John William Waterhouse was a Victorian era painter (1849 – 1917). Both his father and mother were English born artists, and so his professional path should not have been a surprise. Born in Rome, he returned to England with his parents while still a child, and eventually spent the remainder of his life in London. Although early on he was interested in Engineering, he did not follow that profession, but began working in his father’s studio. His father, curiously, did not want him to become an artist, but was eventually persuaded to help John enter the Royal Academy. At the age of 21 Waterhouse was accepted into the Academy as a student in sculpture, but instead of attending classes, he practiced and perfected his painting technique by continuing to work in his father’s studio. Yes, that sounds like a lot of contradictions and “U” turns, but in the end he showed genius that was recognized in his own time.
|Sketch of Waterhouse for The Bank and Royal Exchange by W. Logsdail 1886|
Many of the specific events of Waterhouse’s career are unknown because his wife, who survived him by several decades, destroyed much of his correspondence. However, we have his paintings, which can be read and studied to good effect. Waterhouse is an unlikely inspiration for an architectural illustrator in that he was a painter’s painter. He preferred to illustrate ancient myths in a figurative, realistic and painterly way, relegating the built environment to the background. And he created his images in a layered adjustment of opaque paint, which is a technique anathema to the detailed and transparent tradition of architectural rendering.
In spite of this, Waterhouse offers many clues to the handling of color and drama that can be applied to architecture. For instance, the oil sketch above, done for the painting The Love Philtre shows the development of a careful balance between red-browns and green-browns, with the composition being held together by the strongly contrasting flesh tones.
The Lady of Shalot is one of Waterhouse’s most famous paintings. It depicts the despondent Lady Elaine, who loved Sir Lancelot in the Arthur legend. Lancelot’s rejection of her love drove her to despair and death. The picture seems perfectly balanced and harmonized, but there is a palpable sense of despair in every part of the canvas.
This detail shows the wide range of colors that he has placed in the focal point of the painting. Note that the pure colors of the fabric are limited to relatively small spots, while the contrasting orange-browns dominate. The background consists of dull greens, and the figure is revealed in variations of white.
Ophelia, one of a series of paintings on the Shakespearian subject, is simple in composition, but complex in its expressive use of color. The almost black trees suggest the madness that is coming with Hamlet’s rejection of her. Her supine position suggests her watery grave, and the inverted face suggests her world, which has been turned upside down by Hamlet’s madness.
Waterhouse’s use of contrasting color insures that in spite of the centralized composition, the viewer’s eye will be drawn to the warm face and burning hair of Ophelia, enhanced by the surrounding green. Note that he flirts with a strong yellow-green, but always moderates it with olive and brown.
This detail of Waterhouse’s painting, Sweet Summer, illustrates his ability to moderate colors so as to emphasize the composition. In other hands the green of the grass, along with the red and blue of the dress would dominate the painting. Indeed, in the modern world the clash of primary colors would be “de rigueur”.
Similarly, in The Crystal Ball Waterhouse moderates the red dress so as to let the swirling composition animate the scene. The repeating arcs, suggesting the crystal ball of the title are brilliant.
I’ve always found the death of Orpheus to be a rather curious tale. A severed head which floats down a river and over the sea to the island of Lesbos, singing all the way strains credulity (and induces hilarity), but that’s myth for you. The reason for including this painting, Nymphs finding the Head of Orpheus, is once again to note the carefully modulated colors. As before, they form an undertone to the more obvious, and again, swirling composition.
Cleopatra is a painting that reverses his usual “light on dark” composition, with the queen’s head as a dramatically dark spot on a lighter field. On the other hand, it is very typical in terms of color; the light “field” is made up of a number of different colors which are harmonized and “dulled” so as to set off the darker hair and face.
Here is another Ophelia by Waterhouse. In this rendition he emphasizes the madness that is rising in the girl, and foreshadows the death that awaits her by drowning in the river at her feet. The color handling is much moderated, especially in the lower part of the dress where the red and gold seem to melt into the grass and tree trunk.
Circe, in the Odyssey, is a witch who turns men into swine. In Waterhouse’s conception she is a mixture of seduction and danger rendered in a beautifully amorphous fabric which conceals and reveals mysteriously. This painting is less clear in its composition then his other paintings, but that is in keeping with the subject.
The Toilet is a painting with no ancient myth or truth to convey, but it is a lovely study in browns and greens (with the touch of blue in the foreground). Waterhouse could have allowed the colors to dominate more in this composition, but still, the effect is charming to the viewer, and illuminating to the student.
Mariamne, the beloved second wife of Harod the Great, was falsely accused and convicted of attempting to murder Harod. In this painting she is pictured going to her death, while Harod, who still loves her, grieves. On first glance the painting seems to be monochromatic, but as usual with Waterhouse, it has considerable color in a muted form.
Resting is another domestic scene with less drama and compositional strength. It is included here to reiterate the delicate color sense that Waterhouse brought to his work. It is also typical of the overcast light that Waterhouse favored in all his paintings.
Of all the settings shown in this post, this is the most directly applicable to architectural illustration. The martyred Saint Eulalia is shown in a snow scene which lets the subtle colors and forms of the classical buildings stand out. Note how the colorless marble shifts from cool grays to warm grays throughout the painting.
And the moral of the Waterhouse oeuvre? That color needn’t be garish and bright, but can be powerful even when muted. Also that muted color can strengthen a good composition. An important point to remember is that Waterhouse justified his muted palette by choosing a diffuse light, and the rejecting the brilliant, direct sunlight. Modern architectural illustration, and especially computer rendering tends to default to direct sunlight because of the simplicity of layout and efficiency of the process. But, using diffuse light and overcast conditions can produce amazing results.