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Dancing on Paper: Elizabeth Murray’s Fluid Explorations in Watercolor

elizabeith murray watercolor
Watercolor using gouache a technique by Elizabeth Murray

Elizabeth Murray: A Master of Watercolor

Elizabeth Murray, born as Elizabeth Heaphy in 1815, was a renowned British watercolorist. She is celebrated for her vibrant and delicate portraits and landscapes, primarily inspired by the scenes from the Canary Islands, where she resided for a decade. Murray’s works are distinguished by their colorful palette, featuring an abundance of chestnut, blue, violet, pink, black, scarlet, and gold, as well as olive and tar colors applied in bright and intense shades.

The beauty of the human form in motion serves as my muse.”

Elizabeth Murray

Murray’s artistic journey began under the guidance of her father, Thomas Heaphy, a seasoned watercolor painter. Their shared travels and painting experiences significantly shaped Murray’s artistic style and approach.

Technical Achievements

Despite facing barriers as a female artist, Murray mastered watercolor technique. Female artists faced limiting expectations in her time, but Murray’s family encouraged her creative gifts. While unable to formally study, she diligently practised watercolor technique through self-guided experimentation. Murray found inspiration observing dancers at local theatrical productions.

Her layered washes achieved blended color transitions and anatomical shading. Compositions framed viewers as audience members watching vivacious performances. Through fluid applications harnessing watercolor’s qualities, Murray’s works resonated with critics and audiences of her time.

The Gouache Technique: Murray’s Signature Style

Murray’s artistry deviated from traditional watercolor artists as she frequently employed the gouache technique in her works. This method involves mixing watercolors with a white pigment to create a more opaque and vibrant effect. Gouache, with its higher pigmentation than watercolors and added chalk or calcium carbonate, results in a flat and opaque finish rather than a glossy and transparent one. This technique enabled Murray to create highly accurate and delicate portraits, with a unique style that transcended gender and subject matter.

Elizabeth Heaphy Murray Vista de La Orotava y del Pico Teide

The use of gouache in watercolor painting introduces more colors and textures to the artwork. It can be used to:

  • Increase tone and intensity in certain areas
  • Cover or fade out sections
  • Add new dimensions to the painting

This versatility and the ability to correct mistakes by painting over them make gouache a forgiving and flexible medium, especially for artists who enjoy experimenting with different techniques and effects.

“The Cheat Detected”1866A watercolor painting that was reproduced in The Illustrated London News.Unknown
“Dotty Dimple”1869A watercolor signed by Elizabeth Murray, circulated as a Christmas postcard in America.Essj. Collection
“Copy of Murillo’s San Antonio”1853A watercolor copy of “The Vision of San Antonio de Padua” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.Unknown
“Una bolera” (A Bowling Alley)1853Exhibited at the Academia de Bellas Artes de Santa Cruz de Tenerife.Unknown
“Alfred Diston”1854A watercolor portrait signed by Elizabeth Murray.Private collection (San Cristóbal de La Laguna)
“Lady Georgina Murray”1843A portrait made with watercolor and traces of white gouache.The Art Institute of Chicago

Murray’s Commissions

Murray’s works often depicted a wide range of subjects, including portraits, landscapes, and scenes from her travels. Her paintings were highly sought after, and she received commissions from notable figures, such as Queen Adelaide, to produce drawings. Her art was widely dispersed across Europe, and she became known as a citizen of the world, retaining the characteristics of an English gentlewoman

A Gifted Artist of Her Era

In conclusion, Elizabeth Murray illustrated a profound understanding of depicting human grace and energy in watercolor. Her diagonal compositions, blending washes, and lively lines breathed animation into figures. Murray developed skills bypassing limitations faced by women artists to achieve technical renown. She remains a pioneering British watercolorist celebrated for fluid depictions capturing the poetry of movement.

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