Let’s be honest, it’s a terrible title. I’d challenge anyone to tell me what a vibrant watercolour is; mind you, I’d also challenge those same people to come up with a title that adequately sums Shirley Trevena’s work up without resorting to several pages of closely-typed dialectic. So, please, can we just agree that it’s about as good as we’re going to get and, actually, we do all know what we’re talking about here.
You see, that’s the strange thing: the moment you put this author and that title together, it all becomes clear. And now I’m going to have to try to deconstruct it so that we can talk about what’s going on. Well, someone has to.
Watercolour is a demure medium. If you made a film about it, it would be a Merchant Ivory production and it would have Helena Bonham Carter in it somewhere, possibly in a cameo role as Payne’s Grey. What watercolour is not supposed to do, above all, is take its clothes off in public and shout “knickers” at the passers-by.
However, this is, metaphorically speaking, what a new generation of artists is doing with it. Watercolour is coming out of the Jane Austen era and into the twenty-first century. (Watercolour has completely bypassed the twentieth century: discuss).
No one could accuse Shirley Trevena of being a representational painter and yet her work, mainly of flowers and still lifes, is immediately recognisable. This is not abstraction either in its pure form or as a development of natural shapes where the image is developed from the subject while not quite being of it. The nearest I’m going to get is to say that it’s about producing a painting that tells you what it’s like to look at the subject without actually recording the subject. In fact, it’s about producing art rather than just painting, if you’re going to insist on getting all fancy.
Look at the contents list and the first thing you’re going to notice is just how much colour comes into it: What Makes a Painting Colourful?, Making the Most of a Single Colour, Painting With Neutrals, Favourite Colours, Subjective Colours. As much as anything else, this is a book about having just the most enormous fun with colours, about being let loose in a paint factory.
So far so, possibly, much like a lot of other books, but what sets this apart is the incorporation of the work of many other contemporary artists whose work blends, with quite astounding seamlessness, into every section. This is very much not Another Book of Shirley Trevena’s Paintings, Taking Risks With Watercolour part 2, and stands every inch in its own right. For both author and publisher, that’s a considerable achievement and one on which they should be congratulated because it’s a tricky pitfall to avoid.
You should buy it if you’re a reasonably competent artist who wants to develop their work to the next stage, if you’re prepared to wallow in the joy of colour or if you’re an admirer of the not-purely-representational in general or of Shirley Trevena in particular. Oh, go on then, buy it if you care about art at all, you won’t be disappointed.