Changing the Landscape
In the 19th century watercolour was seen as a responsive medium that helped transform attitudes towards landscapes, today it is all too often looked down upon, assigned to the
realm of the enthusiastic hobbyist; with art institutions either ignoring the medium completely or failing to be more selective in what they show.
Watercolour artist Nicholas Poullis has been exhibiting and selling his work since 18; he has work in a number of eminent collections in the UK and is the previous winner of the
Baker Tilly Award at the Royal Watercolour Society. We met Nicholas in a café in the south of France to ask him about his commitment to the medium and why current perceptions need to
“I grew up in a town outside of London… I’ve always painted. My grandfather was a painter, we had a lot of craftsmen and artists in the family, particularly craftsmen - my uncle
was a craftsman - so I grew up in an atmosphere where there was always someone painting, things hung on the wall; even before I was painting I was experiencing. From a really early age I enjoyed
drawing and was encouraged to pursue that, particularly by my grandfather. I was interested in paintings, drawings and on the other side, buildings and landscapes. Since I was a kid, from about 9 or
10, I loved going outside to draw and paint; I had an easel which my grandfather made for me. It’s really magical to paint and watch things outside.
I was already doing watercolours then, from about 13 … finding subjects that interested me. People refer to it as inspirational subject matter. It could be the simplest thing, but
I would think ‘that would make a good painting’. There would just be something about it that made me want to paint it. That’s the initial starting point, why people begin to paint. They see
something they want to paint. Sometimes it’s very instinctive. I’ve always had it. It’s just something I was able to do.
I see a view and I paint a picture. They are one offs. I don’t prepare for them; I don’t do a sketch or anything like that. It’s a first take. Apart from some studio paintings
like of the Tour de France, the landscapes, townscapes and boats, everything painted outside is like a first take. You have to be inspired, because it’s that first impression that stopped you and you
then have to translate that into painting. I don’t use photos; I find the danger is that you will then be painting an interpretation of a photo, rather than the subject. And the difference, when you
are standing painting, is that you aren’t static, you can move off to one side and get a better view of what you are trying to paint. Sometimes, in a painting you actually show something that is
slightly different and you can’t do that if you use photos. Photos are also arbitrary, although a lot of artists, probably a high percent, will use them, particularly those working in a
representational manner. But I see more advantage in not using them for my work. Besides which, it is more enjoyable to go out and find something to paint. It’s a lovely way of spending the morning.
You do have to concentrate on every brush stroke, you can’t paint over it, so everything you paint has to be pretty much spot on, as close as what you want.
There are what people refer to as ‘accidents’ in watercolour and that’s helpful to some degree, but it can be controlled and given freedom without it being an ‘architect’s’
drawing. It’s about allowing the beauty of the paint to actually work, to communicate something.
After school I had to decide which way I was going to go. In an academic family you have to decide what course you are going to do, you have to fit into a box in an academic
sense. I initially applied to do fine art because it had ‘art’ in the title, but actually fine art is something different and is more conceptual and there is no painting and content and there is very
little drawing involved, so it didn’t really suit me. In the end I did a foundation course and then a BA in Illustration at Anglia Polytechnic in Cambridgeshire. That was in book illustration; again
it’s got nothing to do with painting watercolours and nothing to do with being a painter.
During the time I was doing my degree, apart from the art that was done for system if you like, I was painting for myself… in watercolour. I occasionally exhibited – at the
Medici, Harrods, and Selfridges… With the Medici [Medici gallery, London] I just walked in with some paintings and they took them on. There were other galleries with open exhibitions which I just
sent work in to and it got accepted or it got rejected. At the same time I was elected associate of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. I was 18 or 19 at the time and had started to bring
a little money in from my work, not very much but it was helping.
The first real opportunity I had was when the parent’s of a friend of mine lent me their house in the Dordogne for a month, so I could just come down and paint. I produced a
collection of work and that formed my first solo exhibition in London at the Ebury Gallery… and I have carried on since then. Usually I produce a collection of work then I decide what to do with
6 months after I finished university I was painting full time and have been ever since. At that stage you are really picking your way through the market. Galleries are not
regulated, there are no rules to which they conform to. Often there is very little integrity. So at that very young age you are kind of dealing with these things. I’ve had regular exhibitions since,
usually an annual exhibition in France, sometimes an exhibition every two years, but in the last two years things have been going really well in Pézenas [small town in Hérault, south of France],
something I did off my own back, and there was no gallery involved.
In around 2000, after an exhibition, I had enough money to do something with which was either going to go on rent in England or I had the opportunity to buy a house in France. So
I bought a house in northern France… I say a house it was more like a barn actually. I lived there, and that was where I met my wife. From there I painted the Dordogne, I painted the Loire, I painted
Normandy… and all the time I was exhibiting back in England and then would come back to France. After I met my wife we decided to move down south. That was about 10 years ago. Since then most of my
subjects are from around here.
There is an enormous amount of subject matter wherever you are. It’s a case of looking around, a thing an artist will do – look around and pick subjects, and see the
possibilities, find interest in lots of different subjects. In this area there is beautiful architecture, there’s landscape, there’s views along the coast, there’s the Tour de France that passes now
and again, there’s infinite possibilities. I can be inspired by different things, beautiful old buildings for example, or it can be the way light falls on it or it could be the atmosphere, the
energy, the movement. Like the Tour de France, it’s not so much the atmosphere but the energy of the cyclists, trying to capture that movement, they sort of wobble… it’s very difficult to capture
movement in a static medium, so it’s always a challenge.
Watercolour is a very technical medium. However, it’s a very versatile medium, but it can be quite limiting for a lot of artists because they can only use it in one way and that’s
where watercolour becomes easily knocked. It’s easy to criticize it as being all technique. Of course, the technical aspect is important because when something is badly painted it confuses the
message of the painting, it’s a distraction. But if it was purely technical, an artist could only paint one or two things and that would be it. My answer to that is that it’s not purely technical, it
can be varied, and it can show a lot of different subject matter, I paint everything. I’ve painted some pieces in oils and acrylics, but only a handful. For me they are not as responsive as
watercolour. With watercolour, when you paint, you are judging the pressure between the brush and a piece of paper. It’s a very sensitive medium and I miss that with other mediums. I need that sort
of sensibility. No matter how powerful the painting or how strong the colours, the real power is put on with a delicate touch to bring out movement, texture, to show the brush mark, it’s not
really a medium you’d slap on with a spatula.
Focus in painting is very important. Like a film maker, you might just show one aspect of something. Watercolour has been saddled with this reputation of being somehow amateurish.
It’s almost as if a salesman has gone to work on it and saddled it with a reputation. That really pisses me off because it’s not the case and is very often an argument used by people who can’t use
watercolour. Serious artists know it’s not the case. Ken Howard [English painter, OBE, RA] doesn’t deride watercolour. But people like him are in the minority.But also watercolourists encourage this
criticism by becoming very limited themselves. I had a look around a big exhibition in London recently which was meant to be showing the ‘cream’ of watercolour, but there were possibly only one
or two really good painters there. I feel at the moment that watercolour is in a bit of a dark age. There are some really good watercolourists, but you don’t see their work around
Changing it is a marketing and commercial thing, as well as a matter of taste. This is what I’ve found in France… for years people were saying to me ‘The French don’t buy
watercolours’… ‘they are not going to pay for that’, but it’s precisely the opposite I’ve found. After my first local exhibition here, when it came down to it, I did sell. And that’s in a place where
the general notion is that people don’t buy watercolours. So it does change. When people who buy art are confronted with a good painting and a subject matter they like, they’ll buy it. It’s
irrelevant the medium.
I do have gallery representation in London, but the logistics of going back all the time make it complicated, but that’s business. I prefer to be concentrating on producing new
work, new angles on work; you’ve got to move forward with painting. It’s very easy for a painter to fall into a trap of producing self-parodying work; you see it with musicians as well. It’s a real,
real danger. What happens is they look back on what they’ve sold and they start repeating it and it looks the same and you don’t move forward. This is no good, you stop exploring subject
I have to paint what I believe in, what touches me. If I try and second guess then what I end up with is paintings that look like they’re out of a holiday brochure, what I think
people might buy. And that’s nothing to do with what interests me, nothing to do with the integrity of an artist trying to paint what they believe in. That’s got to be the starting point. A
good painting is more than the sum of the parts of the painter… a painter can draw, a painter can mix colour well, but there is always that additional thing that is the painter. It’s like on a
computer, you can have a paint programme that translates an image into a painting, and that’s what you’d have without the painter involved, that missing degree of input which is crucial to what makes
a painting interesting and worthwhile.
It bothers me that watercolour is perceived so poorly, but all I can do is what I can with my watercolours to perhaps change that view slightly, which has already started
happening. I’d like to shake up some of the establishments in England. I’d also love to see a revival in the medium of something serious… and that’s something that can only be achieved by