The medium of watercolour features heavily in this year's Royal Society of Marine Artists Annual Exhibition. Below we hear from some of the artists about the merits and challenges of painting in watercolours.

The history of watercolours has a long British legacy, particularly in marine painting given JMW Turner's association with the medium. More recent innovators include David Hockney, who has championed the spontaneity of the medium. He said, "With watercolour, you can't cover up the marks. There's the story of the construction of the picture, and then the picture might tell another story as well." As such, the fluidity of watercolours is perfect for depicting water itself, evoking the rhythm of moving tides and windswept coastlines.

Geoff Hunt PPRSMA, A Pub on the Tideway (The 'Prospect of Whitby'), 51 x 43 cm - £875

Geoff Hunt PPRSMA

I enjoy the medium for its immediacy, the sense of momentary magic when a bit of watercolour appears to go right, counterbalanced by the many hours of misery when you know it’s all gone wrong. It is a medium of emotional extremes. That and the luminosity is what attracts me to watercolours. 

This was painted entirely on the spot one very pleasant late August afternoon, mainly as a reaction to the airy and spacious atmosphere. Dark notes of the foreground structures set off the brightness of the distance, feathery willow leaves just suggesting the gentle breeze.

Diana Boanas, Pedn Vounder Rock Pool, 56 x 74 cm - £600

Diana Boanas

Watercolour has a unique translucency which offers itself to the painting of water. Leaving the unpainted white of the paper creates intense highlights which are perfect for illustrating the light on water and its reflected shadows, so abundant in marine scenes. Watercolour has a reputation for being insipid, which is far from the case: with beautiful rich colours, you can be bold and dramatic. Water surfaces and underwater scenes contain interactions of hard and soft lines describing the movement and watercolour lends itself perfectly to this. What better way to depict water than to use it with expression and fluidity as a painting medium.

Keith Morton, Orange Boat 44 x 55 cm - £390

Keith Morton 

Two aspects of watercolour particularly attract me. The transparency, the ability to keep adding strength to a colour until I’m happy with the tone. And the freshness that comes with watercolour painting not being an entirely predictable process. 

I find that the most difficult aspect of painting marine scenes is drawing boats accurately without overworking them. In this painting, my lack of practise with a Chinese brush helped to stop the line-work from becoming too laboured.

I noticed this scene while on a day’s sketching at Woolwich Reach, and managed to get a few snaps of the area before getting moved on ‘for my own protection’. What then inspired me to paint the picture was the design opportunity of using one large image to dominate the painting.

Andrew Dibben, Sheringham West Slipway, 58 x 77 cm - £895

Andrew Dibben

I like the portability of watercolour equipment, and the way that a painting made on location can be safely transported straight away without risk of smudging. The medium is equally good for work which takes longer to complete, such as in the studio. Watercolour is exceptionally good for the rendition of fine detail, such as in the flaking paint and decaying wood which I have often depicted. The colours can have remarkable intensity, and also great luminosity from the light reflecting off the white paper, back through the applied wash of colour.

This particular subject is one that I am very familiar with, and have painted Sheringham West Slipway a number of times over a 30 year period, from various angles. Although I have painted in situ here on occasion, this was a studio painting, based on a series of photographs taken on one particular day. I went to the location knowing that long shadows are cast by the boats on the slipway in mid-afternoon, and hoping that the boats would be arranged in an interesting way on the day.

I worked from one main photo but used elements of others to produce a more interesting painting. I chose to use a half-sheet of watercolour paper, which is 38 x 56 cm, or 15 by 22 inches. This gives a reasonable amount of room for detail while remaining relatively easy to control. Large washes in a bigger work can be challenging. Working in the studio allows one to depict greater detail and more accuracy than when working on location, but there is a risk of the result looking a bit "dead" if one works on it for too long. But it is nice to be able to work in the studio at times since our weather is a little unpredictable - and cold at times!

Alan Runagall RSMA, 'Melissa' at Pin Mill, 47 x 57 cm -  £725

Alan Runagall RSMA

Although the boats in my paintings are usually the main interest and focal point, I consider that the painting should work as a whole and should be a complete work of art without any boats. For this reason the sky, for me, is the most important part of the painting. I usually try to paint the sky in one wash and carry this wash down to the bottom of the paper. I find that this gives a harmony of colour to my paintings.

Although I did experiment with oils in my early years, I always preferred painting in watercolour as it is such a clean and unmessy medium. After your painting is finished it can be popped in your bag or rucksack without getting spoilt. Your palette can be washed down with water and off home you can go with no more fuss. Also I do like to paint quickly and I find I'm able to capture those fleeting glimpses of light in watercolour, which can lift a painting. Another bonus with watercolour is that sometimes a piece of ‘magic’ happens to the painting which was not planned. This can be quite exciting and can enhance your painting too.

I have always loved the Thames Barge since I was a lad when I watched them sailing up the river Roach to Stambridge Mills with their cargo of grain. As such, I find Pin Mill, on the River Orwell, a very inspiring place to paint. It is important to work out a good composition at the start, but in this case, after a short walkabout, the composition chose itself with little change required by me. I find that Saunders Waterford paper suits my style of painting and I normally work on quarter imperial (15” x 11”) outdoors. After washing in the sky and then overpainting the firm sandy river bed, I worked from the distant shore to the vessel on the left before going back to paint my focal point of s.b. ‘Melissa’. I like to leave the most exciting part of the painting until the end. It is often the last 10 minutes of working that pulls the painting together.

Deborah Walker RSMA RI, Sunlight and Shadows, 100 x 110 cm - £3,600

Deborah Walker RSMA RI

I'm drawn to the medium of watercolour by its technical complexity, its freshness, subtlety and luminosity. Watercolour is difficult. While the paint is wet it is alive, it moves and changes position in a way that other painting mediums don't. With a fascination for alchemy, the challenge continues.

In terms of watercolour, when faced with an expanse of essentially blue sea and sky, I try to find just one blue that will be suitable for both. This blue must have the subtlety to deliver the delicate shades in the sky, while also possessing the body and depth to achieve the rich tonalities found in the water. I then look for mixing colours that will offer the many variances of the sea and sky, to move the blue towards both purple and green and also shades of grey.

I was inspired to paint Old Harry Rocks, depicted in 'Sunlight and Shadows', by the challenge to paint the rock as negative space. In watercolour your lightest light is the white of the paper, therefore in painting the white rock, you are literally painting everything apart from the rock itself. You are painting everything around it, above and below it, only giving structure to it by painting the shadows cast across it. The white rock is the white of the paper.

In some of my larger paintings, having researched the subject, I often write lines of text, poetry and prose, using watercolour and a dip pen. These outline the history, the geographical and geological detail, along with lines of poetry that add to my sense of the place.  The words written in 'Sunlight and Shadows' are a distillation of the paragraph below:

"Old Harry Rocks is a name given to a chalk stack found below the cliffs at Ballard, east of Studland, marking the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast. There are two stories regarding the naming of the rocks. The name ‘Harry’ or ‘Old Harry’ were once familiar names for the devil, like the old saying, ‘to play Old Harry’ which means ’to ruin or destroy’. He is said to have taken a nap on the rocks! The other explanation links the name to the infamous pirate Harry Paye, who used to store his contraband nearby and use the rocks to lie in wait for passing ships. Either way, Old Harry Rocks were so-called as a warning to keep shipping well clear! The blinding sunlight reflecting off the chalk, modelled by softly contrasting shadows give shape and form to the cliffs."

“...for let the form of an object be what it may, - light, shade and perspective will always make it beautiful.” – John Constable

The Royal Society of Marine Artists Annual Exhibition is on view 10 to 19 October. 

Browse the Exhibition Online