I’ve written elsewhere about the book that Edward Wesson didn’t write. The truth is that Wesson actually had quite a lot to say, especially to his many students. These may be getting on in years now, but Steve Hall has had the sense to talk to some of them and record what Wesson’s teaching methods actually were. As well as this, there are the articles Wesson wrote for the Leisure Painter and Artist magazines. One way and another, there’s more information out there than you might think: it just needs someone to pull it all together.
Steve is also the author of two books on Wesson and has had the chance to look at a large amount of his work at close quarters and to see how the brushstrokes work. All-in-all, if you want an authority, Steve’s your man.
Studying Wesson is also helped by the fact that he was a great simplifier. Not only is there great economy in his work, he also used the famous squirrel-hair polishing mop (now widely sold and used as a wash brush), which means that his marks are relatively easy to see.
In this film, apart from discussing Wesson’s materials – and even using the great man’s own brushes – Steve demonstrates four classic Wesson subjects: landscape, boats, pen & wash and flowers. What emerges first is the way Wesson used darks to bring out highlights “forcing up the lights by surrounding them with darks”, as he often said. This simple technique at once explains the brilliance of Wesson’s work and gives it its apparent simplicity. By comparing an early work with a later landscape, Steve also shows how Wesson’s economy of brushwork developed. In this, he was enormously influential, as the work of John Yardley and others will testify.
The pen & wash work is interesting. In his pure watercolours, Wesson, like any other artist, uses tone and shading to give form to shapes. In the wash-work, outlines are defined by the ink and the watercolour becomes an infill – and Wesson recommended this as a technique for beginners.
Wesson’s approach to flowers is well-documented by an article he wrote for The Artist, itself the forerunner of the modern step-by-step demonstration. In this, he explained how to work from the background up to the actual bloom. In this way, you have the main colour scheme down before you attempt the main subject and are therefore more likely to get the tones of the flower right, rather than making the common mistake of having them too dark. In fact, looking back over the film as a whole, it becomes apparent that, shape-wise, Wesson tended to work from the negative to the positive in general.
So, are there great insights here? A lot of what Steve Hall says is based on common sense and a lot more of it is gleaned from talking to Wesson’s students and reading his articles. Put together, however, this is about as close as we’re going to get to having a film by the great man himself. It’s all convincing and it’s all backed up by evidence. It’s also good, basic common sense. Just what we’d expect from Wesson, in fact.
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