BADAS Meeting March 20th 2018

The Weatherley Centre, Biggleswade

James Willis: Bold and Dramatic Landscape

Winter Riverside water in soluble oils

James Willis is an artist and art historian from Hitchin. He has been painting ever since he was given oil paints at the age of 7. His work includes landscapes, figures and occasional portraits but his real love is architecture which he developed when resident artist at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. He is most well-known for his large panoramic cityscapes.

He has been fortunate enough to work in India, Africa and various cities in Italy. In recent years he has also developed a programme of local art classes and workshops as well as art history lectures where he explores a broad range of artists and styles from a painter’s point of view.

This year he is taking painting groups to Tuscany and Venice, lecturing in Hitchin to support two local charities and holding a small exhibition of local paintings in July. Plans are afoot for two larger exhibitions in the near future.

For this demonstration he chose to work with water based oils which are easy to travel with. He took photos and sketched on location by a riverside with trees and reflections and then produced two wet, loose, atmospheric preparatory watercolours in 30 mins for each one.

For the finished piece James worked on a cheap, cotton canvas coated with a mix of burnt sienna and yellow ochre creating a warm background for the cold blues of his riverside. This created a dynamic from the start and gave the work life.

Several brushes were used one for each colour which he applied in blocks of dark, medium and light in the traditional way (opposite to watercolour) with minimal mixing to avoid ‘mud’. His brushes are hog hair and sable – scratchy and soft and he always holds them from the end with plenty of movement from the arm. A variety of shapes helps to get the desired effect eg:long flat, short flat for highlights, sword/dagger for slashing lines, Egberts (long ,flat with a rounded tip). He quoted John Singer Sergeant who said “use the biggest brush you have” to avoid getting too fiddly.

James used a limited colour palette always mixing with a knife in a neat, controlled way on a kidney palette. He likes to take time to mix the right colour before applying it (like Degas) and always quite a few subtle shades (Chromatatism) as they don’t dry out quickly. He always uses thinner and not water in fact because this gives more ‘body’ and avoids turps and linseed oil. Quick dry gel is available to mix in if a faster drying time is required. He aims to explore light/ dark and warm/ cold in his work, applying each colour in thin layers all over the canvas like a tapestry aiming to keep them fresh.

He explained that Degas never finished anything, deliberately, to give a spontaneous feel. Actually lots of thought is needed, stopping, reflecting and if in doubt- ‘leave it out’ to get a good result. James encouraged everyone to be brave with colour…try and learn! He advised planning, preparing and then enjoying the process , thinking all the time and trying difficult things to improve. Great artists he said used cheap materials because mostly they couldn’t afford better but used them to great effect because they were not too worried about them.