Colin Watson and the lost art of figurative painting

In an age when figurative art had fallen out of fashion, Watson fixed his gazed unerringly on the mystery of life as it is


This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10

In Villa Ezzahra, a serene hideaway on the outskirts of Marrakesh, one of Northern Ireland’s finest artists, Colin Watson, is trying to teach me the rudiments of figurative painting. He’s a super teacher, patient and perceptive, but it’s no easy task. I was an avid artist as a child, but I haven’t picked up a paintbrush in 40 years, and what used to feel like a natural process now seems entirely alien. I’m not alone.

Broken Wall, oil on panel, 10 inches x 12 inches

For millions like me, the ability to translate what I see in front of me into a realistic drawing or painting has become a lost art — something our computerised age has forsaken. How did it happen? How did this elemental skill, something mankind has cultivated since the dawn of time, become so obscure and esoteric?

Two reasons: the remorseless advance of film and photography into every corner of our lives, and the remorseless marginalisation of figurative painting in the brave new world of modern art. Here in this lush Moroccan garden, under Watson’s guidance, half a dozen artists are doing something which once was commonplace, but now seems bold and radical. Instead of scrolling through their smartphones or posting snapshots of themselves on Instagram, they’re standing in front of easels and painting what they see.

Companion, oil on canvas, 3ft 3 inches x 4ft 11 inches

Colin Watson is one of the leading figurative painters in the UK today, but until six months ago I had never heard of him even although he’s a highly regarded artist, with an illustrious career spanning several decades.

His lack of wider fame reveals quite a bit about the intrinsic bias of the British art establishment. Watson’s work is original and powerful, but it doesn’t set out to shock or startle, and in a media landscape that rewards sensation rather than skill and craft, his subtle, considered paintings don’t command the same attention as the latest iconoclastic trend.

Watson went to art school at a time when art schools were drifting away from life drawing

Not that Watson seems to care. By any sensible yardstick he’s been extremely successful. His work is held in numerous prestigious collections including the Royal Collection, the Ulster Museum, the Arts Council for Northern Ireland, the Moroccan Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art. In 2008, he was the official artist on Prince Charles’s royal tour of Japan, Indonesia and Brunei.

Colin Watson was born in 1966, into a working-class family in Belfast. His father died of a heart attack seven weeks before he was born, leaving behind a hoard of photos from his RAF service in Egypt during the Second World War. “The only thing I had belonging to him was this box of photographs,” he remembers. “That’s the only thing that survived.” Those faded snapshots, a precious connection with the father he never knew, fed his fascination with North Africa, and brought him, eventually, to Morocco.

Koutoubia Minaret, Marrakech, casein tempera on card, 1ft 3 inches x 1ft 4 inches

Raised by his mother, Watson loved to draw, at home and then at school. He went to the local library to look at books about “proper painters” of the past. He did a degree in Fine Art at the University of Ulster, yet an equally important stimulus was his Interrail trips every summer. He travelled all over Europe, visiting the great Continental galleries, from the Prado to the Uffizi: “a month of exposure to great painting every year”. It was a shock to return home and find his tutors weren’t familiar with Titian.

When he was 25, he tracked down the explorer, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, and asked if he could paint his portrait. Thesiger was living with the Samburu tribe, in a mud hut in a remote corner of northern Kenya. Watson went out and spent a month with him. His portrait was bought by the Royal Geographical Society.

He went back again a year later. “Why are you doing this?” asked his contemporaries. “It’s a distraction from painting.” Yet Watson was simply following in the footsteps of numerous nineteenth-century painters, who journeyed far and wide in search of subject matter.

For him, like them, travelling and painting have always been intimately intertwined.

Kenya was an inspiration, but it was Morocco that won his heart, even more so once he met his Moroccan wife here. They now live together in Northern Ireland, with their three children — but Morocco remains his home from home.

Interior, Telouet, oil on panel, 10 inches x 1ft 2 inches

“Morocco is a treat for painters,” he says. “It’s an assault on the senses.” Like his idol, Delacroix, this exotic, enigmatic country has inspired some of his finest work. Villa Ezzahra, where I spent a week with him, is full of Moroccan art and artefacts: ceramics, woodwork, metalwork. It feels like the perfect place to watch him work.

Watson is leading a week-long masterclass at Ezzahra, guiding a wide range of artists — everyone from seasoned professionals to enthusiastic amateurs. The advice he gives us reveals a lot about his own approach. “As well as the shape of the buildings, I’m looking at the shapes of the shadows — they’re almost more important than the actual structure,” he says, as he sets up his easel.

“Paint the negative shape, don’t paint the positive shape. Then you’ll get your angles right.” In a few swift, simple lines he establishes the fundamentals of the scene — not only the perspective but the play of light. As he says, “It’s all about relationships, between colour, tone, shape and form.”

Summer, oil on canvas, 6ft x 3ft

Watson went to art school at a time when art schools were drifting away from life drawing. “There’s no one here that can help you,” said his tutors. Undeterred, he went out and found his own life model. “Every week I spent a day drawing the life model and everyone was saying, ‘Why are you doing that? It’s so old-fashioned. It’s got no relevance to today.’”

The traditional training he fashioned for himself is evident in his perfectly structured paintings. It’s the result of a rigorous (self-made) apprenticeship that his Renaissance heroes would have recognised. You can tell he spent months copying Old Masters in the Louvre — common practice for several centuries, but sufficiently rare today that it feels like a form of resistance.

Doorways and alleyways are familiar motifs in his art, but what’s most striking is his close connection with artists from long ago, rather than artists of his own era. “There are fundamental pictorial principles that are constant,” he states. “You can’t turn your back on that.” To ignore this artistic heritage is to abandon the vocabulary, the very language of art.

“There are no painters today that I really feel a connection with,” he told me. “Matisse, Picasso and Bonnard are giants, but after that generation art shifted.” In British art schools, conceptualism became mainstream, and figuration was sidelined.

Figurative painting forces you to lift your head up and scrutinise what’s in front of you

Watson went the other way, back to the Old Masters in his childhood library books. “You can feel the wind blowing through those leaves,” he says, pointing to a sketch by Claude. You could say the same of his own work. “It’s about drawing every day,” he says. “That’s how you get to be this good.”

After his mother died his work became more stylised, more surreal, yet by retreating into his imagination, he realised he was missing out on the wider world beyond his studio. “You can only draw on so much from within. You need outside influences.”

He reconnected with the real world by painting still lives. It was an exacting discipline which gave his art fresh focus. “Art is a spiritual vocation — you’re tapping into something eternal.” Learning the essentials of draughtsmanship isn’t something you do as a student and then forget about. You need to keep learning throughout your life.

His most recent work is rooted in realism, often featuring his wife and children, but the landscapes they inhabit have a dreamlike quality reminiscent of Poussin. Unlike a lot of angsty modern art, these strange, beguiling pastorals feel supremely peaceful. They are hopeful and optimistic and these are rare attributes in modern art, not just because the modern world seems so grim, but because many artists lack the technical skills to create paintings that are this beautiful and profound.

Spring, oil on canvas, 3ft x 5ft

Why does any of this matter? Why not just take a photo on your smartphone, and use AI to sculpt it into whatever image you choose? Why do artists like Colin Watson devote their lives to preserving and perfecting the art of figurative painting? Why are we here in Morocco, trying to emulate him, when we could just sit back and take it easy, and leave the hard work to Apple?

Before I met Colin Watson, I didn’t know the answer, but now I have a sense. Computer imagery turns us into passive consumers of visual data. Figurative painting forces you to lift your head up and scrutinise what’s in front of you. As Watson puts it, “a photograph doesn’t differentiate — everything is given equal value.” Figurative painting, conversely, is a selective process. “You’re manipulating the truth to tell the truth better.” That’s why it’s so liberating and empowering. It makes you re-engage with the world around you in a way we’ve forgotten how to do.

The next day we were to drive up into the mountains to paint landscapes, but that night I woke abruptly to find the walls were shaking. I threw on some clothes and ran outside. We were all extremely fortunate. There was no damage where we were staying.

A few miles away it was a different story, but everyone in Ezzahra was unharmed. In the morning I watched the earthquake on Twitter — ruined buildings, piles of rubble. I turned off my phone and went out into the garden and began to paint.

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