A Century of British Painters

By Samuel Redgrave; Richard Redgrave | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XII
PAINTERS IN WATER-COLOURS

THE great artists who contributed to the foundation of the Royal Academy, and by their talents and reputation had set it fairly afloat in public opinion, had hardly passed from the scene of their labours when a new art, or what may well be called such, began to rise into importance. The art of painting in water-colours is so peculiarly English, that it may be designated as a national art; and growing up from this time side by side with oil painting, it has singularly influenced that branch of art, which has, in its turn, beneficially reacted upon it.

Although water-colour painting had been practised, both in this country and abroad, long previous to oil painting, and was thus the older art, and had, by our great miniaturists of the age of the Tudors and the Stuarts, been carried to the highest degree of perfection, it was, as in its original use, practised differently from the art of our own times. It was indeed but a species of tempera-painting, wherein the ground was obscured and hidden, and the colours used opaquely as in the ancient missal-paintings.

But though the miniaturists and 'painters in little' began with using opaque colours, their practice gradually changed to the use of transparent pigments, and the preservation of the white ground on which they painted. At first such works were wrought on vellum or thin card-board, and we have no precise date when sheets of ivory were substituted, probably about the middle of the seventeenth century. A pocket-book, said to have belonged to Samuel Cooper, whom writers of his own time call 'the prince of limners', has come down to us, containing fifteen portraits in various stages of completion. These portraits are all on card, some being left as at the first sitting, whilst one or two are completely finished. The following seems to have been the process of painting, and whether the work of Cooper, or, as is more probable, that of Thomas Flatman, gives us an insight into the mode of painting at that period. The outline was suggestively sketched, and then the smooth surface of the card, under the flesh, was covered with a thin wash of opaque white, which, as he used it, must have been an excellent pigment as it has not changed in any instance. Then with a brownish lake tint the features have been most delicately and beautifully drawn in, and the broad shades

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