Speech at the Youth Center of Saint Petersburg Hermitage, 2009
A Bit of History
Watercolor as a painting technique is almost 2000 years old. It is much older than oil painting, and over the course of its life, watercolor has experienced very different attitudes toward itself.
Originated by the invention of paper in China, it gradually penetrated into Europe, where for a long time it was considered not deserving special attention "auxiliary" area of painting. Watercolors of the Renaissance, which have more or less independent significance, are extremely rare. The graphics collection of Albertina in Vienna features watercolor masterpieces by Albrecht Durer, his landscapes "The Hare" and “The Great Piece of Turf." However, this is rather an exception; usually watercolor was employed to color drawings, sketches or architectural drafts. In particular, in the Rococo era watercolor was used mainly to make sketches of paintings or large-format murals, for instance, sketches of Tiepolo murals in the Residence of the Prince-Bishops in Würzburg, Germany. Watercolor takes a special place in the work of English artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. For them, watercolors were not just sketches of the future paintings but independent pieces of art (William Turner, William Blake). In the 19th century, watercolor appealed also to such significant artists of other countries as Eugene Delacroix, Alexander Ivanov, Honore Daumier. However, the real heyday of watercolor was at the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th centuries. Ilya Repin, Vasily Surikov, Mikhail Vrubel, Valentin Serov, post-impressionists Paul Cezanne, Paul Signac, Henri Matisse, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Konstantin Somov, expressionists August Make, Egon Schiele and Emil Nolde - most of them worked in watercolor technique along with oil or tempera on a par (reproductions are enclosed). Of the more recent watercolor artists, I would like to name the remarkable masters of the Soviet period Vladimir Lebedev, Nikolai Tyrsu, Arthur Fonvizin, and animal artists Vasily Vatagin and Yevgeny Charushin.
On the technique
Watercolor is quite a diverse technique; using it in different ways one can achieve the most opposite effects. It can be soft and fuzzy, like velvet (for example, on wet Japanese watercolors; the same is true for ink by the way). It can be ringing and bright alla prima (Emil Nolde), as well as angular, resembling a mosaic (watercolors on dry paper like Vrubel’s or Cezanne’s). It can also be rich with subtle conversions, as in the works of the "miriskusniks" (i.e., members of the Russian“World of Art” movement). During the practical part of our classes, we will get acquainted with some ways of working with watercolor.
In comparison with other pictorial techniques, features of classical watercolor are the absence of white paint and the acceptance of unpainted paper as the lightest tone. Lacquers (transparent layers applied over the dry previous paint layer) can darken or modify the original tone; however, it is much more difficult to brighten it. Therefore, this technique, which is almost always used by beginning artists as the first, is by no means easy, quite the contrary. But it requires rigorous analysis from the artist: what tone will be taken, cold or warm, light or dark. In oil, one can correct a lot and even cover up flaws and mistakes. In watercolors, this is not so straightforward; thus, it cultivates the artist's concentration on the main goal.
For more than 40 years I have been working mainly with watercolor, being faithful to my favorite watercolor sets "Leningrad" (now "St. Petersburg"), despite the presence of quite high-quality German paints "Shminke" and English "Winsor and Newton", which I occasionally add to my palette.
A Personal Note
In my artistic biography, a special place belongs to the remarkable artist Varvara Bubnova, a representative of the Russian avant-garde of the early twentieth century, who left for Japan in the 1920s and lived there for 30 years. Returning to Russia in the 1950s as an aged woman, she could not adapted to sharp change of the climate, and settled in Sukhumi, similar to Japan in terms of climatic conditions (rather than in Moscow or Petersburg (Leningrad)). There she lived with her sister, a violinist, to a very old age. Her works, which were bold and uncharacteristically innovative for her age, traveled the whole country as a part of the so-called "traveling exhibition". I saw them in the early 1960s in Leningrad Branch of the Union of Artists, and then met with the artist in Sukhumi in 1965. I showed her my student watercolors, and eagerly listened to her remarks. Suddenly, she offered me to choose one of her three pictures for myself! That gift from her, a small work of the Japanese period "Man and the road", has always accompanied me. It hangs now in my room in Vienna. I visited Varvara Bubnova several more times; I saw her just before I left Russia in 1977.
Most striking in her watercolors and woodcuts is the combination of the minimalism, acquired by her in Japan, with the expressiveness of post-impressionists and expressionists. Truly, she combined East and West and worked until old age. Since she didn’t have machine for printing woodcuts, she mostly focused on watercolors. Her works were so bold and fresh, that it was hard to believe that their creator was of more than 90 years old!
About the watercolor series «Eternity»
The series is a set of watercolors on paper, sometimes in combination with graphite or colored pencils. The theme of eternity is not always revealed with grave seriousness, and I hope that in my approach to it the viewer will also see some comic aspects of the transition to another world.
On the basis of the watercolors, I made a folder consisting of 10 motifs in the pigment printing technique on watercolor paper. Each graphic sheet is accompanied by a textual one. The latter has a historical reference related to the motive of the image, and a poetic quote. Various sources are quoted, such as Hölderlin, Raine Maria Rilke, Old Testament, Heinrich Heine, Ancient Egyptian sayings, and so on.
For me, the special charm lies in contrasting watercolor, the lightest of the painting techniques, with images of heavy monuments of antiquity, granite colossi or medieval frozen gravestones.
In addition to motifs from the folder, I show at the exhibition 3 watercolors of the same series that are not included in the folder.