Meet Yorkshire Watercolour Artist John Harrison
John Harrison's watercolour illustrations showcase Yorkshire in all its beauty
John is Yorkshire born and bred. He’s a trained graphic designer with a strong illustrative style born out of what he describes as ‘voracious childhood reading Rupert the Bear; Swallows and Amazons; Just William; the Narnia series, and countless comics from both sides of the Atlantic’. He was a professional drummer in the 70s, then retrained as a graphic designer in 1980, working in the print industry. ‘I also took part in Sky Arts’ Landscape Artist of the Year in 2017, and the much-loved TV series Watercolour Challenge, recently refreshed by Channel 5, which was broadcast in early 2022.’
He’s been drawing for as long as he can remember. ‘My graphic design training didn't involve computers at all,’ he says. ‘We learnt to use an ink pen and I took to it like the proverbial duck to water.’
Largely self-taught, John doesn’t consider himself a painter but does use the medium of watercolour to highlight his drawings. A lot of his artwork features built structures in the landscape – combining the beauty of both man-made and natural structures. His work is in many private collections both in the UK and internationally and he enjoys working on commissions. ‘I’m fascinated by contrasts: man-made structures against the natural landscape, black, strong ink linework against the fluidity and looseness of watercolour, bright light against dark shadow,’ he says. ‘I strive to use as little paint as possible, preferring to let the drawing speak for itself. It all starts (and often ends) with a drawing – usually in strong, crisp ink. It always has, and always will.’
He finds his inspiration in various places, from Yorkshire’s Dales, its coastline and the Lake District, to cities, villages and townscapes. ‘I’m always looking for dynamic viewpoints with an interesting perspective, featuring strong light and shadows,’ he says. ‘There are many artists who inspire me, including well known legendary figures (Quentin Blake, Ralph Steadman, David Hockney and David Gentleman) as well as many who have been recent influences, discovered online, and many have become firm friends in real life. They are, in no particular order, Brian Ramsey, Ian Sidaway, Phil Dean (the Shoreditch Sketcher), Paul Talbot-Greaves, Simone Ridyard, Don Gore, Ian Fennelly, Haidee-Jo Summers, David Gentleman, David Curtis and Ian Burke.’
John travels a lot but says he always receives unwavering support from Yorkshire folk. ‘Even more so after I got the commission to illustrate Yorkshire Tea's Gold packaging a couple of years ago,’ he adds. ‘I’m also staggered at the reach of my art: in this internet-fuelled age, ex-Yorkshire folk from across the globe (from the USA, Australia and Canada) regularly write or comment on my Instagram posts.’
John’s work can be seen in The Old School Gallery in Muker as part of the annual Festival of Arts in Staithes in September and he’s busy working on new pieces for this year's Staithes Festival (15th–17th September) and a few house portrait commissions. Meanwhile, he’s also working on a new sketchbook facsimile curated from his recent sketchbooks, a new range of greetings cards and a calendar for 2024.
John’s new book (Pen and Wash) is expected to publish early next year and was commissioned by leading art publisher Crowood Press. ‘It is a practical guide to my drawing/painting processes, focusing on the ink drawing aspect and it covers the conventional line and wash techniques, as well as my slightly unorthodox methods,’ John explains. ‘The book has chapters devoted to basic techniques, my favoured materials and equipment, more advanced techniques, and several detailed step-by-step demonstrations.I also cover pen drawing, and where to find inspiration for your subjects.’
In the meantime you can pick John’s brains about his techniques, and have a go yourself in his workshops. ‘I’m very lucky to be able to run workshops for a wide variety of organisations,’ he reveals. ‘Art clubs, societies and groups as well as dedicated art venues and a couple of art shops which have in-house studios, as well as, surprisingly, a couple of large garden centres which host art workshops.’
When asked what the future holds, John replies: ‘Hopefully, more years of running workshops and demos, and finally finding the answer to the eternal question – how do I know when a painting's finished?’
What’s your favourite piece you’ve created?
Wow! It’s impossible to choose just one from the hundreds I've created, but it would probably be something from one of my sketchbooks rather than a formal, finished piece.
What advice would you give budding artists?
Draw, draw and draw – every day if possible – even if only for five minutes. Don't get lost in the search for ‘perfection’ – it doesn’t exist. Do your own thing, don't be discouraged too easily and never give up.
An item you couldn’t live without.
My iPhone. It’s invaluable for responding to emails/comments on the go; it gets me to places I need to be for demos and workshops; takes great reference photos; and was a key bit of kit when writing my book. I would dictate my thoughts into the Notes app when walking, and the text would be there on my Macbook when I got home to my studio.
If I'm allowed two items – a sketchbook.
Your favourite artsy place in Yorkshire?
Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield.
A Yorkshire artist you love?
For me, there’s one who is head and shoulders above all the others: a Bradford lad – David Hockney.
A book and a series you recommend.
Any of David Hockney's books, and I can thoroughly recommend the Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year series, not least as I appeared on it in 2017, but it's a great source of inspiration (and all episodes are available on catch up).