This last week I reread a show catalog, "William Nicholson Paintings" from the Kasmin Gallery 2006 show held in New York.
I've drooled many times over two of his still life paintings featured in Juliette Aristides' book, "Classical Painting Atelier". For some reason unknown to me, because I like to research things, I never looked up Nicholson or attempted to find other works of his floating around on the internet!
I went to a plein air retreat in September, and on one of the nights, they have an art book sale and swap. Of all things, Richard Jordan, Plein Air Artists of Western Michigan’s (PAAWM) leader and talented painter, was selling this catalog/exhibit book -thanks, Richard!! What good fortune for me!
What do you respond to in Nicholson's work if you're already a fan? I’d love you to let me know here in the comments or via one of my other social media channels.
What do I respond to?
I respond to his inquisitive approach to his subjects and even subject genre. I almost have the feeling that he would set about to paint something and honestly not know how he was going to pull it off. I don’t think he had any doubt in his ability to pull it off, it’s more that he was unafraid of different techniques and even rather unconventional points of view- odd angles, even including rather odd items or compositional elements. His unique perspective makes his work feel fresh to me.
I love his still life pieces best, and then some figures and landscapes...oh, it's hard to choose after the still life pieces!
Let’s talk a moment about Nicholson’s background and technique.
His was first known for his engravings, illustrations and posters. He was the illustrator of the first edition of the classic, “The Velveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams, and was the original set designer for Peter Pan. He also designed the stained-glass window for St. Andrew’s Church, Mells, among others.
His charming and clean, modern artistic sense is seen in a small children’s book, titled “The Square Book of Animals”, published in c.1899 with rhymes written by Arthur Waugh. you can see it here:
He attended art school in Paris, France, like other serious painters of his day. Afterwards, he was taught by William Cubley, who had been a student under a student of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Nicholson also received encouragement to paint from James MacNeil Whistler. Later in life, Nicholson was knighted and received a gold medal for graphic arts in the 1928 Summer Olympics (wow! Artists used to compete in the arts in the Olympics!?).
I have not researched much about what’s already been established about his oil painting technique. I’m simply going off my own observations here. He had large commissions and highly finished pieces, but his sketches were mostly painted alla prima (all in one session) on prepared wooden panels. He used economy of line. He liked a visual impact with as little dabbling as possible. Remember, Japanese art was all the rage, and western artists were looking to the east for new perspectives and forms of expression. Whistler, whom we know he was acquainted with, was one of the artists that applauded the simple, masterful lines, design, and bold color of the Japanese greats. His compositions also owe a bit to French still life painters like Chardin, Fantin-Latour, and Francois Bonvin.
Nicholson appears to have used thick or generally opaque strokes of paint on a quick sketch done in paint below the surface paint you see. One of the qualities that I admire in Nicholson’s work, is the economy of bright color that makes the select, bold color really jump out to us and charm us. I try to teach artists that great paintings are made with mostly earth palettes. When those few drops of bright color slide on top of the more neutral underpainting and surrounding tableau, they make a convincing naturalistic impression.
He was eccentric, and unafraid to learn, pleased by everyday beauties. I think that also comes through in his work. He painted pretty things, sometimes indulging their vanity or painting their best side, but again, the fact that he often did not, shows that he was curious, first and foremost. He had known tragedy in his life. He was not naïve. He lived in the war years made famous by TV drama, Downton Abbey. He lost two adult children, a wife, and an infant. One of his sons died in action in France during World War 1. One of his sons, Ben Nicholson, went on to become a famous painter as well, and it’s interesting to read about what they thought of each other’s work. Hint: they tended to be critical. Personally, I prefer the work of the older Nicholson.
My rebellious side loves that he found immense success in his lifetime without being "branded". He made a living first with woodcut illustrations and posters, and then by his portrait skills, but now he is remembered largely for his still life paintings. He painted all sorts of subjects, more than I've mentioned, and he painted them well.
His paintings feel fresh, curious, and sincere. I love painting and learning about painters I admire partly for the sheer visual pleasure, but also for the stories their work and their lives tell. Painters interpret the world around them, they paint, and the echoes can reverberate for ages.
If you’d like to see more of his paintings, look at this catalog of his work:
I just read a warning blog post about using pictures cautiously in blogs because of copyright issues. Too bad, because I wanted to plaster this post with Nicholson paintings I like:)
If you're on Pinterest, look me up, https://www.pinterest.com/thimganhayden/ and I have a William Nicholson artist board.
The paintings shown here are both related to Gertrude Jekyll, the famous English garden designer.
Look up some images! Use your favorite search engine or try this link for a few...