Watercolor: John Sell Cotman's "The Drop-Gate, Duncombe Park"

Cotman The Drop-Gate, Ducombe Park watercolor James Toogood comments on John Sell Cotman’s watercolor painting The Drop-Gate, Duncombe Park.

by James Toogood

Cotman The Drop-Gate, Ducombe Park watercolor
The Drop-Gate, Ducombe Park
by John Sell Cotman, ca. 1806,
graphite and watercolor on laid paper,
13 x 9. Collection the British
Museum, London, England.

The first thing one notices about this watercolor is how it ably demonstrates an extremely economical way of painting—a hallmark of Cotman’s work. Everything he placed on the paper was purposeful, and when he had everything he wanted, he did nothing else.

In terms of composition, look at how masterfully Cotman is able to carry the viewer’s eye through the scene. You enter through the horizontal line at the upper third—the gate—moving from left to right. The foliage, in particular two big branches, lead the eye back to the gate.

Small details create little moments in a few places. The weathering on the timber and the chain holding up the gate provides some detailed information, including the shadow underneath the timber, which establishes the light source. On the far shore, a fallen branch gives the eye something to consider. And the little bit of blue, signifying a few blossoms, provides interest to a part of the stream that needed some attention. Notice the shadow spilling across the right-hand portion of the gate—it successfully suggests that soft English light landscape painters love.

The colors in this piece are low key, very dark. That deep dark on the far shore of the stream is hard to determine—it could be ultramarine, although that pigment was rare at the time. It could be sepia or indigo, but both of those would have degraded more than we see here. It’s warm, not cool, so this could be ivory black or lamp black—probably ivory black. The green appears to be a mix of cobalt and raw sienna. I can’t identify the yellow, but it’s likely raw sienna. Yellow ochre is an opaque color, while raw sienna consists of smaller particles that allow more light to penetrate through the pigment layer and react with the paper. You can see the sparkle that transparent pigments like raw sienna allows in the part of the gate that’s in shadow. Given the choice between yellow ochre and raw sienna, he would have chosen the transparent paint because it would have allowed him to have an immediacy and intimacy at this small scale that would be very attractive.

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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