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How to Paint Like Turner

How to Paint Like Turner

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How to Paint Like Turner

287 pages
1 hour
May 1, 2015


JMW Turner is one of the greatest artists Britain has ever produced. His watercolours, with their extraordinary effects of shifting light and dramatic skyscapes, are especially highly regarded. For the first time, the secrets of Turner's technique are revealed, allowing present-day watercolourists to learn from his achievements.This book combines unrivalled knowledge of Turner's working methods from Tate curators and conservators with practical advice from some of the world's most respected watercolour experts. Twenty-two thematic exercises are illustrated with Turner's works. Expert contemporary watercolourists explain, step-by-step, how to paint a similar composition, learning from Turner's techniques. Packed with invaluable information, from the materials Turner used to achieve the masterpieces we know and love today, to the modern materials the twenty-first-century watercolour artist will need.Backed by the authority of Tate, the world centre for Turner scholarship, with a glossary of technical terms, this is an invaluable resource both for lovers of Turner's art and of watercolour painting.
May 1, 2015

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How to Paint Like Turner - Tate Publishing


‘Copy first the works of God, and then the works of Turner.’

Edward Lear


J.M.W. Turner

The Blue Rigi, Sunrise 1842

Watercolour on paper

29.7 x 45


Recently, at the adult education art group that I regularly attend, it was suggested by the teacher that for the following week we should find reference material with the view to creating our own abstract painting. Being a watercolour artist with an eye for detail, abstraction is not my preferred form of painting. However, my great-great-uncle, J.M.W. Turner, came to my rescue. I have always found you can learn so much from studying his work and on this occasion I decided to create my own version of one of my favourite pictures, The Blue Rigi, Sunrise. I know Lake Lucerne in Switzerland well and have seen for myself the magic of the colours and moods of the Rigi Mountain beside the lake. With the aid of a postcard reproduction, I set to work. Although my first point of inspiration was Turner’s famous watercolour, I was not making a strict copy. Instead, I used my own photographs to create a strong composition with the mountain at the centre. The colours were based upon my imagination and memory. However, I studied Turner’s distinctive method of applying paint carefully and used a similar technique to create soft, abstracted forms. The addition of a boat and some birds in the foreground provided a final ‘Turneresque’ detail.

When my art master came to view my work, his comment was ‘you can’t go wrong when you take a lesson from the Old Masters’. Studying the works of Turner is a great way to learn and develop. I hope this book helps you to find the same rewards and sense of personal achievement.

Rosalind Mallord Turner

Getting to Know Turner


J.M.W. Turner

Self-Portrait c.1799

Oil on canvas

74.3 x 58.4


Probably painted on the occasion of his election as an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1799, Turner’s only adult self-portrait shows a well-dressed young man with an intense, self-assured gaze.

J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) is one of the giants of art history. Unquestionably one of the greatest painters of landscape the world has ever seen, his work bridges the gap between the classical perfection of the Old Masters and the progressive movements of the modern era such as Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism. Although his name has become synonymous with the use of dazzling colour, experimental form and daring conceptual innovation, his professional life encompassed an astonishing breadth of activity, exploring themes from history, classical mythology, literature and contemporary events, all of which he explored through his chosen genre of landscape. Above all, he is celebrated for his creative approach to the problem that dominated his life’s work, the effective depiction of light.

Turner was a most versatile practitioner, proficient in drawing, painting and printmaking. He was as comfortable producing tiny book illustrations as large exhibition canvases, and it was this diverse range of skills, combined with his prodigious talent and boundless ambition, which formed the basis for his phenomenal success as an artist. What really set him apart from other artists, however, was his original and inventive approach to technique. Turner’s methods were unique. He refused to be restricted by conventional working practices and instead followed the dictates of his imagination. As his friend, the artist and diarist Joseph Farington, put it, he had ‘no systematic process’ when painting, but constantly varied his tactics until he reached a solution that ‘expresses in some degree the idea in his mind’. This technical ingenuity was evident in his use of oil paint, particularly his willingness to try new products, and the unorthodox way in which he manipulated and applied pigment. However, his most progressive achievements were developed and sustained in his watercolour paintings, in which he not only forged new systems of painting, but actually transformed the very appearance and status of the medium itself. More than any other artist, he mastered a synthesis between its intrinsic characteristics and the effects that it could achieve, and this led the way in establishing watercolour as an autonomous, expressive art form. His paintings are revered as the pinnacle of accomplishment within the field, and continue to represent the standard against which watercolour artists are measured today.

About this book

According to Turner himself, the only secret to his artistic success was ‘damned hard work’. This book is intended to offer a rather more considered guide to the techniques and methods that underpin his work. It discusses the materials favoured by Turner during his lifetime and offers advice for the modern artist on finding suitable alternatives. Step-by-step demonstrations deconstruct some of his most commonly used watercolour techniques, while practical exercises based upon his approach offer insights that provide a starting point for individual creativity. The book is not intended to teach you merely how to copy his work, but also offers systems for developing your own painting technique in new and exciting ways. The most important lesson to be learned when painting like Turner is that art is about freedom of expression. As he himself said, no matter how much the artist takes from the world around him, creativity is ‘a stream that forces a channel for itself’.


Turner’s story begins in Covent Garden, London, where he was born in April 1775. His father was a wig-maker and barber, and Turner’s earliest drawings were displayed in the window of his Maiden Lane shop. It soon became clear, however, that the boy was destined for greater things, and at the age of fourteen Turner was enrolled in the Royal Academy Schools to embark upon the requisite education of the professional artist. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Royal Academy played a vital role in the training of contemporary artists. It was the institution where artists studied, taught, exhibited and socialised, and Turner would remain involved with it for the rest of his life. It took him just ten years to graduate from student to Associate, and in 1802 he was elected a full Academician, the youngest artist ever to hold the position. He quickly established a name for himself as a painter of topographical views, and his early work is notable for its precocious mastery of subject and his penchant for naturalistic effects. He exhibited and sold both oils and watercolours, but it was the latter that were considered to be the most advanced and technically superior examples of their day.

In 1807, Turner was appointed Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy, delivering lectures on the subject for more than twenty years. His interests should have earned him the job of Professor of Landscape, but in the nineteenth century such a post did not exist. Despite his loyalty to the Academy, he was not beyond subverting its authority in artistic matters. In 1804, frustrated at the limited opportunities for showing his paintings, he became one of the first artists to open his own private gallery to display his works. As his art matured, he demonstrated an increasing desire to challenge the accepted hierarchies, which prioritised historical subjects over landscape, and oil painting over watercolour. Although he continued to produce watercolours that were essentially topographical in nature, his original and virtuoso use of the medium elevated his views beyond mere description of place. Drawing on his own observations of the world, he painted landscapes glowing with atmospheric effects described through colour and form. His ambition knew no bounds and his watercolours reached heights of visual spectacle and emotional depth more usually associated with oil painting.

Turner also attempted to revolutionise the genre of landscape painting. In defiance of traditional theories, which asserted that landscape painting involved a mere recording of nature, he set about demonstrating that it could be a powerful and cerebral art form. In his hands, views with a biblical or mythological flavour acquired levels of meaning and drama to rival the most epic history paintings, and domestic pastoral locations such as the River Thames were recast as Arcadian idylls in the manner of Old Masters such as Claude Lorrain (c.1604/5–82). Turner formalised his doctrine in a published sequence of engravings, known as the Liber Studiorum (1807–19). Comprised of more than eighty images illustrating six different categories of landscape, the series represents a complete visual manifesto for the advancement of the genre. It was this multifaceted outlook that led his contemporary and fellow watercolourist, John Constable (1776– 1837), to describe him as having a ‘wonderful range of mind’.

Unlike Constable, who struggled to make a living from his art, success came easily to Turner. He became a wealthy man, earning enough to finance a second home built to his own design outside London in Twickenham, close to the River Thames. Although an early love affair led to the birth of two daughters, he preserved his independent status, living as a bachelor with only his devoted father for company. In contrast to Constable, who lived and worked in his native Suffolk, Turner was a restless soul who sought inspiration away from home. He had an insatiable thirst for travel. Other artists of his generation may have ventured further afield to the Americas, the Antipodes, or the Middle or Far East, but no one else travelled more widely or more frequently within Europe and the British Isles. In his twenties he established a pattern of working that continued throughout his life, embarking on a sketching tour during the summer that provided him with enough material to make finished works through the winter months. In addition to making the traditional artistic pilgrimages to Paris and Italy, he navigated more unfamiliar territories, exploring picturesque terrain such as the remoter reaches of Wales and Scotland, the Alps and the rivers of France and Germany. His standard method of working during

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