Watercolor: Girtin's "Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire: Evening"

looking at watercolors GirtinsGirtin Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire: Evening watercolorJames Toogood comments on Thomas Girtin’s watercolor painting Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire: Evening.

by James Toogood

Girtin Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire: Evening watercolor
Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire: Evening
by Thomas Girtin, ca. 1800,
watercolor on laid paper, 12½ x 20½.
Collection Victoria and Albert
Museum, London, England.

This is an iconic view of the English landscape–the figures and cows are typical of descriptions of this kind of scene. Note the shroud of clouds descending on the sky, almost like a curtain coming down on the setting sun at the horizon line.

This is an excellent example of the use of atmospheric perspective–the values are compressed as the distance increases. In other words, values get closer as the distance increases, enhancing the illusion of distance. Even in the abbey you don't see darks as dark as those in the foliage by the river. Compositionally, Girtin has placed a number of items to lead the eye through the painting. The river pulls the viewer left to right; the near field draws one into the center; and the stand of trees leads the eye right back to the abbey. And once one reaches the abbey, the vertical shapes of the abbey lead you up, with a secondary vertical to the right of the main tower leading you to the light field in the background. Verticals are always stronger than horizontals, even when the verticals are much smaller than the horizontals. Here, they lead the eye up through the painting.

Girtin utilized a fairly limited palette in this watercolor, which is typical for English painters prior to 1820. He probably used a combination of raw umber, burnt umber, and cobalt blue, using three values to create a middle wash, a light wash, and dark wash, punctuated by lovely, descriptive brushmarks in what appears to be ivory black for everything from the arch of the abbey to details in the foliage. Girtin was only 25 years old when he painted this.


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.

Related Posts:


Watercolor Painting

2 thoughts on “Watercolor: Girtin's "Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire: Evening"

  1. lovely painting, but sadly the Abbey is now in the middle of an industrialised area with a busy dual-carriageway running just yards away. Terrible shame.

  2. Having read a couple of these articles now, I feel James Toogood’s analysis of older watercolors are very insightful and helpful. The keys to a great painting have not changed in 200 or more years. It is a treat to see these works again and a great value to hear the lessons they hold.