One Really Big Fire; A Lifetime Passion!

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, from the River 1834 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851.jpg

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, from the River                                                                       Joseph Mallord William Turner, watercolor on paper, 1834

Sometimes I forget how much I enjoy looking at the watercolors and watercolor sketches of Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Ely Cathedral, The Western Tower Seen from the South East, Joseph Mallord William Turner,1794.jpg

And what I love about his work is the process and progress of his painting over the span of his decades as an artist; the nearly radical simplification and experimentation that he undertook that seems to have been a passion.  I’m especially drawn to his sketches using watercolor and other media on paper; it is those that I want to share with you here.

William Turner Drawings.jpg


At the beginning of his career, Turner made meticulous drawings, usually with graphite, and laid in multiple layers of transparent or translucent color to create images portraying not only light and dark values but evocations of depth, mass, and texture. As you can see to the right, his early color choices were typical of the English School of the time. Turner used a cool transparent blue and an earthy orange that would produce a natural grey tone when overlaid on each other. Only at the end would he add just a few touches of more vibrant color.

Below, in this next apparently unfinished piece that he painted in Oxford, you can see just how these opposing tones create a grey.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Oxf, St Mary's and the Radcliffe Camera from Oriel Lane.jpg

It was a tone Turner used as the basis for much of the image’s structure. This is not far off the method used by earlier artists … from Jan van Eyck to Holbein … a grisaille underpainting with layers of ever stronger clear color glazing and a touch or two of possible semi-opaque or opaque color at the very end.

As Turner matured, we can see that he became surer and surer of using more direct modulation of color. He still often began the sketches with graphite line work, but even those marks, as well as much of the subsequent brushwork, became less and less purely definitive of physical detail; ever freer and more expressive of visual and emotional experience.

Artwork page for ‘Heidelberg Castle from the Hirschgasse’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1844.jpg

Above we have again have an unfinished piece. Notice how both lines and color marks, while very much related to the things, the physical phenomenons, that they record, these marks a not as physically precise. Instead they are more spare and simple, leaving more room for the artist and eventually the viewer to complete the intent of the image.
‘Shields Lighthouse’, Joseph Mallord William Turner, c.1823-6.jpg

We can see in this late (1823) sketch of a coastline with a lighthouse, the now bolder, even rougher use of brushwork.  And as his career continued he even achieves an a nearly incorporeal quality, images were composed only of the shaped wavelengths of light we call color.


I was recently reminded of all this when a recent article came across my desktop. That e-article highlighted five of my all time favorite artists (I admit to having at least a top 25, maybe more). Each of these is a painter who

turner, "Norham Castle, sunrise”.jpgworked on easel paintings as well as aqueous media on paper. The problem was that, while the it was well written and talked about the specific paintings of these five near heroes of mine, it only showed the works of four of them. The author wrote about Turner’s watercolor sketches of the burning Houses of Parliament, but omitted any example of those pieces. Ouch!



The Burning of the Houses of Parliament                                                                                                            J.M.W. Turner, watercolor, 1834

So, I guess this is my visual form of a rant of sorts; sharing the images they might have included in the e-article (the first and last images in this blog) … and a few more to boot.

Here’s hoping you enjoy them.


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4 Responses to “One Really Big Fire; A Lifetime Passion!”

  1. Kreela Says:

    You are so inspiring!

  2. mari french Says:

    Interesting post about one of my own favourite painters, John. His early work was brilliantly executed but his later, looser pieces were, in my opinion, far far ahead of his time in their expressive, abstract quality. Such an inspiration!

    • johnahancock Says:

      Yes! As young artist I adored his early work; the older I get the more and more I revel in the glorious expressiveness he committed to his sketches and small watercolors. Have a Happy Christmas.

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