Studying a master: John William Waterhouse 


Without a doubt, you probably have seen the work of John William Waterhouse,(1849- 1917) and perhaps, like me, not known that Waterhouse was the artist.

I include an excellent video of the details of one of his best known paintings. This might be the kind of thing that only an artist or an English teacher might appreciate; nonetheless, I add it if only to show Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott.

It’s all about the artist…

John William Waterhouse's art is described as having the qualities of a fairy tale. His paintings evoke simple scenes in natural settings such as in a clearing in the forest, or a stretch of shoreline.

Much like well-known fairy tales, his women are portrayed as seductresses luring men to their death, or they are attempting to free themselves from a curse imposed upon them.

John William Waterhouse appeals to me because…

I admire the little details and symbolism within the crucial moments he chose to paint on canvas. Women are always the central figures in his works.

The artist finds inspiration in a poem…

Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, was inspired by a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Lying, robed in snowy white

That loosely flew to left and right-

The leaves upon her falling light-

Thro’ the noises of the night

She floated down to Camelot:

And as the boat-head wound along

The willowy hills and fields among,

They heard her singing her last song,

The Lady of Shalott.  

Waterhouse featured The Lady of Shalott in three paintings showing three different stages of her tragic tale.

My favourite has the Lady with her long flowing hair, sitting all in white, in her canoe among the reeds. A richly embroidered blanket (a detail from a previous painting) is draped along the side of the canoe and is floating dreamily in the water.

Only one of three candles on the bow remains lit. It symbolizes that the maiden’s death is imminent because she defied the curse placed upon her.

Although a cropped image of the Lady of Shalott was to be the focus of the lesson for Studying the Masters, I chose a different portrait to examine and paint: one of Waterhouse’s studies.  

Below are a few of the stages of the painting in progress. As you can see, the initial paintings are quite ugly, but with lots of work, the likeness of a young woman eventually emerges.

Study for a Naiad - (water nymph)  I saw several techniques that appealed to me in this study:

  • The painterly brushstrokes
  • All the haphazard markings in the background seemingly to use up all the paint
  • The limited palette
  • The loose hair
  • The lightness of the woman contrasted to the shadowy background
  • Nature is suggested with rich dark colours in the background.

final study for waterhouse Waterhouse painted with oils but I used acrylics. I painted on 140lb Canson Watercolour paper.

In my version, she looks a bit peeved, certainly in no mood to seduce any man.

I particularly liked the big brushstrokes, all the colours in her hair, and using a limited palette in this painting. 

I leave her as she is, a simple study.

Visit my blog posts to see previous masters studied including Pietro della Francesca,  Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci 

(header photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash)         

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