Watercolor: Bonnington's "A Fisherman on the Banks of a River, a Church Tower in the Distance"

looking at watercolors bonningtonBonnington A Fisherman on the Banks of a River, a Church Tower in the Distance watercolorJames Toogood comments on Richard Parkes Bonnington’s watercolor painting A Fisherman on the Banks of a River, a Church Tower in the Distance.

by James Toogood

Bonnington A Fisherman on the Banks of a River, a Church Tower in the Distance watercolor
A Fisherman on the Banks of a River,
a Church Tower in the Distance

by Richard Parkes Bonnington,
ca. 1825, watercolor, 7 x 9¼.
Private collection.

The sailboat, which is the focal point, is one third of the way into the composition from the right, and slightly less than one third away from the bottom–one of the aesthetic points painters favor when designing a composition. Bonnington frequently used bodycolor, and although it would be typical for him to simply add white to raw umber to paint the sail, there's no evidence that he used it for the sail in this piece. Chances are he just lightly scumbled a light color over the background to suggest the sail.

It is clear that Bonnington put a great deal of thought into this very strong composition. The fisherman, with his vest of an iron oxide red–perhaps Venetian red or English red–leads the eye back into the design with his pointing pole. The secondary point of interest, the abbey in the distance, is in the middle of the composition. Note how all the other objects in the composition operate neatly, so the strong vertical of the distant abbey, almost in the center of the composition, doesn't become an undo impediment. The low horizon is a strong horizontal that's balanced by a large, mostly unbroken sky. Incidentally, notice that Bonnington has carefully indicated the direction of the sun by making the sky grow lighter from right to left–even if you didn't see the shadow of the trees spilling across the water, you could find the direction of the light by noting the change in the sky.

A few other compositional devices are also worth discussing. The large tree on the left, also placed at one of the aesthetic points about a third into the composition, offers a strong vertical shape and a darker value. It counterbalances the little sailboat, and trumps the horizontal of the horizon line. The birds in the sky on the right mimic the line of the sail and direct the viewer back into the heart of the composition.

Also of note is the size of this painting–it's small, considering all that is going on–and the naturalness and elegance with which Bonnington suggested the foliage. His marks are expressive and calligraphic, yet not so much so that they appear decorative. He used cerulean blue in the sky–this is evident not only in its slight greenish look but also in that particular quality of cerulean.


New Jersey resident James Toogood AWS/NWS studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia. The subject of more than 40 solo exhibitions, he has participated in numerous group shows, including those of the American Watercolor Society and the National Academy of Design, winning many awards. He frequently juries exhibitions and was an awards juror for the 2006 American Watercolor Society annual. Toogood is the author of Incredible Light and Texture in Watercolor, (North Light Books, West Chester, Ohio) and he has written many articles and contributed to several other books. His work is widely collected throughout the United States and abroad, and he is represented by Rosenfeld Gallery, in Philadelphia. The artist teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the National Academy School of Fine Arts, in New York City, and the Perkins Center for the Arts, in Moorestown, New Jersey. Toogood also conducts watercolor workshops throughout the United States.

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