Ken Tolmie’s Watercolour Technique

1. Stretching the Paper
2. The Drawing
3. Background Wash
4. Underpainting
5. The Long and Winding Road
6. The Coup de Grâce

Step Five: The Long and Winding Road

Once the underpainting has reached its natural end and the tonal balance of the whole composition has been achieved, it is time for the artist to give form to individual objects; the more objects the painting depicts, the more burdensome the process. In this stage, the artist differentiates each object from its background: “I now have to do in miniature what I’ve already done on a large scale,” says Tolmie. “In earlier stages I establish the family relations between objects, but now I distinguish one thing from another. I work on individual parts of the painting, not on the relationship between parts.”

The objects in this detail from Glasses with Golden Rims look extremely realistic

However, as this close-up shows, there are no actual lines in the painting

In this stage, Tolmie is principally concerned with capturing the texture of objects such as glass, cloth or hard surfaces, because he views texture as the basis for realism. “I’ve got the drawing, I’ve got the tonal relationships, I’ve got the basic colours, so now I have to get the texture. I have to manage the effect of light falling across objects; that’s what makes texture, and texture is what makes things look real.” Once again, Tolmie achieves the effects that he seeks by focusing not on line but on tone: “I create the illusion of detail by fixing tonal relationships. Remember that lines aren’t really there: the mind interpolates them where it perceives a difference in tone or texture. If you want to make your painting feel real, don’t commit yourself to line; by capturing the tones, you make your viewers use their eyes as they already do without being aware of it.”

Tolmie’s tone-based approach is the opposite of pop realism and photorealism, which generally rely on line and pattern to make the colours strong. “Pop realism’s attention to detail is often excessive, and therefore not real,” says Tolmie. “These paintings tend to have an instant impact but no resonance, which is a result of the commercial techniques of pop realism.” For Tolmie, the greatest detriment to line-based techniques is their inability to accommodate the viewer’s shifting perspective: line-based realism is static, but in reality the relationships between objects change according to the viewer’s perspective. Tolmie’s tone-based technique strives to enable the painting to move with the viewer: because the viewer interpolates detail based on perceived differences in tonal relationships and texture, just as he or she does in any act of perception, the painting is able to preserve the illusion of realism. Although Tolmie’s technique is very different from those of the Impressionists, he does acknowledge that each component of his paintings functions as a mini-impression: “If realism works as impression, then it will strengthen itself.”

During this stage of the painting process, Tolmie uses a drybrush watercolour technique: watercolour paints are used straight from the tubes with little or no water added, and are applied with a large or small brush from which as much excess water as possible has been squeezed out. Sometimes Tolmie will mix paints together, particularly with with opaque white, to achieve the opaque, three-dimensional quality that characterizes his paintings’ highlights. The drybrush technique has a long history: a distinguished early practitioner was Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), whose famous drybrush piece The Hare is alluded to by Tolmie’s Murdo: Sarah’s Rabbit. The drybrush technique heightens a painting’s illusion of depth by increasing the contrast between neighbouring regions. It is a fundamental strategy for achieving realistic effects: in much the same way that focusing a camera lens causes details to leap forth more boldly, the drybrush technique fools the viewer’s eye into seeing lines where there are only differences in tone and texture.

Typically, Tolmie will begin a painting by performing all of the stages at once on an individual element; this element becomes a key, establishing the painting’s tonal range from lightest to darkest. Once the underpainting is accomplished, the artist’s task is to bring the rest of the painting up to the level of finish already achieved with this key. This procedure is clearly illustrated by the early stages of Santons: the small jewels near the bottom of the painting were among the first things to be painted.

Santons: Vence, France (Detail): these small jewels, completed early in painting process, establish the tonal range for the rest of the composition.

This is the most arduous stage of Tolmie’s paintings, and the artist generally suspends work on them for periods that can range from a few weeks to several years. “Because my paintings are so complex,” explains Tolmie, “the amount of work required to execute the details is intimidating. It takes skill, patience, and intense focus to add colour and shape to a patch of tone.” Sometimes the lengthy gestation period causes a work to change dramatically from its conception: for example, Forest Landscape was originally intended to be a watercolour, but after a two-year hiatus the artist decided to complete it as a mixed-media piece. No matter how long the interval, though, Tolmie never worries about losing the fundamental idea of a piece: once the basic tonal structure has been laid down by the underpainting, he can return to it whenever he chooses.

This stage is not only lengthy, but it is also convoluted: “Typically there will be mistakes and back-tracking,” says Tolmie. “Sometimes a painting can be weighed down by its detail, and I’ll need to kill it back with a wet brush to recapture the energy of the underpainting. It’s difficult to find the right point to stop: too much detail and the painting looks static and academic, not enough detail and it looks bland and unfinished. Going too far is as bad as not going far enough.”

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