Just the other day, I was asked about the use of Chinese White in North’s watercolours. The best source of
information about North’s watercolour technique comes from Herkomer’s Slade lecture that I have posted on the site. But from memory…
Many of the English watercolour artists of the middle to late C19 used to mix their pigments with an opaque white – known as Chinese White, but more properly titanium oxide. This created a medium more akin to oils than watercolour and is nothing like the free handling washes associated with modern watercolour painting.
In his early years, North prepared his early canvases with a solid base of CW building up thinner grounds of pigments mixed with CW and then elaborated his designs onto this surface – with what was described as an enamelled effect. He also removed this underpainting in places, by scratching out or scraping away. In later years he moved away from this technique, preferring to use only pure watercolours without CW. However, he still used the thick undiluted pigments to work in the grounds, rubbing it into the surface of the paper – sometimes straight from the tube. Once the ground was worked in North would create an effect of shimmering colour that became his trademark in later years. Onto the solid bases, he would add washes and then enliven the surface with a unique technique – adding tiny drops of water to the surface and adding pure pigment to the droplets. This technique has been described as pointillist and is much more evident in the later works. It was not to the taste of all critics, his obituarist in the Times called it ‘wooly.’
Because of his very physical handling, North needed a hard paper surface (hence the early CW bases) in the end he developed his own – OW Paper – and set up a Company to manufacture it using 100% linen rags instead of the usual mix of linen and cotton. The paper was not well suited to most watercolour techniques, but was used quite extensively for high quality prints and engravings.
Anyway I stray, CW was said to deaden the vibrant watercolour pigments, and this was often criticized in the large exhibition watercolours of the day – particularly by Ruskin who had a pop at Fred Walker for using it too heavily. Walker responded with a cartoon of himself working with a tube of CW larger than himself coiling the repugnant oxide onto his pallet with glee. Because of the opacity of CW, the white of the paper that is today used to add highlights and light effects was completely obscured by Victorian watercolourists. Highlights had to be worked in with CW or else scratched out.
North remains one of the unacknowledged masters of English landscape, his visionary handling, spiritual and poetic approach remains uniquely engaging to this day. You can view his work in many of the larger provincial galleries (although rarely on show). Preston, Birmingham, V&A, Tate, Manchester, Leeds, Bournemouth, Southampton, Bradford, etc.