A Powerful Statement

It’s sometimes easy to forget that there’s more to art than the obvious elements of drawing, color, composition and paint. Some artists, like John Forward, are sensitive to public causes and try to bring those issues into their work. Forward, a strong watercolor painter from the British Isles, uses A Final Straw to make a statement about the horrible impact of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in England. Implicit in the image is his feeling about the government’s handling of the situation.

The drawing and painting here are marvelous, especially as they relate to the gravity of the situation being addressed. The mood is somber, reinforced by color choices and Forward’s selective use of light and scale. All the elements needed to establish that mood and the message are present. Still, I feel that some adjustments would strengthen the message even more.

Art Principles At Work
Establishing the horizon. The breaking of the composition midway in the vertical space creates a degree of viewer discomfort. The well-realized, ominous sky weighs so heavily that it competes with the elements in the lower half of the painting. One or the other should dominate. This is always a decision for the artist to make on his or her own, and it’s especially important when the message being conveyed is so serious and sincere. Never leave viewers unsure of where their eyes should settle.

Using texture strategically. In staging the lower half of this painting, more care could be taken to lead the eye to the segments that compose the crux of the painting’s story. As it stands now, the fore- and mid-ground areas are loaded with textural elements that are visually confusing. While the set of buildings that show the result of the tragic infestation of this farmer’s livestock is very well done—the crackling contrast of lights and darks and the rendition of the collapsing structures are perfect—I find the road that leads to them falling a bit short. In the interest of guiding the viewer, the pattern of ruts, puddles and reflections could have been simplified to make the road more clearly seen.

Taking liberties to add drama. In the foreground, flat and at an angle on the ground, is a sign that designates the scene as a quarantined foot-and-mouth site. There’s also a barrier, which I assume to be a plastic tape, blocking free entry. Regardless of the accuracy of this depiction, I think such important components require a stronger presentation. While there’s no need for the sign to scream its message, it could be made more readable. To have the sign more upright and a bit larger would give the viewer an obvious entry into the composition. The simplified road and puddle patterns, well stated in values and color, would then create a natural pointer to the buildings that compose the real human element in the story. Likewise, the tape that runs across the lower part of the painting might be a much stronger color (orange?) to make a jolting contrast with the somberness of the rest of the picture. Never forget that contrast is a key concept in art.

Lessons Learned
A Final Straw is a piece of work that’s consistent with the finest traditions of watercolor in England. Overall, Forward exhibits an excellent command of aqueous painting, with light control allowing enough release to let accidents happen. It’s a difficult thing to make a political point with a painting without either burying the issue or, conversely, hitting the viewer over the head with it. A few compositional and textural choices are all this painting needs to make a stronger statement that fits comfortably between the two extremes.

About the Artist
John Forward of Devon, England, works exclusively in watercolor. His work sells steadily in the United Kingdom and has placed in British competitions. He considers his style to be “realism with insight”: “Ideally I like my pictures to have tension and promise, like a pony that’s been warmed up in the paddock and is all set for some serious jumping.”

Cathy Johnson is a contributing editor of Watercolor Magic and author of 26 books on art, nature and history.

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