Do not mistake your watercolour water for your tea. No professional painter dips their brush in Lapsang Souchong or swallows mouthfuls of best blend Cadmium Yellow. But I am a rank and happy amateur and no matter how many times I remind myself “Mug on the left, jam jar on the right”, in a moment of brushstroke absorption I will take a fortifying draught of Winsor & Newton brew.
I am that most maligned of creatures: the lady watercolourist. I wish I could at least pretend to irony. If I painted scenes of urban grit – the underside of the Westway in delicate washes of Lamp Black or McDonald’s wrappers in Turner’s Yellow – it might not be so bad.
But my subjects are softer than the softest Sunday painter’s: sweetpeas, peonies, dahlias, gourds. Mum grows ’em, I paint ’em. Watercolour has a watery reputation. Wishy-washy, damp and drippy. A way for slightly wet women to pass the time while waiting for the local Mr Collins to propose. Sculpture is muscular, oils are noble. But watercolour is what Grand Touring gentlemen do on their holidays and their soggy daughters take to at home. Another “accomplishment” to go with needlepoint and the harpsichord. In Jane Austen’s Emma, our heroine paints Harriet’s portrait in watercolours. Emma is not very good. “So prettily done!” is the best that can be said.
I am some degrees worse than Emma. This is not false modesty, nor fishing for compliments. I am a dauber, a dabber, a proud blotter and spiller. I can’t do people, landscapes, pets or rainbows.
The trouble with being an art critic is that it gives you a clear sense of your place in the pecking order. Dürer, Turner, Girtin, the Sandbys, Ruskin, David Jones … and somewhere, many leagues and divisions below, me. I’ll never be accepted to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, but every day is varnishing day on the parental fridge.
Gallery glory isn’t the point. The joy is in the sploshing. When I open my watercolour box, I close the lid on the world. There is no more Covid, no more Second Spike, no more deadlines, unpaid invoices or car parking tickets, just Hooker’s Green and Permanent Rose.
You know the story of the Ship of Theseus? How when the ship in which Theseus and the youth of Athens had returned from Crete began to fall apart, the rotted oars and rusted nails were replaced until there was nothing original, but still the ship was Theseus’s ship? Well, that’s my watercolour box. The pans are not the first pans, the brush is long since lost, but still the box is the box that got me started nearly 20 years ago.