Turner ad the Sea

Glad that I did make the effort to go to the last day of the Turner and the sea exhibition at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich. It was very crowed what with it being a bank holiday and sometimes hard to see the paintings with out heads obscuring the view. This combined with the god awful music that was being played nearly made me regret the trip. The paintings thankfully eclipsed the irritations.

Other artist where on show as well. These where either paintings that would have inspired Turner as a young artist such as Claud Lorrian and or paintings of contemporaries like Gainsborough and Constable.

It quickly becomes apparent from the earliest of his Maritime paintings the man was  a gunnies, no question. He seems to effortlessly combine technical accuracy with feel drama and excitement all in a harmonies composition and pallet. His earlier scenes are heroic, ambitious often large and full of tiny details. In his depiction’s of crew hands you can see a knowledge of human anatomy. The fleets of boats in the paintings must also have been well studied to be reproduced in such minute detail.

The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 1823-4 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805′ (1823-24) 2.61 x 3.68 m J.W.M Turner

The epic painting ‘The Battle of Trafalgar’ (1823 – 1824) 2.61 x 3.68 m marks Turners pinnacle in his first style. The sky is magnificent. Both life like and complementary in hues of blue, violet, soft yellows and  greens. The battle unfurls on red brown seas descending to almost black in paces. brighter yellows and reds mould ships and bodies. The different elements of the action make larger clumps in differing hues. For instance the mid distance ship far right. The tiny men and large ship appear almost as a separate tonal study. Where brows and brown tinted white are used for shadow and high light over an  wash of reddish tan. This is a technique I will try to remember and utilise myself.

The yellowish ships blend with the brownish/reddish seas and complements with the blues of the sky. plums of grey-violet and purple smoke rises into the blue skis seamlessly bridging the two parts of the painting allowing the eye to travel.

I was particularly struck by the colours used by all of the painters executed here. It is clear a lot of thought goes into the preplanning in regards to colour. Often orange-red skis sing against blue-green seas. Or blues are seen against yellows in sea and sky and land. Also analogues play appear with yellows to greens to blue greens or blues to purples to violets to pinks.

I notice the clouds have clear blocks. As though in the under paintings the sea may be put in as all blue-green and the sky as all orange-red for example. Then the artist take care to keep these colour blocks distinguishable by making highs and low tints and shades or using analogues in these sections.

It is said that Turner studied the art of the past at every opportunity. Hardly surprising from a man that left behind over 20,00 paintings and sketches. He kept a close eye of the production of his contemporaries (rivals) who often sort to emulate his style. Turner remained ahead of the field taking his painting in different directions to maintain his individuality and ability to command the highest prices for his work. ‘Now for the painter – Passengers going on board’ shows a move towards a loser style. It was painted specifically to be exhibited at RA summer exhibition. It was 8 years after he last produced a large painting on a Marian subject. The title is said to both symbolise his return to the marine painting arena and poke fun a t fellow artist Clark Stanfield who failed to finish a painting entitled ‘Throwing the Painter’ for the previous years exhibition.

(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Now for the Painter – the Passengers going Abroad (1827) Oil on Canvas 68×88″


The painting seems to radiate form a central point in a circular spiral. many of Turners painting favour this circular composition which leads the focus to the centre point. In may ways like the swirling weather around the eye of a storm. A predominately pale Yellow,Blue and pink palette fill the painting with light. The sky is almost becoming abstract. With clouds and weather suggested, appearing changeable and translucent i mature as they truly are. the tide seems to part at Turners command creating an imaginative tunnel to invite the viewer in. The sides of the watery half pipe curl up at the bottom edges. A cacophony of subtle greens, green blues, blues, purple,reds,oranges,yellows all harmonies to make up the surface of the sea. The boats and figures themselves are still quite tight with intricate detailing. It is in the sky and sea we see the artists imagination soaring.

Moving on to Turners later works we sea the voice of the artist coming through as the strongest element to the paintings. The subject just becomes the vehicle for the work. If the early works are awe inspiring these later paintings are like pure emotion out down in paint that words can not describe.


‘Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, (1842) Oil on Canvas 36 x 48 ” Defiantly one of my all time favourite paintings.

A Wreck, with Fishing Boats © Tate

A Wreck, with Fishing Boats’ (1840-45) 36×48″Oil on Canvas


It was great to see some of Turners sketch books. Most interestingly form these an the selection of oil and watercolour sketches and unfinished works on display i can see that Turners main fascination was with mood,weather and atmosphere. He begins his studies with these elements seeming to feel for the composition by building up dashes of colour or mark here and there. Thinking of my own work that can become ridged when I take so much care to get the structure in first that they lose any sense of ‘art’ and become dull lifeless drawings. I am going to try to approach drawing more in this way. Experiment with getting the mood down first. Then the structural elements can come in.

Composition Study for a Sea Piece, with Small Boats in Choppy Water circa 1799-1805 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Study for a sea piece, with small boats in choppy water from Calais Pier. Sketchbook – 1799-1805, pen and ink with wash and extensive black and white chalk on blue paper. 17 x 10 “.

Ship in a Storm circa 1826 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

‘Ship in a storm’ (1823-26) watercolour and pencil. 241 x 300 mm. The subject ‘ship in a storm’ comes up again and again with Turner in oil paintings and also mezzo prints and engravings. This sketch was probably used by the artist to refer to when working on the more finished pieces. This sketch nicely demonstrates Turners approach of getting the atmosphere/mood down first, here the swirling sea and sky before the structural elements such as the ship.


More Turner work including lots of sketchbook images



About Emma Perring

Artist, oil painter

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