very expensive No. 12 Winsor & Newton Series 7 sable. ‘Their waterholding qualities are quite unlike any other brushes and, when fairly new, make a needle-like point. Broad washes and detail can therefore be done without changing brushes – essential with a medium where
speed is important,’ he says. More recently, however, he has endorsed a signature series of Escoda sable brushes.
His basic palette consists of French Ultramarine, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Lemon, Cobalt Blue, Prussian Blue, Raw Sienna, Burnt Umber, Warm Sepia, Light Red and Cadmium Red. What he calls his ‘exotics’- Indian Red, Winsor Green, Winsor Violet, Magenta, Alizarin Crimson, Black, Permanent Rose and Orange – he uses for colour accents. White gouache is used either on its own or mixed with other colours for light accents against dark backgrounds.
For many years, like his mentor Edward Wesson, he painted on Bockingford but now prefers Arches 300 gsm rough which he generally stretches first.
We can watch Yardley in action in four DVDs produced by APV Films: Sunlight in Watercolour, Watercolour in Venice, Variety in Watercolour and Watercolour Moments. His method of painting is somewhat different from the accepted way of tackling a watercolour. He doesn’t work in any particular order but paints one part of the painting and then jumps to another, often at random, fitting the parts together rather like a mosaic or the pieces of a jigsaw. He avoids broad washes and painting wet-in-wet: ‘I rarely like dropping wet into wet because everything seems to fade and disappear when I do that, but I’m all for painting wet against wet.’ He always likes, he says, to fuse colour together by painting passages of colour that fuse at the edges. Nor does he paint from light to dark and he often paints the sky last. ‘I like to paint as the spirit moves me,’ he says, ‘sometimes without any rational thought... I never know how they’re going to turn out. In fact I’m often asked do I have a preconceived idea of what’s going to happen and I don’t. I just don’t know. I paint in hopes nine times out of ten.’
Ron Ranson puts it well: ‘John’s thoughts and ideas about watercolour are a revealing guide to the way he paints. For instance, he feels that painting, like most other things, is a matter of confidence and that a quickly brushed-in stroke has far more impact than a slow, careful one. I’ve noticed so many times when watching him paint that once a decision is made, the stroke is made fast and decisively, then left alone. This is basically what gives his work that quality of freshness and spontaneity.’ And it is this quality of freshness and spontaneity that has made John Yardley one of the best-known watercolourists working today. That the most recent book on Yardley and his work, John Yardley, an Artist’s Artist was written by Zhou Tianya, Curator of the Shenzen International Watercolour Biennial Exhibition in China is testimony to how far his fame as a watercolour artist has spread.
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