Watercolor: William Trost Richards' "A Rocky Coast"

Richards A Rocky Coast watercolor and gouacheJames Toogood comments on William Trost Richards' watercolor painting A Rocky Coast.

by James Toogood

Richards A Rocky Coast watercolor and gouache
A Rocky Coast
by William Trost Richards, 1877,
watercolor and gouache on
fibrous brown wove paper, 28? x 36¼.
Collection The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York,
New York.

First, note that Richards was working on carpet paper here. This allowed him to work very large. Carpet paper is a bit textured, and irregularly so, which can sometimes require a slightly heavier application of paint. It comes in large rolls but isn't necessarily archival, although I've seen this painting at least twice and it looks fine–it seems to be holding up well.

Richards was known for mixing transparent watercolor with various types of opaque watercolor, frequently on toned paper. In this case, it's probably watercolor from his palette mixed with Chinese white and gouache, which is watercolor that has an opacifier, typically chalk, added. Notice that the deeper color in the sky is actually the color of the carpet paper. The carpet paper has a certain amount of color and value–typically gray–so to achieve the very pale yellow ochre color you see on the right-hand side, you'd have to mix Chinese white with yellow ochre. Because the paper is deeper in value than the highlights to achieve any of these highlights he'used a mixture that includes Chinese white or another opaque color. This method is also evident in the cerulean blue in the rocks.

Beyond those two hues, the colors I'm seeing are burnt umber, raw umber, and darks probably made with a store-bought blacks, either ivory or lamp black. Most of the colors we use today were not available to Richards. But Chinese white had been available for years. Furthermore, colors like cerulean blue and yellow ochre have a lot of body and can be applied more opaquely. What he did have were colors that had a lot of body. Mixing transparent paints with opaque paints was sometimes a point of contention back then, too. And while Richards did subscribe to Ruskin's idea of faithful ideas of presenting nature, he didn't agree with Ruskin's insistence on using only transparent colors. The key is that Richards could make it work. In lesser hands, incorporating a clumsy brushstroke of opaque paint in an otherwise transparent watercolor could ruin it. But Richards could incorporate opaque passages along with transparent areas in a way that is completely seamless, freely interspersing the two techniques to create a unified whole. In short, he could decide to paint a watercolor almost like he would an oil, and he was so facile that he could get away with it.

The rock patterns are at once very naturalistic and also very much "Richards." In other words, he discovered a way of painting things essentially the way they look, but in a way that is undeniably his. Very often if an artist wants to make things come forward, he or she warms them up. But another scheme is to have a full range of values for foregrounds and use only the middle values for backgrounds. Here, Richards gives the greatest range of values from lightest lights to darkest darks to the middle rocks. The sunlit rocks further away on the right would have had the strongest feeling of light if they showed more contrast, but they remain subordinate.

Notice how Richards allows the gray in the sky to sing by not graying the middleground rocks to make them recede. By doing this, you may well see the rocks first and then sky, but the rocks don't have the same prominence because their values have been compressed. I believe he chose to just compress their values, not gray them down, so there would be a contrast with sky. If they were grayer, they would have become too much like the background.

In terms of composition, he's done something very interesting–he's given us a whole series of directional lines that lead us through the composition. A line goes behind the rocks in the middle, and the opening in the rocks on the right leads the eye out to the ocean. You have all kinds of other opportunities–clouds bring you back to the center of the composition, and the clouds are reinforced by the positioning of the birds, which lead the eye back, making you want to see what's behind the rocks. The opening on the left is secondary reinforcement of what's going on. And there are other ways you can gain access into this composition. We in the Western world move from left to right, most of the time. He has given us a secondary way to get into the composition, from lower right to the center outcropping of rocks. In doing so, you are going to focus on the rocks in middle, to the exclusion of the other outcroppings.

Finally, notice the rhythms, and the contrast of the linear rock formations against the fluidity of the rolling, crashing waves. He achieved this through the way the brushstrokes were laid down. At this point Richards was a master at painting seascapes with 20 years of experience–that's why he could pull all of this off.

Read Toogood's tips for achieveing optimal effects with watercolors.

Read more features from the Looking at Watercolors series.

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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