Charles Reid: Flower Painting in Watercolor

One of the things this series is going to demonstrate is just how far book production, especially in the use of colour, has progressed in the last thirty years. In the early 1970’s, books were routinely produced with only a small selection of colour plates, often grouped together in one place and, indeed, Charles Reid’s three previous books, Figure Painting in Watercolour, Portrait Painting in Watercolour and Painting Flowers in Oils, published in the early to mid 1970’s, only had something like 16 colour plates each.

One of the effects of this was that descriptions had to be much longer as the paintings were described rather than being satisfactorily illustrated, and text appeared in what looks now like indigestible chunks. It’s a fact worth recording that writing in any illustrated medium: books, magazines or newspapers has in recent years generally become much shorter and to the point, working with high quality illustrations which need little more than to be put in context. Thanks to this and to high resolution colour television, we live in a much more visual world and we have become able to interpret two-dimensional images much more easily. It’s often said that this is “dumbing down” or results from a shorter attention span, but this is only partly true. We simply rely on what we see, much more than what we read, for information.

For the writer, this presents a different challenge. Lengthy explanations are often neither necessary or desirable, but it’s still important to explain to the reader/viewer the context of the image and why they’re seeing what they’re seeing.

In the introduction to this series, I said that books could be classics by virtue of their author, their subject, or because they were milestones in the development of production. Flower Painting in Watercolour qualifies on all three of these counts. Charles Reid is a major interpretive painter and this was one of the first books to deal with flower painting in such a loose, almost non-representational way. It was also one of the first practical art books to be illustrated significantly in colour. The first 40 pages, dealing with materials and basic techniques, are still black and white, but the rest of the book, 100 pages, are in glorious colour. For a book on flowers, this seems now to be absolutely essential but, in 1979, the visual impact was stunning and the book far outsold anything that was currently available.

The other notable aspect is the much reduced text. It’s an old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, but it’s certainly true in book illustration. The large areas of white space were a revelation when the book first appeared and gave a great sense of open space, allowing the pictures to breathe as it were. Instead of being tucked away as half or quarter pages, the pictures have a whole page to themselves, interrupted only by relatively short explanatory captions. They also appear as if they’ve been painted directly onto the book itself. This technique, technically called “burning out” reduces the paper the paintings were actually on to white, rather than allowing it to appear as a rather dull grey that immediately knocks the colour and the impact back.

Looked at now, Flower Painting in Watercolour has a slightly old-fashioned air. Book production has moved on a long way and book designers tend to treat each double page spread as a piece of artwork in its own right, considering the visual effect of the whole book much more. In addition, colour reproduction has improved and the screens that are used to separate the dots that make up the picture have got much finer so that the effect now is almost photographic. In Flower Painting in Watercolour, the screen is relatively coarse and it is possible to see the individual dots with the naked eye.

So does the book stand up to the test of time? It’s impossible to get the sense now of this being the start of something new, but Charles’s flower paintings are still stunning as long as you like your flowers very, very loose. In one of his videos, Charles claims to know nothing about flowers, “for me, it’s about shape and colour” and the chapters of this book reflect this with headings such as “Broad Petals” and “Diffused Forms”. Charles doesn’t, generally, paint individual flowers but groups or informal arrangements and they’re often in a setting such as a window sill or a cluttered table. These are flowers as part of everyday life, interpretations of flowers, rather than flower portraits. The one thing they’re not, is realistic in the sense that you could use them to identify individual blooms and yet they say a great deal about what flowers mean to us and how they appear in our lives.

The book is out of print, but secondhand copies appear fairly regularly.

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