In the second book of my "Circle of Sin"
trilogy, the hero's passion is something that is near and dear
to my heart. Jack is a distinguished military man—and he's
also an accomplished watercolor artist. So he, like the ladiesin
my series, is a contrast of hard and soft edges.
My background is art, and having dabbled in watercolor color painting,
I was especially excited about exploring its history during the
Regency era. So twirl your sable brushes to fine point, add a
wash of pigment to your cold pressed paper and let's sketch in
a quick outline of the early nineteenth century art scene in Great
The country has an incredibly rich heritage in watercolor painting,
and, as is true in so many other fields, the Regency was a time
of great energy and evolution as artists began to look at their
world in a whole new way. In previous centuries, watercolorists
were considered more as draftsmen than true artists, and often
worked with surveyors and mapmakers. Their work was considered
utilitarian, more a record of topographical information—how
a town or a countryside or cathedral looked—than a creative
That began to change as techniques loosened and became more expressive.
The traditional style was known as the "stained glass"
method, in which ink outlines were carefully colored in with washes
of pigment. But watercolors, as opposed to oil paints, are by
their very nature spontaneous. They dry very quickly, so an artist
must work fast. yet, they are also transparent, so one can build
color, change tones, add details, slowly building an organic image
of luminous beauty.
The change in attitude actually began in 1760 when watercolor
artists were first allowed to exhibit their painting in the annual
public art exhibitions. The Royal Academy, which was founded in
1768, also recognized the medium, but for the most part, its practitioners
were treated like second class citizens. So in 1804, a group of
artists banded together and made a bold move, establishing the
Society for Painters in Water-Colours. By proclaiming their own
special status and organizing their own exhibitions, they in effect
through down a gauntlet to the rest of the art world—and
won recognition with both their peers and the paying public.
The shows were, in the words of Great British Watercolors,
by Matthew Hargraves, "critical, popular and financial successes."
Indeed, William Marshall Craig gave a series of lectures at the
Royal Institution in London in which he categorically claimed
that watercolors were far superior to oil painting. The debate
was a heated one throughout the first few decades, with noted
periodicals such as Rudolph Ackermann's monthly Repository of
Arts featuring a series of essays on the subject in 1812. Of course
no consensus was reached—the important point was that watercolorists
had succeeded in establishing themselves as a serious players
in the art world.
You may all recognize the name of J.M.W. Turner, who is perhaps
the most famous watercolorist of his era. His innovative, impressionist
style—which still appears incredible modern—helped
revolutionize painting as a whole, but there were also equally
talented artists who are less well-known, especially to an American
audience. Here are just a few of the notable names:
Alexander Cozens (who was really a Georgian, but I'm taking artistic
license) taught for years at Eton. In addition to producing hauntingly
beautiful works of his own, rendered in an austere, monochromatic
palette, he shaped the artistic tastes a whole generation of English
aristocrats . Two of his pupils, Sir George Beaumont and William
Beckford, are recognized as two of the greatest collectors and
connoisseurs of their age.
Thomas Girtin trained with Turner at Munro's Academy and while
his work appears more traditional than that of Turner, his exploration
of texture, shadow and color established him as a leading practitioner
of the medium. Unfortunately an early death, at age 27, cut short
a brilliant career.
David Roberts became one of the leading "travel" artists,
a genre which appealed greatly to a Regency audience who were
in love with exotic places. His works were most of the East, which
seemed to have a special allure to his viewers.
While the majority of watercolorists were landscape artists, Thomas
Rowlandson was a luminary of the figurative art. A famous satirical
printmaker as well as a oainter, Rowlandson captured scenes of
daily life with a eye for every boisterous, bawdy detail.
I hope you have enjoyed this oh-so brief peek at the fabulously
rich and diverse world of British watercolors. My fictional hero
Jack (who is a mix of Girtin and Roberts) feels honored to stand—figuratively
speaking of course, alongside such impressive and imaginative
men. You can lean a little more about actual technique in the
scenes with his drawing master . . .that is, when he isn't distracted
Now, many of you have probably dabbled in “watercolors.”
But the stuff of grade school art class is a far cry from the
“real” thing. So here is a quick primer on the materials
and techniques that Regency artists used to create their richly
As opposed to oil paints, watercolors are transparent, and an
artist builds color, texture, depth and shadow by layering washes
of pigment. (There are opaque watercolors, which are made of pigments
mixed with white zinc oxide—these are called “bodycolor”
by the English, but are more commonly known by the French name
of “gouache.” However, that’s another subject!)
Transparent watercolor “paint” is made up of finely
ground mineral or organic particles, bound together with two main
additives: gum arabic, which helps adhere the pigment to the paper,
and oxgall, a wetting agent which helps disperse the pigment in
an even wash. In Regency times, the pigments were formed into
solid square, or cakes, which would be carried in a wooden paint
case (Tubes of viscous paints were invented by Windsor and Newton
An artist would dip his brush in water, then dab it over the block
of pigment to dissolve the pigment. The amount of water used determines
the intensity of the color. Most artists start with very light
washes to lay in the basic elements of their composition, then
build depth and details. There are a vast array of pigments, and
their names are wonderfully evocative on their own—alizarin
crimson, yellow ochre, Vandyke brown, cerulean blue, to name but
If you look closely at a watercolor painting, you may see a faint
tracing of lines beneath the color. Many artists used graphite
pencils to make a preliminary sketch of their subject. Charcoal
(the solid carbon residue from charred twigs heated in an airtight
chamber) or black chalk (carbon mixed with clay and gum binders)
were also used. They produced a softer, but usually darker line.
For some artists, these line sketches were deliberately strong
and were used as an integral part of the finished painting.
Paper is an important component of a watercolor painting because
its texture affects the look of the washes. James Whatman created
“wove” paper in the 1750s, which quickly became popular
with artists. Wove paper uses a fine wire mesh screen as a mold,
making a finer surface than the earlier “laid” papers.
This allowed a more uniform wash. (Whatman is still a very highly
regarded brand today.) The paper made by Thomas Creswick, which
offered a rich assortment of textures, was also popular. Another
favorite was “scotch” paper, made from bleached linen
sailcloth. It had a more rustic feel, and featured imperfections
such specks of organic matter that some artists felt added interest
to their paintings.
Brushes are made from a variety of furs. During the Regency, squirrel
was favored for soft, wide brushes designed to lay in broad washes.
But the very best ones were made of asiatic marten—or Russian
sable—as they held their shape very well and could be twirled
to a very fine point in order to paint in detail.
I hope this quick sketch adds to your enjoyment,
next time you are viewing a watercolor in a msueum or gallery—and
I hope you enjoy reading all about Jack's talent for painting
in To Surrender To A Rogue.