Eric Ravilious – techniques used in his watercolours

Eric Ravilious is a relatively unknown English, watercolourist the main focus of whose work was the landscape of southern England between the wars, typically depicted using a limited palette 1 of subdued colours.   Apart from watercolours, he produced a number of woodcuts.  He was appointed as a war artist during the second world war, visually documenting aircraft during the war until his plane disappeared over Iceland in 1942.

James Russell, in a new book about Ravilious’ work2,  says about Ravilious’ watercolours that “A lot of his paintings don’t have people in – they’re about place”.  For example, in Hull’s Mill, Castle Hedingham, and Paxton & Whitfield, Cheesemonger (in Fry’s Art Gallery, Saffron Walden), Ravilious omits a human presence while also suggesting that people may be just out of the frame.  However, he also sometimes imbues an object, such as a car, with almost human character, rather as a children’s picture book anthropomorphises objects or animals.

Tom Lubbock, writing in the Independent3,describes one of Ravilious’ paintings, Downs in Winter, as a minimal view or “almost nothing”.  Small broken marks, darker in the foreground, the ruts in a ploughed field, follow the curve of the hill, and lead the viewer’s eye towards the horizon. Ravilious, in Lubbock’s view is almost a modernist, reducing the landscape to one in which “everything is rounded and reduced”; However, his landscapes are not abstract; in Lubbock’s words, “The profiles of the hills are sensitive. [….] You can feel along the horizon’s edge”.

Marks used by Ravilious in his landscapes include “knotted, twining, wiggling lines crawl[ing] over the landscape” (Lubbock3 ) to denote fences.  Lubbock notes how Ravilious combined soft contours in depicting, for example, the South Downs, with spiky marks imposed on the surface, often denoting the activity of absent humans.

Trees are more often bare; spiky branches convey a different mood to trees in leaf.  In the Wilmington Giant , the giant stands out against a hillside whose surface has been so much scratched away, that the painting is almost monotone, relieved by the brief yellow of the cornfield in the foreground. The giant on a distant hill is framed between a fencepost and wires. The fencepost and the giant tilting towards each other in the two-dimensions of the picture. The barbed wire echoing the curve of the giant’s hill, leads the viewer from fencepost to giant.

In Hull’s Mill, Castle Hedingham, Ravilious uses both dry and wet brush techniques, often to denote the same thing, such as a hedge, very differently. In several paintings, such as the aforementioned Hull’s  Mill, and Vase of Flowers in a Garden, he scraped the paint back to reveal the paper underneath; in this way, he could denote texture in grass or tyre tracks on a road.  Most of Ravilious’ watercolours are “created out of streaks.  They are scored, striated, cross-hatched in separated paint strokes.” (Lubbock3).  In Lubbock’s view, the use of streaks opens up the landscape, making it less familiar and safe.  The streaks convey “a sense of cut, fracture, incision” suggesting a “hint of violence”.

Through the imposition of irregular jagged marks on a smooth, gently rolling landscape, Ravilious asks us to look again and to reinterpret familiar scenes of rural southern England.

1 Fry’s Art Gallery, Saffron Walden.

2 “Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs” (Mainstone P., 2011)

3 The Independent, 13.07.10, accessed through www.independent.co.uk on 25.04.11 This link no longer works.

Another review is available at The Spectator . However, the exhibition is long gone…

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