Learn the pictoral secrets of an amazing painting by the great artist Peter de Wint
Peter De Wint (1784 – 1849) was one of the greatest water-colourists of what might be called the golden age of British watercolour painting during the first half of the 19th century. He was part of the group of artists patronised by Dr Monro which also included J M W Turner, John Sell Cotman and Thomas Girtin. I have made a fairly accurate painted copy of one of his beautiful watercolour landscapes of Lancaster. It is a remarkably accomplished composition and really illustrates what a skilful painter he was. This painting has just about everything a landscape can have.
To understand what De Wint has done in this painting it is important to try to imagine what view he would have actually seen as he sat and drew or painted it. The scene would have been much more cluttered, grass in the foreground, pebbles on the road, stone work on the walls, windows, roof tiles, people , foliage on the trees, There would have been a multiplicity of detail which will have changed as the sunlight shifted and lit different things, and people moved about. He has distilled all this information into a sublime view of this historic town with its distant castle, on a warm summers evening 200 years ago.
Here is a modern day image to give an idea:
There are four main focal points. You travel down the road past the first which is the house in the foreground (1), along past the second, the buildings to the right of centre (2) and then your eye is drawn up to the main focal point of the castle in the distance (3). The evening light catches the west wall. Lastly you have the summit of the distant hill (4). Pretty much everything else is underplayed.
There is much more of a sense of depth and space in the watercolour than the photo. In fact there are eight distinct levels of distance from you the viewer. Firstly the sunlit foreground where the road starts (1). Next the area of shade in front of the house where the figure on the horse stand (2). Next the foreground house (3) followed by the more detailed houses to the right(4). Then you have the misty area before the castle (5), the castle itself (6), the fields behind the castle (7) and lastly the sky (8).
In the foreground the sharp gable end lines of the brown roof bring the first house forward in space. He has almost completely ignored any detail in this house lest it distract you from the detail of the castle. That is what he wants you to look at. It is in sharp in focus.
The blue mist of the area of barely suggested houses and trees in between is very important as it suggests great distance between the house and the castle. There is also an area of mysterious shadow at the bottom of the hill before you rise up towards the castle, which again suggests space.
In the far distance the light hits a distant field, another world beyond the castle. Whether he could see the Lake District across Morecambe Bay on the day he sketched the scene, he certainly didn’t put it in.
Artistic devices: Creative Repetition
In the areas which are underplayed i.e the areas away from the detailed focal points which the viewer does not consciously look at, De Wint has been very clever in using what might be called artistic devices to help strengthen the picture.
He will have known that in painting, repetition of any element in a believable way gives the painting unity. He has therefore very cleverly repeated the shape of the dark shadow in front of the foremost house (1) as a bank of trees in front of the castle (2), slightly smaller and lighter to accentuate the distance between them, and then again even lighter and bluer on the distant hill at the right (3). How bold! and one’s eye can easily travel through the quiet areas of the painting between them.
De Wint also disperses other similar shapes and colours throughout the painting to give the picture a sense of unity, yet there is enough variation to maintain interest. While doing this he keeps a preponderance of darker or warmer colours at the front and lighter and bluer colours at the back to maintain the illusion of space. This painting has very clever juxtaposition of harmony and contrast.
Just as in life a perfect painting must have interest as well as harmony.
Artistic Devices: The Sky
Any artist who has painted outdoors in England knows the weather is quite changeable. So the clouds tend to move around throughout the day, constantly transforming the appearance of the sky. Sometimes certain aspects of the sky will fit your painting and other times not. A clever painter will soon learn to use the variations that naturally occur in the sky to his advantage. Peter de Wint has done just that in this painting. He has specifically laid a light blue grey wash to the left of the castle (1) to accentuate the light hitting it, a casual viewer might not notice it but that’s why it’s there, then, he has had to balance that on the other side of the painting with a similar wash (2). He has then repeated the effect behind the hill with a slightly bluer wash (3) that accentuates the light on the distant yellow hill.
Lastly as your eye travels upward in a curve along the two lines of aforementioned shaded cloud towards the top corners of the picture he has put two breaks in the cloud towards the top centre (4,5), One is strong and one is very muted, if they were both the same it would be too obvious. These lead the viewer’s eye easily following its curved trajectory back in towards the meat of the picture.
It occurs to me that the brown circular tree behind the roof of the foreground house was put in to soften the hard line of the roof which would otherwise have been too strong, but it is impossible to know for sure. The suggestions of figures look like they were painted at the end; a final touch to add even more life to what is already a lively and masterful piece of painting.
Painting has changed since De Wint’s time but we can still learn from him. Few painters nowadays have his skill and it is important for contemporary painters to study the works of masters. For my own part I copied this painting for this purpose, and I try to integrate what I have learnt from him into my own work.