It was in the early 1980’s that someone said to me, “Of course, you should get Ted Wesson to write a book”. I was new to the world of art instruction at the time and involved in sales rather than editorial, so nothing ever came of it. Shortly afterwards, Wesson died and that was that.
Edward Wesson was, by all accounts, an inspirational teacher and an account of him at work on a course can be found in Steve Hall’s Edward Wesson: the master’s choice, published by Halsgrove, and, latterly, in his insightful DVD, Wesson’s Watercolour Secrets. This book is one in a line of posthumous publications of Wesson’s work that show a man who was hugely prolific, but able to produce fine paintings even when doing a hurried demonstration in the middle of a field. The best account of Wesson, both as a man and a painter is to be found in the first of the books about him, Ron Ranson’s The Art of Edward Wesson, published by David & Charles in 1993 and now out of print.
A great many teachers now use what we might call “the magic brush”, the best-known being Ron Ranson’s Hake, a large, flat, soft-hair brush that produces large marks and defies fiddling. His philosophy of it is that, by building a painting quickly, the beginner is moved forward by results and that encouragement is a better motivator in the early stages of an artistic career than infinite lessons in technique. However, he didn’t invent the idea and Wesson was ahead of him, using a French Polisher’s mop. This is a similarly large, soft-hair construction, but round. You can buy them today in art shops as wash brushes, so much have they become a staple of the artist’s armoury. The other thing that Wesson’s students remark on is the fun they had; painting with Wesson wasn’t a structured course, it was just a group of friends going on an expedition. When Wesson was ill, he asked James Fletcher Watson to take over his instructional work and the philosphy was continued.
So what sort of book would Wesson have written? Would it have become a classic that remains in print to this day? I can say with some confidence that, in its original form at least, it would not. It isn’t that there would have been anything wrong with the book, but the problem would be the production standards of the day: in the early 1980’s, UK published art books only contained a limited amount of colour, quite often as few as 8 pages, which meant that the reader had to rely on black and white reproductions and written descriptions of the colours and how they were used. It just isn’t the same.
We are not entirely bereft of Wesson’s writing, however, as he contributed several articles to The Artist magazine. These have not been reprinted and are hard to find, but one on landscape painting from June 1966 gives us a clue. Four paintings are reproduced, only one of them in colour (of six in the whole magazine), but the effect is muted by the relatively coarse screens of the time which give a flat, slightly fuzzy effect; very little detail is visible. The article itself contains a lot about representational painting (“we must first have a very sound knowledge of the ordinary before we can hope to produce anything extraordinary” is as true today as it was then), about painting outdoors and also has some amusing digressions on the types of people he meets on art society field trips. Finally, half way through, we get to the description of the colour plate. Given that there is no opportunity for a step-by-step demonstration, the description of the colours used and how the painting was built up conveys a reasonable amount of information, but teaches very little. Of course a three page magazine article (of which half the space is occupied by the illustrations) isn’t going to be the same as a whole chapter of a book, so we shouldn’t deduce from this that Wesson couldn’t write art instruction. What it does show, however, is his lightness of touch and desire to entertain as much as teach. You get a lot of atmosphere and entertainment before you get to the inevitably rather mechanical description of the painting process and the result is that the whole article is imbued with a light touch rather than being entirely a dry description of how to put paint on paper.
Wesson also wrote an autobiography, My Corner of The Field, which was privately published in a limited edition.
James Fletcher Watson used to address his books to “my painting friends” and I think Wesson would have done much the same. I suspect that what we might call Painting With Edward Wesson would have strongly prefigured JFW’s The Magic of Watercolour, but without the number and technical quality of illustrations that made the latter a classic itself. Given the amount of material that Wesson left behind, however, a revised edition with all colour plates would have been both possible and a true classic.