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Two very different Watercolour Artists of the 19th C.

In the late 1700's & early 1800's the market for watercolour paper was comparatively small. Artists therefore experimented with different kinds of paper until they found one they were happy using.

The famous English watercolour artist, John Sell Cotman painted many watercolours on a wrapping grade paper whilst Turner preferred to use a Whatmans writing paper for his studio paintings.

Contrast the soft, smooth, translucent appearance of the Turner watercolour above with the crisp definition of line & colour separation achieved by Cotman. These effects depended very much on the intrinsic properties of the paper.

There are many fundamental differences between the 19th C. papers & modern watercolour papers. The older papers were much lighter in weight & the colour of the sheet was more subtle. The way in which the paper was sized was different too & this affected the way in which the paper "took" the paint and the overall strength of the sheet.

The cheaper grades of paper could only take three or four washes whereas the best of the fine papers could stand repeated applications of paint. 

Did they need stretching like many modern handmade papers ? Not necessarily ..it rather depended on  whether the artist was more comfortable with a taut surface. Surfaces tend in the main to be NOT or CP.


Thomas Girtin & John Sell Cotman  - Paper & Paint in Perfect Harmony

by Father Stephen Horton of Prinknash Abbey & Christine Gibbs

 Before the mid 18h century, watercolour was mainly used as a tinting medium to enhance topographical views where the drawing was all- important & the colouring secondary. But at the end of the 18th C. watercolour was emerging as a medium in its own right. Part of the struggle the watercolourists faced was to convince the Royal Academy of this fact.

It was Thomas Girtin, (1775 – 1802) above all, who developed watercolour as a full-blown medium for artistic expression.

Looking at the work of the great early English watercolour artists, such Girtin & Cotman (1782-1842) & Turner (1775 – 1851) one is struck by many things.

The relatively portable nature of watercolour meant that it could be used in the field for en plein air painting. In the hands of a great artist fleeting glimpses of light could be captured with a fresh immediacy impossible to capture in oil. 

This ability to record the quality of light on a landscape led to a great advance in the romantic notion of “mood”. i.e. the overall emotional response conveyed by the artist to the viewer of what it was like to be actually present. The “sublime” nature of landscape could also be enhanced by depicting the light & shadows in cloud formations & landscape or by using the play of light on water. 

Sometimes the clouds themselves were not even painted ..the  paper itself being sufficient to provide a soft white colour .

 Thomas Girtin also exploited the natural colour of the paper in his famous painting, The White House at Chelsea, to great effect for the White House itself is not painted. Girtin “created” its shape by carefully removing the top painted layer to reveal the pristine white colour of the paper beneath. Examining the edges of the scratched out area one can see that the top layer was removed to the sides before the paint & paper were dry.


  The other great quality of watercolour – luminosity - where the light of the paper passes through the paint and makes it shine - much in the manner of stained glass, also served to convey much mood & emotion. 

The majority of papers used by early 19th C watercolour artists fall into three principal categories. The highest grades papers were usually writing papers; next came intermediate quality papers which were flecked white papers: finally a grade of paper classified as wrappings which came in many different types.

The papers which Girtin, & Cotman used were often the intermediate off white grade & wrappings.The whiteness of the sheets was not standardised & varied from mill to mill as well as from one making to another. The surface was NOT & the grammage usually under 140 gsm. The NOT surface was of particular value as it enabled the artist to control the washes more precisely . Girtin & Cotman also appeared to be quite selective in choosing papers for their tonal quality..sometimes the tone was often very pronounced.  

During his great early phase, circa.1803 – 1808,Cotman, nearly always used the wrapping grade of paper.  The mills that produced it used worn out rags, hemp rope, sail cloth - in fact almost any cheap used textile that could be beaten to produce a paper pulp, was used.

 The colour of the paper was variable as it was principally derived from the natural colour of the fibres used to make the pulp. The amount of shive or flecks present in the sheet was usually much higher than in the better grades of papers. 

If one looks at this type of paper, so very often used by Girtin & Cotman, the imperfections in the paper become something so attractive that I am of the opinion that these artists did not use these papers as an economic expedient but deliberately chose them for their aesthetic appeal. The tonal nature of these papers give a unifying underlay to the colours placed on them even though, being toned, there is some loss of brightness.  


Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey 1803.  John Sell Cotman

Girtin & Cotman were what one might call Romantic Classicists. Their art is predominantly linear. That is to say that all the constituent points of their painting, even if tonally close, are well defined. In nearly all cases the pencil plays a key role in providing boundaries between one tone or colour & another.

Unlike Turner’s practise of working the paint on the surface of the paper by sponging, rubbing & scratching, Girtin and Cotman laid the paint on in beautifully controlled flat washes building up progressive depth by over painting. Such over painting was only applied once the previous under layer had dried. (The working of clean flat washes may also be seen in ancient Chinese and Japanese watercolours.) Their paintings needed much planning & forethought and for this reason were often done in the studio from preliminary drawings made in the field.

 Thomas Girtin & John Sell Cotman were able to exploit the properties of the papers they used so successfully that the paint & the paper had a synergistic relationship with each other. They demonstrated that for paper & paint to be in harmony one needs to understand fully the role of the paper substrate.


The Authors.

This article has been co- authored by Father Stephen Horton of Prinknash Abbey in Gloucester, England, who is an acknowledged expert on John Sell Cotman and Chris Gibbs of Griffen Mill who is responsible for historical research at Griffen Mill.


Visit the Prinknash Abbey watercolour gallery  to see more examples of paintings for sale

 by Father Stephen in the style of John Sell Cotman. 

Copyright Griffen Mill 2019