Turner’s Apprentice: a watercolour masterclass || Tony Smibert

The basic thesis of this is a sound one. Tony Smibert is a Visiting Art Researcher at Tate Britain as well as a trained art teacher. He is therefore well placed to conduct the nearest thing you’ll get to a masterclass with one of Britain’s greatest painters.

The question, though, is do you want to? What?, you ask. How can he even suggest that’s not a good thing? Well, Turner had such an individual style that emulating it is always going to look like imitation, and probably second best at that. Would it perhaps be better to study the Norwich School or the Twentieth Century tradition from Edward Seago onwards?

Well, the thing about Turner is that he taught us a huge amount about light and colour and was innovative not just in his day but, arguably, in the history of art. He was, you could posit, an impressionist before the Impressionists and one of the first to move art away from a very classical tradition that was getting just a little too rule-bound. It’s not just his paintings that merit further study, but his notebooks too, and there aren’t many artists you can say that about. No, you can’t: Turner’s notebooks contain a wealth of experimentation that led to some of his masterpieces.

So, having established that to sit at his feet is something worthwhile, what’s the experience like? Well, Tony is adept at deconstructing not just Turner’s paintings, but his methods of working. This is not an atelier process, where you stand in front of the great canvases and copy them, but rather of understanding and applying the methods that created them.

The book concludes with a chapter devoted to Tony’s own paintings – not just a gallery, they’re properly analysed. In these, you can clearly see Turner’s influence, but also the fact that the results are entirely original. It’s not at all a bad way of demonstrating what you should be aiming for – a deeper understanding of your own work, not that of someone else.


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