Australian watercolours

Introduction | Essay | Conservation | Selected works | Checklist

image: Steve Cox	'Curtis dancing on E' 2003 watercolour and pencil on paper, The Rotary Collection of Australian Art Fund 2004 Collection of the National Gallery of AustraliaSteve Cox Curtis dancing on E 2003 watercolour and pencil on paper, The Rotary Collection of Australian Art Fund 2004 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
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What a splendid thing watercolour is to express atmosphere and distance,
so that the figure is surrounded by air and can breathe in it.

Vincent van Gogh

Moist is a rare glimpse into the National Gallery of Australia’s collection of Australian watercolours. It highlights the extraordinary breadth and depth of the collection, and is the first collection-based show to present the Gallery’s rich holdings of works in this popular medium. Moist is not a history of watercolour painting in Australia. Instead it focuses on the liquid nature of watercolour and how artists have experimented with the medium to create diverse representations of physical, emotional or atmospheric conditions. The selection of works ranges from the highly figurative to images of a purely abstract and emotional intensity that are experimental in approach to form and process. In this exhibition watercolour becomes a metaphor for the moistness of a breeze, the shimmer of sweat on an adolescent male brow, the erotic intensity of an unexpected liaison or the subtle dissolution of pigment and the blending of hues in water.

While watercolour, gouache and coloured inks are all water-based media the selection of works presented has been limited to those that principally employ watercolour, taking advantage of its intrinsic transparency and luminosity as a medium. Watercolour is rapid-drying and consists of finely ground pigments suspended in an aqueous binder – usually gum, glucose, glycerine and wetting agents – applied to paper. Gouache on the other hand is opaque, rendered so by the addition of white pigment. Watercolour may be applied in thin layers that allow the paper to show through in light tonal areas or in successive washes that create rich layers of colour in the manner of oil glazes. It may be applied wet-on-wet for a luscious atmospheric effect or wet-on-dry for more meticulous detail.

Charles Condor The coming of spring 1888 watercolour on paper Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Charles Condor The coming of spring 1888 watercolour on paper Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

Moist is informed by ancient Greek philosophies of the four elements (with water as the primary focus here) from which all matter is derived and from which the spiritual essence of life evolves. There is a physiological association too in the related principle of the four cardinal humours, and the duality of the ‘qualities’ of wet and dry. Every medium imposes its own principles and for watercolour it is immediacy. In mastering the medium the artist must deal with the chance confrontation of the brush touching the paper. There must be an acceptance too, of what unfolds. In his 1939 Norman Lindsay water colour book, Lindsay cautioned: ‘We find out methods by experiment and failure, and no one can lay down precise principles for a medium so fluid and accidental as watercolour. To this day I never sit down to a watercolour without enduring the suspense of an experiment designed to go wrong.’1

Barbara Campbell renders in watercolour the words that prompt her web-based performance 1001 nights cast documented at because ‘it suggests a temporal quality appropriate for the project’. She believes that ‘while there is an aspect you can’t control in watercolour, you need to reach a middle point where you control it as much as it controls you … ’She adds, ‘when I put the brush down the brush is a petal or a leaf … it’s quite Zen in that aspect.’2

In a similar context watercolour painting might also be likened to elements of Taoist philosophy, where one must be attuned to and accepting of the flows of chance and change in life. In Taoism, water represents this basic tenet because of its strength and mutability. Water always finds the easiest path, yet there is little else stronger.John Olsen, who holds closely the ideals of Taoism chose watercolour for his 1975 Lake Eyre series, painted after the lake had flooded for only the second time since colonisation: ‘The flooding of Lake Eyre provided the Taoist example for me. The lake is not there but is there.’3 In The Goyder channel approaching the void we observe from above, like voyeurs, as the massive Goyder Channel penetrates Lake Eyre. It is at this exact moment that a new fecund world explodes with all forms of flying, floating and crawling life.

David Hockney speaks of how: ‘With watercolour, you can’t cover up the marks. There’s the story of the construction of the picture, and then the picture might tell another story as well.’ David Jolly’s Interior Schweppes 1 2000 reflects these words. The beauty of Jolly’s delicate watercolours is in direct contrast to his subject matter – the ‘jungle of steel’ of the Schweppes factory. In their composition, colour and definition the watercolours mirror the idiosyncrasies of the photographic process from which they evolved. The sometimes blurry imagery is a further consequence of the sultry environment of the factory, where large amounts of water are used in the production process. In faithful detail Jolly focuses on the detail of machinery, the ‘visual sexuality of the glue machine’ and the patterns of the towel used to wipe down the glue from the machine. In the borders of these carefully composed works is evidence of Jolly’s painting process; it provides an intriguing embellishment to his subject.

image: JW Tristram born Australia 1872 died Australia 1938 Landscape 1921 Sydney watercolour on paper Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

JW Tristram [Landscape] 1921 Sydney, watercolour on paper, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

Artists working abstractly have often sought to manipulate the liquid nature of watercolour in their work. Artists such as Yvonne Audette, Gunter Christmann and Ian Friend, whose contemplative abstract compositions are included in Moist, evoke sublime and lingering memories. Friend’s Biting the air #8 2004, influenced by the poetry of English poet JH Prynne, is ‘concerned with gravity, balance and a sense of simultaneous interiority/exteriority’.4 Friend’s belief that Prynne’s work extended ‘the poetic’ to demonstrate how different types of language intersect, overlap and enmesh is recreated in the sensuous surface texture of his Biting the air series. In stark contrast to the organic background there are several white ovals, intersecting at the joins or edges of each sheet of the triptych. These pure elliptical forms signify points of clarity and suggest that this moment will continue outside the boundary of our visual experience.

The watercolour medium imparts a translucency ideal for the painting of atmospheric morning mists and glimmering moonrises in the real and imaginary landscapes of Conrad Martens, Hans Heysen, JW Tristram and Rosslynd Piggott. So, too, the dreamy watercolours of Charles Conder, Harold Herbert and James WR Linton make palpable their languid reflections of soft breezes on dappled waters. Piggott chose to work in watercolour  when the problems of stretching canvas became overwhelming. Typhoon 1997, painted while she was artist-in-residence in Kitamoto, Japan, is one of four watercolours that explore the nuances of substance and space.

The extraordinary still life watercolours of Neville Cayley and eX de Medici share an artist’s fascination for both the meticulous process of watercolour painting and the minutiae of life. Cayley’s large and superbly rendered Australian gamebirds 1888 was painted six years after his arrival in Australia and might be a promotional piece, intended to demonstrate to an Australian audience his appreciation of native bird life, as well as his competence as a watercolourist. The exquisite detail of the rendering belies the fact that this carefully arranged pile of birds was slaughtered for the sake of art. So too the wildlife documented in the colonial watercolours of the Sydney Bird Painter and Mickey of Ulladulla is touched with the poignancy of an idyllic, now vanished, past. Exotic specimens like Cayley’s gamebirds, they are resplendent against an empty backdrop.

eX de Medici consciously crams Blue (Bower/Bauer) 1998–2000 with her ‘big miniatures … to banish paper’s whiteness with a vainglorious flourish of interces’.5 This vision of excess was painted as if the artist was under the spell of natural history artist Ferdinand Bauer.6 Like a Bower bird eX de Medici collects blue ribbons, shards of a broken plate and all things blue to adorn her work; then channelling the ghastly lives of her convict forebears, she adds shackles and bullets. She combines ‘the methodical brushwork of natural history illustration with the loaded symbolism of vanitas still life painting [and] … exploits the cultural nuances of each approach – the development of natural history classification and drawing as an agent of colonisation and empire, and the association of still life with the vain acquisition of material goods’.7

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (Portrait of Jane Scott) (c.1843) watercolour on paper, Collection of the National Gallery of AustraliaThomas Griffiths Wainewright (Portrait of Jane Scott) (c.1843) watercolour on paper, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

The intimate portraits of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, Blamire Young, and Steve Cox are incredibly different in style, yet share a sensitivity to the physical and emotional condition of the sitter as well as to the process of watercolour painting. While Wainewright chose watercolour to create his tender and beautifully rendered portraits because it was the popular medium of the day for portraiture, contemporary artists like Steve Cox now experiment with watercolour for the intrinsic qualities of the medium. Cox’s large-format portrait Curtis dancing on E 2003 is painted from a photograph taken by Cox and later transferred onto paper in his studio with seemingly effortless fluency. It captures in liquid hues the succulent flesh tones of his subject and the sultry atmosphere of Curtis in a trance, luridly charged with eroticism and the sheer pleasure of the moment.

Portability is also a drawcard for watercolour painting. Paper, paintbrushes, a small tin of watercolour dry cakes or tubes and access to water is all that is required. Like many artists, Mary Cockburn Mercer’s watercolour paint box was her constant companion. The Gallery owns a small group of her watercolours which provide a glimpse of a peripatetic lifestyle in Europe and the Pacific during the 1920s and 1930s. Mercer’s Tahitian lily 1938 forms part of a visual diary. Mercer paints a seemingly fragile lily, its delicate white petals and overt stamens protruding from a sturdy stem. The lush tropical flower shimmers in the light from the open window and is drawn to the world outside, where the ocean stretches endlessly to the horizon.

Norman Lindsay, a remarkably gifted watercolourist, is perhaps best known for his luscious watercolours dominated by voluptuous and often fearsome women. Lindsay’s virtuosity with the watercolour technique is demonstrated by Unknown seas 1922, which he believed to be one of his best. Based on the story of Odysseus and the sirens, it is typical of Lindsay’s style and allegorical approach. Lindsay’s work sits with a diverse group of watercolours by Rah Fizelle, Russell Drysdale and John R Walker that celebrate the sensuality of the female form. Elsewhere couples deal with love, lust and indifference in the works of Gladys Gibbons, Albert Tucker and Laurence Hope. John Brack’s dancers whirl and spin in the humid heat of a dance room floor, while Dorrit Black and Francis Lymburner portray the more quiet and meditative moments.

Moist brings together ninety watercolours from the colonial period to the present and demonstrates the extraordinary richness of the Gallery’s collection. Some are well-known treasures from the collection. Others will be exhibited for the first time. Each has its own story, yet they are all linked by the intrinsic qualities and associations of this versatile medium, demonstrating that watercolour has never lost its challenge for Australian artists.

Anne McDonald
Curator Australian Prints and Drawings

1Lin Bloomfield, Norman Lindsay watercolours 1897–1969, Bungendore, New South Wales: Odana Editions, 2003. p.70. See also Norman Lindsay water colour book, Sydney: Springwood, 1939, for Lindsay’s essay on ‘The medium of watercolour’.
2Conversation with Barbara Campbell, 7 July 2005.
3John Olsen, My complete graphics 1957–1979. South Melbourne, Vic., Australian Galleries and Gryphon Books, 1980, p.96.
4Correspondence to the author from Ian Friend, 19 January 2005.
5Correspondence to the author from eX de Medici, September 2004.
6Ferdinand Bauer (1760–1820) was the artist chosen by Matthew Flinders for his 1801–03 voyage to Australia aboard the HMAS Investigator.
7Roger Leong: catalogue essay for eX de Medici @ MPRG, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, 10 April – 23 May 2004. Further details at