JJ Hilder’s Technique by Lionell Lindsay
The gift of colour is rare among painters. It is Hilder’s particular charm. A slight draughtsman – for nature rarely bestows the sense of form with that of colour – he never exceeded his limitations, and within the boundaries of a few square inches of paper he became a little master.
The great personalities of Art as distinguished so brilliantly by Flaubert, are “great in despite of all faults, and because of them.” The smaller men are valuable only on account of their “execution achevee.” That “finished execution” was, for Hilder, his beautiful use of colour, for resthetically he belongs to the family of Diaz and Monticelli.
Of landscape characterisation such as is native to Streeton and Heysen, he had almost as little use as for that spectroscopic analy is of nature which turned so many artists of the last half century into pseudo-scientists. Hilder’s is the romance of colour, and for him the eye is sole and final arbiter.
His method was one of elimination. Like Cotman, he added nothing to nature, but he subtracted much. He used, as it were, but a pocket dictionary of nature, and a discriminating taste protected him from seeing more than he could effectively handle. Like most of the little masters from Whistler down wards, he eliminated all but the quintessential, leaving unelaborated spaces in his works as much for the imagination to complete as for the preservation of unity and repose.
His command of blue, the most difficult of all colours on the palette to manage, was astonishingly sure, and in the smaller pictures I can remember none in which that treacherous colour betrayed him.
Hilder’s technique is intimately associated with the paper he used, which was always of the roughest texture. In the grain of such paper colour collects, and its reticulated surface, casting little shadows, lends to any work done on it an atmospheric effect, which Hilder amplified by judicious scraping. As I never had the pleasure of seeing him at work, the following extract from a letter written to me by Julian Ashton, who was the first to discern in Hilder the promise of a remarkable painter, comes most happily to the elucidation of his remarkable technique :
“His early work was the most original work in watercolour that I remember to have seen. While he probably recognised that the handling of edges is one of the most difficult problems the artist has to tackle, his unerring sense of colour held him in so powerful a grip that he would actually leave a tiny line of white paper around each touch so as to keep it pure and intact.
“In his first examples he was most jealous of the purity of colour of the page on which he worked. I have seen him reject a piece of mounted watercolour board on account of some slight discolouration of the surface.
“The more he advanced, the more he felt that harmony of tone was more important than purity of colour , and his later work shows that the amazing solidity of his technique was frequently gained by the skilful washing of several light colours over the paper before he laid the last magical tone which drew the whole picture into harmony.
“His skill in laying on these washes of colour was amazing. In some of those calm blue seas he would, after putting in a preliminary delicate wash or two, sweep a rich pure blue right over the paper , leaving the sea -birds, the masts and rigging of the ship, the sails and the hull sharply outlined in the under lying wash. Of course the whole of this had to be done while the surface of the paper was thoroughly wet. It carried with it the achievement of a master in the handling of that most difficult medium – watercolour.”
There is about Hilder’s very early works a certain hardness, and the opposition of colour is sometimes so emphatic as to give them the air of little posters, but he soon lost this characteristic, and his middle period, about 1907, represents, I think, his period of greatest originality. Rich in colour contrasts, skilfully harmonised, we have here the unmistakable Hilder, discoverer of a new Hesperides, whose work resembles no predecessor’s, and whose undoubted originality is a distinct contribution to the art of his time.
Later, his manner broadened; his touch became more facile and less precious. He worked no longer by a Venetian sense of opposition, but in warm harmonies of colour, not so pure and gem-like as in his earlier work, but more suggestive, and, in some of the larger works, with a distinct increase of power.
In the large watercolours the handling of the colour spaces is not so felicitous as in the small and medium sized works. Though he gathered strength in the end to handle a larger surface, his earliest essays in that direction were but dilution of more concentrated things. The slightness of drawing almost necessary for any preservation of breadth in the little water colours is here more apparent, and although the treatment i-: always broad, and in many cases, adequate to the space entailed, there is generally wanting that mysterious and tender treatment of some point of central interest upon which the eye dwells with an ever increasing satisfaction and delight.
Hilder is our first romantic painter. Like Keats, he lay all his life under the spell of beauty. Place nor time affected him. The blue of the sea, the gold sunlight, the bronzen flush of westering suns on copse and hill, the tranquil silhouette of trees, the cloudless sky and windless weather, he paid them tribute with a grateful brush.
Serenity, the quiet sea, the unbroken sky, and his passionate pursuit of sunlight and beauty – do they not denote the chosen of the gods, upon whom so early lay the inexorable shadow of night.
His fame is already assured. Had he not so constantly sought after beauty, his success might easily have trapped him into prettiness and pleasing fatuity. But his vision and his integrity of character saved him that common fate of the successful. Within the limits of a few square inches of paper he is a master, commanding his vision with ease and delicacy, and, with a rare and individual mind, stating that vision in terms of originality and beauty.