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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Arthur Melville

Old Baghdad market, Arthur Melville
Arthur Melville, ca. 1888.
I've always had a great respect for watercolor painters. I suppose part of that comes from having used (or maybe misused) the medium some in my college years. Even today, I sometimes use my beloved acrylics in a transparent, watercolor manner. In any case, my respect for, and love for, watercolors comes as much from those experiences as much as anything else. There are artists who would probably dispute this, but I've always felt that painting with watercolors was about twice as difficult as oils and almost that insofar as acrylics are concerned. I suppose, too, there are watercolorist who might argue that their medium of expression is more than twice as difficult as oils. Of course, at this point we're into splitting sable brushes, if not their hairs. Although he sometimes painted in oils, the Scottish painter, Arthur Melville was a first class practitioner of watercolor art, and one whose work I admire greatly.
A Cairo Coffee Stall, 1881, Arthur Melville
A Cabbage Garden, (oil on canvas)
1877, Arthur Melville
Born in 1858, Melville started out as a grocer's apprentice who wanted to be an artist. He came from Angus. He learned his craft at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh before moving on to Paris where he picked up his Impressionist styling. Melville's A Cabbage Garden (right) from 1877, indicates he could handle oils and had a good eye for color. From Paris, Melville moved on to Egypt, and Greece. It was in Greece that he started experimenting with transparent watercolor. From there, the artist toured the Middle East visiting Istanbul, Cairo, Baghdad and Karachi, before returning to Scotland in 1882. However, by this time Melville was addicted to the Mediterranean sun. He was drawn to southern Spain and North Africa. During the 1890s, as money permitted, Melville continued his travels by visiting Venice, only to be perhaps the first artist in history ever to be disappointed by the city. He much preferred the brilliant sunlight of the hot, Mediterranean shores, his paintings of middle-eastern life such as The Old Baghdad Market (top) among his best efforts.

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, Arthur Melville
An Arab Interior, oil on canvas,
1881, Arthur Melville
Melville worked on wet paper, allowing early colors to bleed, sponging out lighter areas, then as the paper dried, adding minimal details. From experience I can tell you this is not the easiest, or even necessarily the best, way to handle watercolors. Traditionally watercolorist have long battled two opposing elements, the tendency for the paint to dry too fast or to dry too slowly. I'm guessing, in that the Mediterranean area Melville so loved tends to be quite arid, his major battle was with his paints drying too quickly, which would explain his starting with wet paper and reliance upon layers of color washed in. That judgment also derives from inspecting, as best one can, his watercolor paintings which have been translated to digital images (not always the best means of evaluating watercolor techniques). Beyond that, the artist's use of gouache (opaque watercolor similar to tempera) in the final stages of his paintings further complicates any study of his technical methods.

Revolt of a Tribe, Baghdad, 1882, Arthur Melville
Though Arthur Melville is much beloved by watercolor purists (despite his occasional use of gouache), he was all but unknown during his lifetime. (He died in 1904 at the age of forty-six.) It has only been in the years since his death, as watercolor has grown in popularity (not least of all because of Melville's work), that an appreciation of both his Impressionist style and exotic middle-eastern content have grown with it. Although even today, watercolor remains something of a poor step-child to other painting media, Melville stands apart from the others as among the best to ever go to war with evaporating water bearing suspended pigments, each having a mind of their own.


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