Romance of the Falls – A Weekend with Turner

Postcard of The Falls of Clyde by JMW Turner
The original is described as Watercolour over pencil with some scrapings on two sheets of paper joined and laid down. 41.30 x 52.10 cm.

Joseph Maillard William Turner is described as the father of modern art. Every four years the Royal Scottish Academy of Art display a selection of Turner watercolours for about a month in a dimly lit room. Amongst the collection is a watercolour of The Falls of Clyde. I decided to approach the Academy to have a postcard made for an exhibition, The Romance of the Falls at The Tolbooth in Lanark. which took place four years ago.

JMW Turner painted our local beauty spot in 1801. My history of art lecturer at Bretton Hall, David Hill, was a Turner expert and author. I even did my degree thesis on The Turner Prize. An exhibition in the footsteps of Turner was an idea that had been in my head for years. Four years ago I decided to look for local artists and a wonderful exhibition followed.

I was excited about the postcard too. I had to buy in bulk as the Academy were doing a special print run. The response, however, was unexpected –

‘It’s a bit dull’, I was told and to my utter surprise no-one was in the least bit interested in Turner.

The other day I came across the pile of postcards in a drawer. Turner whispered in my ear…

‘We’re not finished yet, I’ll help you plant trees. Paint on the postcards…’

This sounds a bit odd but I listen to whispers in the wind!

This weekend I had an affair with Turner. A postcard is small and the original painting fairly large, so detail was hard to see, but analysing the image was absorbing. I definitely know the painting is NOT dull and Turner deserves the title the Father of Modern Art!

My discoveries –

  • Every single mark and shape is different. Turner doesn’t seem to repeat a brush stroke anywhere. They are ever inventive.
  • There are structures within the structure. Light and dark compositions laid down in big bold areas. Following the lights I started to see the painting differently to following the darks.
  • The picture planes are all different – drawing them I found Vorticism and Cubism.
  • Painting big areas of lights and dark with bold brush strokes led to Impressionism, Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism.
  • This is a ‘colour field’ painting of sepias. I played with notans, simple black and whites, and discovered that Turner is telling us he’s not interested in the naturalistic colour of trees or water but tone and composition. He is abstracting the landscape rather than painting exactly what he sees. I watched a Tate Gallery video on his process and learned that he started most watercolours on duck egg blue paper, a mid tone. So he was both adding and subtracting at the same time.
  • It is absolutely beautifully painted. For all the abstract qualities it is unmistakably The Falls of Clyde. A well observed ‘plein-air’ watercolour, probably worked up later in the studio.
  • The eye is funnelled down from the large light area of sky and then zigzagged across the picture. Turner is totally in charge of what he wants us to look at and how he wants us to experience the scene.
  • The lack of drama in the sky creates more drama in the waterfall by contrast.
  • Then I started to see my ‘Horse Trees’ in the painting, perhaps not surprising as they are inspired by the same windswept trees and landscape here in South Lanarkshire. Turner hadn’t painted horses but I seem to see them in everything!
  • Abstracting the big shapes I also found a bird.
  • I found a pin prick of brighter light at the top of the fall contrasted with a strong straight shadow line which seemed to suggest both the light source and vanishing point and to be the centre of the Golden Mean.
  • The horizontal lines are divded by the Golden Section. The darkest dark lies a third of the way up the painting.
  • Turner has rendered water in several different ways – fast falling water, misty water, flowing water, spray, still water, water in light and shadow. It’s truly amazing when you start to look at it. He seems to have achieved this through strong directional lines and dots that describe rocks which like a Zen garden define the space and flow.
  • The rocks at the bottom of the falls are dynamic too. There are no completely horizontal lines on the earth plane, which adds to the sense of drama as the ground is falling away too. Random rocks have a sense of presence and arrival at the foot of the falls at some point in the distant past. Nothing is unobserved.

Mr Turner….how are you going to help me plant trees?

As I write this I wonder if the ever growing group of artists and creatives that have come together via The Tolbooth, gathered by following in Turner’s footsteps, will be the answer? An art forest perhaps?


And lots more…. forty so far! More to follow in the next blog.

Thanks for reading.

Kirsten x

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