Trevor Chamberlain on Watercolour

By John Toft

‘Painting is all about loving something’, writes Trevor Chamberlain, ‘a place, an atmosphere, a mood. That first vital impulse to paint, what Bonnard called ‘the first seduction’, is the most important thing. For me, the first seduction is always light and atmosphere – in fact it is almost an obsession.’

The title of his book, Trevor Chamberlain: a Personal View, Light and Atmosphere in Watercolour, reflects this obsession. It’s not a howto book - you won’t find photos showing step-by-step how he goes about a painting. What Chamberlain does do, however, is pass on the important insights about watercolour that he has gained in fifty-odd years of painting.

He wasn’t born a master of the medium. Chamberlain blushingly reproduces his first attempt at watercolour, painted when he was twelve, which he kept for sentimental reasons. ‘As you can see’, he remarks, ‘I had a lot to learn at that stage about painting light!’ He found oils easier to master and they gradually took over. Though he wasn’t painting in watercolour, he retained a love and appreciation of the medium. His watercolour heroes were Jack Merriott (1901-1968) and George Ayling (1887-1960): ‘They were both traditional watercolourists and used the medium in a very fluid, wet way – something I would have wished to achieve in my own watercolour paintings.’

In his thirties, Chamberlain was able to give up his job as an architectural draughtsman and realise his dream of making a living as a painter, but it was not until he was in his early forties that he finally made the decision to get to grips with painting in watercolour. More than any other medium, he says, watercolour requires practice and dedication - you must really work at it. It took him about a year, in which virtually every painting he attempted was a watercolour, to complete his apprenticeship. During this time, he studied and analysed the works of his favourite watercolourists, something he urges any serious student of painting to do.

In a chapter on methods and materials, Chamberlain describes his method of painting as follows: ‘I am primarily a plein-air painter in both oils and watercolour, and my style of handling watercolour is loose and fluid, using what the late Jack Merriott called the ‘controlled wash’ method. Broadly speaking, this involves establishing the overall tonality and atmosphere of a scene before working up to the details. Much of the picture is completed in a single wash, with the addition of only one or two additional washes to define forms such as trees and buildings. The result is an appearance of cleanliness, translucency and spontaneity. Merriott was a master of this technique and I find it entirely suitable for my purposes in creating atmospheric, predominantly softedged paintings’.

He emphasises that the artist’s personal vision is more important than technique: ‘In the end, no amount of equipment or methodology can turn you into an artist. Preoccupation with techniques and materials is really only a protection against inability to see. There is no substitute for actually painting and gaining experience of using watercolour. That and finding your own way and discovering your own signature so that you don’t end up emulating somebody else. Whilst other painters may be admired, and even inspire you, you must discover your own way of working’.

The book also has chapters on painting the subjects that inspire him: landscapes, marine and coastal scenes, townscapes, figures and indoor subjects. Each chapter is lavishly illustrated with examples of Chamberlain’s work. Many of these have extensive captions giving the story behind the painting: what attracted him to the subject, the effect he was trying to capture, discussion of the composition and how the
painting was executed. There’s a lot to be learned from reading the captions as well as from a close study of the paintings. Chamberlain is a confirmed plein air painter: ‘For me, convincing landscape paintings can only be achieved by working directly from nature on site. Painting isn’t just about recording a scene, it’s also about
expressing one’s emotional response to the subject and conveying something of that emotion to the viewer. To do that with conviction we need to be there, experiencing the subject at first hand.’ He confesses that after fifty-odd years as a painter it still takes great courage for him to paint or draw in a public place and he continues to find dealing with inquisitive onlookers a trial. The majority of the paintings he produces on location are small - 7 x 10 inches is a favourite size.

Light and Atmosphere in Watercolour is not a how-to book. Rather, Chamberlain, one of the modern-day masters of the medium, talks about his life as an artist and his approach to watercolour painting in an interesting and highly informative manner. As the sub-title indicates, it’s a personal view, and this strong personal element is what makes the book so engaging. It’s one of my favourite books on watercolour.



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