• Karen Thomas

They say never meet your heroes ...

I'm excited. Nervous too. My friends will be rolling their eyes here because, conversationally, I've done this to death already.

Next Saturday, I'm off to Dedham Hall again in the heart of Constable Country. I've done a few courses there now, all brilliant and highly enjoyable. This time, I'm lucky enough to be invited as part of a long-established week-long painting party. With a gentleman I've been hoping I'd meet one day, whom I consider to be the senior champion (still living!) of my chosen watercolour 'family tree'. He hasn't taught now for a number of years, but to paint in his presence with a chance of glimpsing genius over his shoulder is to my mind an opportunity that can't be missed.

Up to now, it has seemed nigh-on impossible to infiltrate this group. But far from having to become a ninja and planning covert intelligence-gathering operations, a couple of good art friends made along the way have opened up the door. In a case of "dead mans shoes" (except it's a lady who can't make it and she's certainly not fallen off her perch) the invitation I thought would never happen has been extended. Now of course, my tail is on fire as I try to do justice to this opportunity!

Many great things have been said about this unfailingly modest great. One of my much-loved regular tutors, Steve Hall, has even written a book on him (highly recommended, titled "As I See It").

"...recognised as one of the most accomplished watercolour painters of his generation. ... now regarded as one of Britain’s finest contemporary impressionists, he has been the subject of two documentaries on watercolour painting and three books have been written about his work." (Johnathan Grant Galleries)

The man himself - and from what I've read this is typical of him - credits his much-emulated-but-never-matched loose, impressionistic style on his 'mediocre eyesight'!

In my time painting, I have probably devoured every word ever written by this gentleman. Some of his theories are committed to memory. His DVDs are worn out. For me, he is one of the masters of mark-making and freshness.

One of the lovely things about this watercolour passion of mine is that I'm usually the 'baby' of the group, and trust me I'm no spring chicken! It has meant I benefit from an awful lot of collective experience when I'm on a week at Dedham Hall. I have sat on many evenings, as the wine flows and talk turns to the legendary painting party weeks. Listening to tales of painting heroics, disasters of comic proportions, what this gentleman said to so-and-so when his boat resembled a coffin, even what this very polite man says when he can't see anything positive to comment on in your painting! ... you get the picture. So there's a real feeling for me of following a tradition, treading my watercolour elders' path. I know this is a hopelessly romantic view, but as I've said before, I am unashamedly romantic!

I'll leave you with some of the paintings I've completed in the run up to get my eye sharpened for the style, two of them are paintings completed alongside his DVD as I try to get inside his head. A lot of people approach learning in these situations by continuing to 'do their thing', painting their usual way and trying to pick up the odd nugget of gold in terms of skill and knowledge. I'm unusual here, because I emulate as closely as I'm capable of (which usually isn't very close!), that which I'm there to learn. It's the best way I can think of to honour the time a good tutor or a great painter has spent with me. I also pick up a lot on how a painter has chosen to simplify a scene and condense it down to a good composition. I literally try to see through their eyes for a while. A very Eastern learning philosophy. We all learn differently and each to their own, but I know that any different approach would for me feel like either my own ego or fear of failure had got in the way. With my approach, I have a physical record of the learning that I can store away and I have all the time in the world to let the learning fall-out inform my own style.

There's a bit of background to this approach. Way back, in my corporate days, I was a trainer for hire. My professional qualifications were mostly to do with how adults learn. 'Human resource development' as the buzzword was then. I'm very familiar with how to structure information in order to assimilate knowledge and skills at fairly uncommon speeds, and I've naturally applied this to my art. God help my students when I start to teach ;) Of course, this doesn't immunise me from making a fairly major ass of myself learning-wise sometimes - nor should it! I firmly believe that their is no progress to be had without failure.

Fellow painters, have you guessed who the gentleman is yet? Wish me luck!

"Trying on Hats" - my own composition

"The Red Tractor" - my own composition

"Woodbridge" - After John Yardley

"Flowers in the Hallway" - After John Yardley