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From Walker’s Quarterly (1922) by Basil S. Long
EVERY water-colour painter knows the useful bluish-grey tint called "Payne's Grey"; comparatively few are aware that it derives its name from an early practitioner of the art, William Payne (working 1776-1830), who invented it and made frequent use of it in his drawings.
Of William Payne but little is recorded: the place and date of his birth and death are forgotten. From the fact that he first exhibited in 1776, it may be deduced that he was probably born about 1755-60, and he is supposed to have been a native of Devonshire, a county which produced numerous artists of note in the 18th century, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Ozias Humphry, R.A., Richard Cos way, R.A., and Richard Grosse, the miniaturist. Payne practiced as a civil engineer at the Government Dockyard, Plymouth Dock (Devonport), before devoting himself exclusively to art.
He was living in Devonshire in 1780-1789, and that by 1790 he had definitely left that county for London. He may have had sufficient means to permit him to throw up his employment in the Government Dockyard, or he may have decided that he had now developed sufficient skill in painting in his spare time to justify him in leaning upon it as a means of livelihood.
At all events, it would appear from the account of Payne given by his contemporary, William Henry Pyne (1769-1843), the gossipy and somewhat inaccurate author of Wine and Walnuts, and editor of the Somerset House Gazette, that he was very successful as a teacher: to his commencement in this capacity, he says, "properly may be dated the fixed period for superseding the established precepts for teaching, for the more fascinating properties of dashing, colouring and effect. The method of instruction in the art of drawing landscape compositions, had never been reduced so completely to the degenerate notions of this epoch of bad taste, as by this ingenious artist. Mr. Payne's drawings were regarded as striking novelties in style. His subjects in small, were brilliant in effect and executed with spirit they were no sooner seen than admired, and almost every family of fashion were anxious that their sons and daughters should have the benefit of his tuition. Hence for a long period, in the noble mansions of St. James's Square and Grosvenor Square and York Place and Portland Place, might be seen elegant groups of youthful amateurs manufacturing landscapes, a la Payne. The process was certainly captivating, as exhibited in his happiest works, though much of their merit was the result of dexterity and trick, as exemplified by the granulated texture obtained by dragging. The fallacy of which process was sufficiently exposed in every attempt at composition on a larger scale, in the same style. But with Mr. Payne, as with many another genius, we can admire all that is original and praiseworthy. These strictures are not directed against the exercise of style, or manner, or trick, or any means by which an artist obtains effect, so that his works have merit. Our censures are levelled at the defective system of teaching, and we shall continue our animadversions on this subject, under the hope that a due exposure of so fundamental an error may open the eyes of the public, and that this willful perversion may be succeeded by a general reformation in the practice of teaching the rising generation so useful and so elegant an accomplishment."
Young, ambitious John Glover (1767-1849) was one of Payne's pupils: while still living in the North of England he took advantage of occasional visits to the Metropolis in or before 1794 to have eight lessons from him.
That Payne's art was well known to his artistic confreres is shown by the contemporary reference of James Roberts on page 5 of his Introductory Lessons for Painting in Water-colours (published in 1800), who says that "Mr. Payne has also enriched the public store with several Views, executed with that seeming ease that almost precludes imitation." Reynolds is said to have expressed admiration for some of Payne's Devonshire views, notably a drawing of the slate quarries at Plympton; while further evidence of his reputation is afforded by his election in 1809 as an Associate of the Society of Painters in Water-Colours, popularly known as the "Old Water-Colour Society," and now officially styled the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours.
He exhibited with the Old Water-Golour Society in 1809, 1810, 1811 and 1812, but ceased to belong to it when it was reconstituted in 1812. A series of manuscript volumes at the Victoria and Albert Museum, giving the prices of drawings shown at these exhibitions, indicate that Payne was selling his water-colours at this period for sums varying between three guineas and forty guineas. The total number of his exhibits was rather more than a hundred. As will be seen, the latest of the above dates is 1830, and there is no evidence to show that Payne survived that year.
Payne's contribution to the Society of Artists in 1776 was merely described as a "Landscape." From 1786 his exhibits are almost exclusively topographical, or sufficiently so to bear the names of localities, and it is clear that like most of the water-colour landscapists of the day he travelled about the country. In public collections there are views in Cheshire, Norfolk and Yorkshire, though it is possible that some of these views may have been worked up from sketches by other hands. This was a method practiced by Turner and many other artists, and that Payne adopted it would appear from his view of Clifton from a sketch by Robert Winter, now at South Kensington.
The most useful general observations upon Payne's work are those of Pyne and the Redgraves. The former, who mentions that the term "style" originated with Payne's drawings, has already been quoted. The Redgraves remark that "Payne adopted many peculiarities in his methods of execution, some of which are valuable additions to the art. He abandoned the use of outline with the pen. His general process was very simple. Having invented a grey tint (still known by the colourmen as Payne's grey), he used it for all the varied gradations of his middle distance, treating the extreme distance, as also the clouds and the sky, with blue. For the shadow, in his foreground, he used Indian ink or lampblack, breaking these colours into the distance by the admixture of grey. In this he differed but slightly from the other artists of his time, but his methods of handling were peculiarly his own. These consisted in splitting the brush to give the forms of foliage, dragging the tints to give texture to his foreground, and taking out the forms of lights by wetting the surface and rubbing with bread or rag. He seems to have been among the first who used this practice, which, in the hands of Turner, became such a powerful aid to effect, and enabled the early painters in water-colour to refrain from using white or solid pigments in the lights.
"Having thus prepared a vigorous light and shade, Payne tinted his distance, middle distance and foreground with colour, retouching and deepening the shadows in front to give power to his work, and even loading his colour and using gum plentifully. He sought to enrich scenes wherein he had attempted effects of sunset or sunrise, by passing a full wash of gamboge and lake over the completed drawing. He abandoned mere topography for a more poetical treatment of landscape scenery, and although he has none of the delicacy of Cozens, and rarely touches our sympathies, he set an example of what might be done, even in the simpler practice of "tinting," by accidental effects, by selection of forms, by sunrays piercing through clouds which, like Cozens, he obtained by washing out, by mists and vapours, introducing such treatments into the practice of the art. Many of his works are of large size, and although occasionally very vacant and empty, and too often displaying great mannerism in handling, and little reference to nature, they served to lead the way for abler men who followed. Time has acted very unfavourably on his pictures; they have darkened very considerably, partly from the foxy-brown to which the general wash has changed, and partly from the too great strength of the black in the foreground."
From the technical point of view Payne's water-colours fall into several groups. In some of his earliest drawings, such as the View from Stonehouse Bridge, he seems to have outlined the subject with the pen, shaded it partly with washes of Indian ink, and then applied the local tints. Though the effect is less bold and dramatic than in other phases of his work, we may already notice his use of yellow and orange tints to give the impression of sunshine, and his fondness for contrasting a dark foreground with a light middle distance.
The most typical of Payne's styles is that found in his Landscape Composition at the British Museum, or his Coast Scene with Groups of Figures (1805) at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In this group of drawings, the immediate foreground is always dark, and a dark mass, e.g., of trees or shadow, projects on one or both sides further into the distance. On one or both sides, again, there is usually an overshadowing tree with its trunk in shadow, or a cliff, cutting the lighter tones of the distance or middle distance. The particular trick of the brush which distinguishes these drawings of Payne's from those of many of his contemporaries who used a similar formula of composition will be seen in the "striations," or quasi-parallel strokes, usually black in the foreground and grey in the remote planes, with which Payne breaks his surfaces. These "striations" run in all directions and consequently sometimes form angles with each other; they are frequently horizontal or nearly so, notably in the foreground or on water; on trees of the middle distance, for instance, or on figures, they are often diagonal; their length varies from small fractions of an inch to, say, an inch and a-half. These lines give vigour to the landscape, and contrast with the sky, which is painted rather than drawn, and is washed or sponged down to give a soft effect of cloud and atmosphere. Payne's skies often contain reddish patches.
There is always a good deal of grey in the drawings of this group, in the foreground, in the trees of the middle distance, and in the extreme distance. Distant figures are often expressed by a little silhouette of grey, while nearer ones are shaded in grey. Payne was a skillful figure draughtsman, but as a rule the figures are less significant than the landscape, though they often play an important part in the composition. They have the appearance of having been drawn rapidly and without hesitation; they are often shaded with bold strokes of the brush, and the eyes, nose and mouth are satisfactorily indicated by expressive dots.
The above-mentioned Landscape Composition at the British Museum is a very typical and boldly painted work and is a good example of the dramatic effect Payne obtained by skillful arrangement and contrast, combined with vigour of handling. It has a very dark foreground with the usual numerous black strokes, here largely horizontal or gently sloping. On the left a large tree, the rigidity of whose trunk is attenuated by a smaller one leaning by it, cuts the luminous middle distance of bluish water-falls, green slopes and yellowish castle shaded with grey, and helps the foreground to give it relief. The grey trees seen in silhouette against the paler distance show again the sloping parallel strokes on the castle they are horizontal. The faintest touch of mauve in the mountain which bounds the distance diversifies it from the Payne's-grey plain which precedes it. The lightly-clouded sky is luminous, without great contrasts. In the middle distance are signs of a little "dragging." (“Dragging," it may be observed, was not invented by Payne. It occurs, for instance, in water-colours by Dutch artists of the 17th century.)
Payne executed a certain number of drawings, mostly compositions, on rough, brown, rather absorbent paper. They are largely painted with opaque colour. They are so different in manner from the drawings already described that one might almost have doubted their being by the same hand, were they not properly authenticated. Often, but not always, the interest in these drawings is mostly in the foreground, which is not darkened to the same extent as in the second group. Payne seems to have sketched in the composition very slightly with pen or pencil, and after painting rapidly to have strengthened certain outlines with pen or brush. There is usually considerable evidence of " dragging," especially in the foreground: the small parallel strokes are absent, but the foreground is sometimes reinforced with dark, thick touches; the darker shadows are often enriched by the use of gum. The figures peasants, smugglers, banditti, etc. are cleverly grouped and staged. An effect of evening is often depicted.
That Payne was a great artist can hardly be pretended, but he possessed genuine imaginative feeling, even though the emotion he expresses is often that of the stage rather than of nature. He had an instinct for composition, a sense of colour and contrast, and great technical facility. His principles of pictorial construction were much the same as those of his earlier contemporaries, though some of his tricks of technique may have been more or less his own, and in the treatment of sunlight he was perhaps rather more successful than most of the artists with whom he had at first to compete. If he failed to profit by the innovations of Turner and Constable, his limitations were nevertheless wide enough to enable him to produce many works which warrant him a place in the history of British water-colour art, and the student and collector cannot afford to ignore so interesting and representative a painter.