Friday, July 25, 2014

WaterMarks: Watercolour Diaries from Swamps to Icebergs by Tony Foster

Art as geographical record
Tony Foster is a watercolor painter who lives and works in Cornwall, England, but his subject matter requires him to travel the world. Foster paints wilderness landscapes, often trekking to remote locales where he works en plein air. WaterMarks is a catalog of a 2003 exhibition of paintings by Foster which was curated by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in England and traveled to museums and galleries across America. The common theme uniting these paintings is water, and to depict his subject in its many forms Foster voyaged to the icebergs of Greenland, the rivers of Honduras and Colorado, the prismatic pools of Yellowstone, the swamps of Georgia, the waterfalls of Guyana, and more. He even drew sketches underwater in the reefs off the Maldives.

Like Thomas Moran, whom the artist mentions in his preface, Foster goes for grand panoramic vistas—the “money shots” of the natural world. Unlike Moran, however, Foster works in watercolors, a more limited medium that doesn’t inspire the power and grandeur of oils. I would not count Foster among the greatest landscape painters of our time. His work has a bit of a too-careful paint-by-numbers quality about it that could benefit from some of the looseness and serendipity one finds in the landscape watercolors of Andrew Wyeth, for example. Foster’s painting could perhaps be mistaken for scientific illustration were it not for his expert use of color. What sets Foster’s paintings apart from his contemporaries is not his technical skill but his methodology. During his extended trips camping, hiking, and canoeing in sometimes harsh and unforgiving conditions, he somehow manages to paint these pictures entirely outdoors on site. Watercolor is not known for its tolerance of the elements, and some of these paintings are as big as five feet wide! In his finished works of art, Foster combines his painting with artifacts—bits of stone, wood, or bone found on site; clippings from maps; indigenous crafts; small sketches from archaeological digs; or vials containing water from the very bodies he’s painted—along with notes detailing his journeys and what he experienced on site. The work that results is superior to the sum of its parts. Foster’s art is an attempt to answer the questions debated by all landscape artists these days: What can a painting express about the natural world that can’t be said by photography? What dimensions of experience of place are added by the human eye, mind, and hand? Should these wild places someday be ruined by the insatiable needs of civilization, mankind will be thankful that Foster has so assiduously documented their beauty and magnificence.

Any landscape artist who works en plein air, particularly those who keep a sketch journal, can benefit from taking a look at Foster’s methods and will enjoy living vicariously through his adventures. For the art lover, this is a beautifully designed little book full of beautiful images of nature. At only 42 pages, it’s biggest fault is it will leave you wanting more. If you’re familiar with Foster and like his work, you’ll certainly be pleased with this attractive showcase of his art.

To learn more about Foster see his website:

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