JMW Turner ... painter of light!

Barb Toland Featured Artist

We started last week with this quote from the English painter, JMW Turner, and today we're going to learn a little more about the man, and the artist who was referred to as the "painter of light."

Here's some basic facts about JMW Turner:

    • He was born in 1775, and lived well into his 60's - until his death in December 1851.
    • He lived in London all of his life. His father, William, was a barber & a wig maker, and very supportive of his son's artistic endeavors. He even displayed & sold his earlier works in his shop window.
    • A younger sister, Mary Ann, was born in September 1778 - but died in August 1783 at age 5.
    • His mother, perhaps as a result of losing her daughter at such an early age, was diagnosed as mentally ill in 1785. She lived out the rest of her life in various mental institutions until her death in 1804.
    • He began drawing at the age of 8. 
    • He became a member of the Royal Academy in 1789 when he was 14 years old - which is a pretty big deal considering there were only 40 total artists selected.
    • At this same time he also began learning under the topographical draughtsman Thomas Malson, whose specialty was views of London.  He later referred to Malton as "my real master".
    • He was primarily a landscape artist, and worked in both watercolour & oil. He was also quite enamored with doing architectural drawings & renderings, and seriously considered being an architect.
    • He became quite a wealthy man in his lifetime, and his business acumen was almost as extraordinary as his paintings!
    • He was quite a boisterous & robust man, and having been born & raised in Covent Garden, London, never lost his cockney accent.
    • He was extremely well-traveled, and spent a good part of every year visiting many different countries, from France to Switzerland to Italy & many others, gathering sketches & quick watercolour impressions. He'd then use these to create his more studied paintings back in his London studio.
    • He brought the art of watercolour painting to a whole new level, which up until the 19th century, was considered a sketching medium for pleasure among amateur hobbyists.


    Since I'm such a big fan of watercolour painting - that's the area of his work that we'll focus on today.

    Below is a watercolor painting he did in 1799 - yep at the ripe old age of 24! Amazing, huh? His ability to show the drama of light & a sense of vastness in a landscape painting is extraordinary.

    One of his great joys was to paint marine landscapes, especially storms at sea.

    It's been rumoured that to capture their true essence, he once had himself strapped to a ship's mast, and rode out a particularly vicious one for hours. Which does seem plausible, based on his ability to capture their ferocity in his paintings. 

    The sense of light in the watercolour painting of Stonehenge below is absolutely stunning.

    As a side note: He tends to use a good bit of blue-violets in his work, which are a favorite of mine. If you look at a colour wheel, you'll see that blue-violets are the complimentary of yellows & golds.

    Using this knowledge to his advantage, his golden-yellows were much more vivid & lively because of their proximity to the blue-violets. And when you're looking to emphasize light in a painting, this is quite a good way to go!

    This watercolour painting below is a recording of the burning of the Houses of Parliament in London, which he was an eyewitness to. A somewhat different color palette than he normally used in his work.

    I've read that in his extensive travels he scooped up many sheets of blue watermedia paper over which he painted with the more opaque medium of gouache. I don't know for sure, but it does look like this might be on some of that blue paper. If anyone can verify that in their reading excursions I would love to know for sure!

    He is known to have said, "If I could find anything blacker than black, I'd use it." As you can in this painting, he was also a big fan of black.

    This painting is so restful & peaceful compared to a storm at sea & a building on fire! And there's that beautiful light & blue-violet again...


    Probably my favorite of the watercolour paintings I have seen of Turner's is The Blue Rigi below. The Rigi is a mountain in the Alps of central Switzerland, which he visited the summer before he made this painting. (He actually did 3 Rigi paintings: Blue, Red & Dark.)

    The Blue Rigi below was done right before dawn when the sun barely begins to affect the cool darkness of night.

    Ahhh, that color & atmosphere - I mean seriously!!!!!!

    I wanted to touch base on a few of the many techniques he used with watercolour to get some of these atmospheric effects:
    • Scratched off paint with different instruments, and actually grew one of his thumbnails longer (referred to as his "eagle claw") to scratch paint off with as well. This was to get back to the white of the paper when highlights & additional light were needed.
    • Sponged & blotted out colors or highlights (he especially liked the absorbency of dried breadcrumbs)
    • Used papers heavily sized with gelatin, making it easier to lift color back out, and to increase color brilliancy
    • Mixed transparent watercolors with the more opaque white gouache to enhance the paint handling and intensity of color

    That being said, he was extremely secretive about how he achieved some of the effects that he did - like a good Italian grandma protects her sauce recipe lol.

    And this is one of the last watercolor paintings he ever did. The sense of atmosphere & light & vastness are absolutely sublime...

    And here's the homage to Turner that the Impressionist painters, Boudin, Cassat, Degas, Monet, Morisot, Pissaro, Renoir and Sisley penned in 1877...

    “A group of French painters, united by the same aesthetic tendencies, struggling for ten years against convention and routine to bring back art to the scrupulously exact observation of nature, applying themselves with passion to the rendering of reality of form in movement as well as the fugitive phenomena of light, cannot forget that they have been prceeded in this path by the great master of the English school, the illustrious Turner.”

    There you have it. The master painters of the Impressionist movement who came after Turner made his indelible stamp on the world of art, were inspired & influence immensely by his body of work - which was enormous by the way!

    So this was only a taste of the significance & lasting legacy JMW Turner left behind thru diligently working at his craft, taking significant risks in his work, and by absorbing & reflecting so much from his extensive travels & observations.

    Have an awesome weekend everyone!

    And as always, I would love to know your thoughts on this or any other creative matter you want to talk about.

    Leave your comment below, and let's chat art & creativity:)

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