At Tate Britain

Peter Campbell

I don’t remember when I was first irritated by that children’s rhyme, which is wrong twice over. Oil painting may well be hard but in some ways it’s easier than painting in watercolour, and watercolours are often more beautiful. However, the prejudice the rhyme encapsulates does arise from real differences. A typical oil painting is an object, a substantial piece of work displayed on a wall. Its colour is strong, the paint may be thick, may even stand proud of the picture surface. A watercolour remains firmly in its two dimensions, is often not intended for a wall and may be a topographic or scientific document. The colour is less strong and the paper it’s painted on plays a greater part in what you see than canvas does in an oil. Watercolour paints and paper are cheaper, and more portable. Historically, it has been a medium for amateurs, women, children and travellers, for miniature painters and manuscript illustration, for preliminary sketches and notes, or for the precise delineation of plants, buildings, landscapes and animals. When watercolour painters, who were at various times excluded from Royal Academy exhibitions, wished to establish their art as an alternative to oil painting – one of equal (if distinct) aesthetic merit – they were caught in a bind. The more heavily or intensely worked, the more like oil paintings their pictures became, and the greater the possibility that the fresh truth of passing effects, which was the medium’s strength, would be lost. That quality had been developed in England to a high degree.

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