When I wrote about Shirley Trevena’s previous book, Vibrant Watercolours, I had a riff about how watercolour was supposed to be a demure medium. I won’t repeat it here, but my point was that Shirley had taken a traditional medium by the scruff of the neck and brought it right up to date. It was therefore a pleasure to read the introduction to this rather magnificent new volume and discover that this is basically her manifesto. The quote, “I would love to have had [Queen Victoria] in my class so that I could have given her permission to let rip with her colours” conjures up a wonderful image!
And that’s basically what this book is about, what the rules and the risks are: colours, but also how they sit together and relate to each other through positive and negative shapes. Shirley isn’t an abstract painter and, if you turn the pages, you’ll never be in any doubt about what any of her subjects is, but you can immediately see that it’s all about much more than just representation. Conveniently, the cover illustration makes my point. The title is Scottish Waterlilies, but that really doesn’t matter. You need to look at the way the colours are placed, how the pink of the flower stands out against the green leaves, and how the deep blue of the negative shapes of the water defines all the rest of the elements of the picture. The result is bold and yet subtle at the same time.
The structure of the book is that Shirley analyses ten of her paintings, using each one to make a specific point: “More paint, bigger paper”, “Breaking the rules of perspective”, “Happy accidents”. She’ll show you where the idea came from and how the image was developed, what colours and materials were used and how the effects were achieved. There isn’t a demonstration in sight, though, and if you were looking for instruction on how to copy the piece, you’d search in vain because this isn’t a book that will teach you how to paint, it’s a book that’ll teach you about painting, about how to see, how to think and how to translate that into working with the materials you have. It’s a difficult thing to pull off because most artists think visually and have great trouble expressing themselves in words. Shirley, though, has the gift for both and this is a book which will teach you more about art than pretty much any other.
It also helps that it’s been superbly produced and is a joy just to handle.