PERFECTION PERCEIVED

ARCHITECTURE IN
PAINT AND PAPER

Versailles' Trianon de Porcelaine.

Illustrations and words
by Andrew Zega & Bernd H. Dams
at Architectural Watercolours

Anyone willing to dig the lost and long disappeared architectonic caprices in which the 18th Century Louises of France—and their architects—indulged, will inevitably bump into Bernd H. Dams and Andrew Zega. The renderings of such constructions are only a fraction of their extensive artistic production and to discover Andrew and Bernd will be, or at least for us it was, like opening a Pandora’s Box, a trove of all things beautiful, from where palaces, pavilions, follies and other architectonic ornaments flow in sumptuous procession. Combining knowledge, skill and talent they founded Architectural Watercolors nearly 25 years ago and together, by fusing the conventions of architectural delineation with a highly realistic technique that has become their trademark, they succeed in reproducing in paper the likes of some of the world’s most extraordinary buildings.

Introduction

We would like to begin by explaining a bit about why our watercolors look as they do. The first and most obvious characteristic is the white ground, which actually comes from botanical and ornithological illustration and serves to isolate and focus the subject. Thus, there are no visual clues to help enliven a building: no sky, grass, trees or surrounding buildings; no couples hand-in-hand, pushing strollers or children holding balloons; no taxis, street vendors or any of the other hackneyed staffage employed by architectural delineators. Above all, there are no distractions. All the information about light, atmosphere and time of day are carried by the building itself. The isolation serves to focus the viewer’s regard upon the object and accentuate the often figural and expressive outlines of the buildings, their sculpture and ornament.

Orangerie at Heidelberg.

Our work on each watercolor is neatly divided. The drawing is done by Bernd and the painting by Andrew, while we hash through the tricky questions together. Impeccable draftsmanship underlies each watercolor and demands analytical and preparatory studies of geometries, proportions and details for each building element, before reaching a final template drawing. It is a long and involved process—particularly when reconstituting historic buildings from unreliable or conflicting period documentation—that demands discernment and an encyclopedic knowledge of architectural history and traditional building practice.

Villa Balbiano, Lake Como.

Once the template drawing is finalized, Bernd draws it again upon a fresh sheet of Arches hot pressed watercolor paper. It is a painstaking process that demands precision from a light and uniform hand. It is often tedious, particularly when confronting large buildings with ranks of uniform windows and endless rows of minutely scaled slate shingles. The drafting work finished, Andrew soaks and staples the damp sheet to a plywood board and begins the watercolor once it has dried drum-taut. In aggregate, the time spent by each of us for a given watercolor is remarkably balanced, though only a fraction of Bernd’s contribution appears legible on the finished work and even then it is subsumed beneath the watercolor.

Project for a Belvedere at Sceaux by Le Brun.

Although we admire perspectives and do many ourselves, we concentrate upon elevation because of the abstract quality—a certain poise, austerity, aloofness and timelessness—it imparts to a rendering. An elevation is a technical document and, in a sense, an abstraction. Although you can never see an object this way, it is the most ‘truthful’ way of representing a thing, being the most objective. This austere and analytic presentation suits many of our subjects, particularly the wildly exotic garden follies, which are often gaudily painted and decorated, having more than a bit of ancien régime kitsch to them. This objectifies them and makes them documentary objects, if you will. Almost as if it said “well here it is, presented in its full reality ”; it does not judge or promote, it documents and allows the viewer to make his or her own judgments.

Both of us collect drawings. Bernd prefers architecture and enjoys masterfully executed engravings, while Andrew searches for drawings which exhibit an assured, masterful hand. We always cite nineteenth century German drawings as the example of what we never want to see occur in our own work because, with rare exceptions, they look dead; the obsession with precise line work has killed them. In French, one would say that they are figée, frozen; all the life and spontaneity has been drained out of them, and they are like exotic butterflies pinned in rows in a mahogany museum case. This is something we are always conscious of and it is a very difficult line to walk. The human eye can discern nearly infinitesimal wobbles in a supposedly straight line or the slightest shift in the center-line of a regular series. Consequently, there is nothing more unforgiving than to paint a trellis-work pavilion... Any irregularities are immediately registered.

Orangerie at Coubert.

Further to perspectives, we think that 3D rendering and photography have made them too much of a commonplace. Though they can be exquisitely handled and are essential tools for client presentations, as they effortlessly convey the gist of a project at a glance, we feel that today, paradoxically, the architect’s traditional method of presenting a building in a rendered elevation is most intriguing and expressive—it’s so old that it’s new again. It offers a distillation, not a snapshot. We are believers in the elevation and if the elevation doesn’t make a good drawing then there is almost always something problematic with the building itself.

“We wish to render objects
in their full reality,
not in an ideal state...
We celebrate particularity,
the textures of materials,
the effects of light and
the traces of age
and dirt and life”

The second most obvious thing about our watercolors is that they don’t really look like watercolors; they are deeply saturated and strive for photographic realism. In the traditional sense there’s nothing ‘painterly’ or watercolor-like about them: they have no daubed, watery washes and thus no felicitous accidents, they are carefully controlled and executed and in fact are really overscaled miniatures. Likewise, with rare exception, contemporary art simply dismisses realism and our work, because of its realism, is often compared to eighteenth century architectural illustration despite having very little in common with that era’s techniques. We consider our work to be resolutely contemporary, yet part of a long tradition and quite consciously so. It is didactic in that it is placed in the service of imparting information and documentation, which was the basis of all art until the Romantic revolution, at the turn of the nineteenth century, saw the rise of the impossible ideal of the artist as a lone, inspired genius.

Grotto of Thetys, Versailles.

The deep saturation and vivid shadows characteristic of our watercolors came about when Andrew saw our first architectural renderings published in a glossy architectural journal, and felt aghast. They were pale and pastel and lost on the page, overwhelmed by the graphic power of the surrounding photographs. This chagrin was a revelatory moment and impelled Andrew to remake his style so that our watercolors would compete on the page with any photograph and hold their own. A few final words about rendering and our style, which we don’t really think of as a style but rather as an attempt to portray objective reality. There is a big difference there, a fundamental one, actually. We do not try to impose a style, though we have developed a set of techniques that arrive at what one can, for lack of a better word, call a style. The most important influence on architectural rendering was of course the Parisian École des Beaux-Arts, which codified it over the course of the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth centuries.

Pyramid at Poltow, an Architectural Fantasy.

The Beaux-Arts style is founded upon the ideal, upon pure rationalism. The mathematical projection of shades and shadows was codified there and its delineation was of primary importance; the methods to render materials was not even addressed and, in fact, one has no idea what the building’s materials actually are when looking at a classical Beaux-Arts drawing. A roof looks just like a wall which looks just like a window. Everything was predicated on achieving perfection through the ideal and, because of this, the work of entire generations of draftsmen is perfectly uniform and indistinguishable; if a work is not signed we have no way of knowing who executed it.

We wish to render objects in their full reality, not in an ideal state. Our purpose is in fundamental opposition to the aims of the École des Beaux-Arts as we celebrate particularity, the textures of materials, the effects of light and the traces of age and dirt and life. Even if a building was never built—particularly if a building was never built—we want to render the project as if it had stood, not to attempt to immortalize it as an abstraction or a platonic ideal.

Rotunda at Poltow, an Architectural Fantasy.

Thus, we do not employ such Beaux-Arts conventions such as carefully graded washes to animate a roof or to ground a facade. A flat surface is flat and to our eye these tricks look unnatural and staged. Let a flat facade be a flat facade; there will be more than enough going on with doors and windows, and with detail and shadow, to animate and render it solid. Weathering is a far better way to ground a building and to create the illusion of three-dimensionality than any graded wash.

Andrew’s basic philosophy about painting in watercolor is that intensity of color and full saturation are our normal perception of materials. Deep, rich and complex colors are natural colors and well worth the effort they demand in their portrayal. Nuance, complexity and depth of color are essential to create a convincing illusion. Deep, crisply delineated shadows are also essential to give flat elevations three-dimensionality. There are times where a weak light or a hazy day can offer a poetic effect but a strong, vibrant sun is synonymous with life and vitality, and it creates visual richness and drama.

...

The Grotto at Wideville

This is the painting that started it all and it’s also among our very favorite. We cannot deny that some of our works are indeed special, created when the stars align. So Wideville was the very first of our “architectural watercolors” and we can unabashedly state, some 400-odd watercolors later, that it also remains among our best. We are purposefully being a bit provocative here, thinking of a troubled society in which it is now anathema to proclaim excellence, to employ hierarchy, to show favoritism. No creative person can believe this and still remain true to themselves, because we all have our favorite children, and Wideville is ours.

It was painted decades ago and so now we can look at it with detachment. What we like about it is its luminosity, the sun-struck limestone, the glancing early Summer sunlight, the cool but lucid shadows, perfectly pitched but nonetheless recessive. We also particularly like the rich, deep colors and the freedom with which it was painted.

We attend all our exhibitions and it’s always fascinating to speak with someone who is viewing our work for the first time. Many people are confused about the technique, wondering if the drawings are etchings or lithographs, or if they’re looking at a remarkably preserved trove of eighteenth century architectural drawings.

A favorite comment was at our first opening, when someone asked, staring intently at a watercolor from less than two feet away, how we managed to perfectly cut and trim all these photographs and glue them all to a white sheet of paper without leaving any trace of a seam around the outlines. For us, there is no greater compliment than this, but we cite it to frame the question of freedom versus control that is such a knife-edge to straddle, and which we have tried to straddle from the outset.

...

Potocki Palaces in Paris and Lviv

Two watercolors were commissioned by Marek Potocki to commemorate the place of his birth—the Potocki Palace in Lviv (above), Ukraine, later a presidential residence—and the former Hôtel Potocki (in the opening spread of the paper version) in Paris—a grandiose nineteenth century town palace which has housed the Chamber of Commerce of the City of Paris after his family sold the property in the mid 1920s.

The Potocki family’s history is inextricably enmeshed with that of Poland and unfurls a staggering procession of statesmen, generals and magnates stretching back to the tenth century. Until the calamity of World War II befell Europe, the family’s several branches held over forty major town palaces, châteaux and manors, and controlled over a quarter of Poland’s territory. In comparison, the French Bourbons are but dilettantes in the domain of architectural patronage. Today former Potocki properties are found from Georgia and the Ukraine in the east to Paris in the west, foremost among them Wilanów Palace and Łańcut Castle.

The Hôtel Potocki was among the grandest town palaces built in Paris in the late nineteenth century, designed in the neoLouis XIV style that defined the era, its central, square-planned dome evoking the Tuileries Palace and its column screens recalling the Enveloppe of Versailles. The family was admired in Paris for their remarkable generosity to their countrymen and for their extensive charity work; for example, they erected the Church of Corpus Christi on donated land adjoining the hôtel in parallel with its construction.

The dependencies, today destroyed, were renowned for their stables, which featured 38 mahogany horse stalls with rose marble watering troughs and some fifty grooms on permanent call. The watercolor itself is a vast miniature, nearly four feet long, which required several months to execute. One number stands out: 1364, which is the number of window panes drawn and painted.

...

Project for a Vase by Charles Le Brun

The porphyry vase with gilt bronze mounts is our interpretation of a design sketch by Charles Le Brun, without doubt made to furnish Louis XIV’s apartments at Versailles. There were no indications of materials on Le Brun’s sheet but gilt bronze was obvious for the mounts and porphyry seemed inevitable for the vase itself, and the watercolor certainly makes a compelling case that we were in fact right.

Of course this watercolor is all about rendering the white-flecked porphyry and the complex and subtle play of light on its polished volumes, which was as challenging as it was in the end satisfying. One fundamental but often quite demanding principle of watercolor technique is known as “reserving highlights”. What this means is that all highlights should be crafted using the white of the paper, “reserving” it so to speak, and not using the lax expedient of painting in highlights with opaque gouache. This watercolor is an exercise in reserving highlights.

...

Chinoiserie Pavilions

To state the obvious, architecture is at best a niche subject in art and so, in order to be viable, its presentation must be compelling and its subjects appealing. This is why we have chosen garden architecture as our preferred subject, as these buildings are by nature of an intimate scale—at most a few rooms—and, as they were conceived to embellish gardens, they were expressly designed with seductive aesthetics foremost in mind. We don’t think anyone has not once seen a garden pavilion and not thought, even fleetingly, of the fairy-tale life such a structure embodies and—purposefully—evokes.

Perhaps no sort of garden pavilion generates more potent pangs of reverie than Chinoiseries. These exotic stick-and-lathe fantasies set beside lakes and perched atop rustic, mossy rock-works, painted in rich colors and clothed in a riot of picturesque ornament.

We have chosen the Pagoda in the Treuttelischer Gardens as an example. Chinoiseries make architecture and its history approachable and appealing, they open a door and invite us to peer into that porcelain world.

...

Château de Versailles and the Queen’s House at the Hameau

The first illustration presented is the west or garden elevation of the Château de Versailles as it was built in 1671 by order of the young Louis XIV. The building is known as the Enveloppe because it literally envelopes the old château—as a matter of fact not even a château but simply a minor hunting lodge built for Louis XIII, the king’s father, in the 1650s. As originally conceived— and because of the necessity of accommodating the old château at its heart—Versailles was a curious, ungainly hybrid of a building, and its planning and construction was fraught with indecision and reversals.

Colbert, who directed the work, called it “a hopeless patchwork that will never be put right” and remarked to himself that it would be best to raze it once the young king grew tired of it. Some five feet long, this watercolor is our largest and most demanding undertaking—so much so in fact that we needed to write a rather long and intricate book to explain all that we discovered about it in the years spent researching and preparing our drawings of it.

The true history of the construction of Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles is as complex and fascinating as any detective story and is far too complex to recount here. Suffice it to say that this deceptively serene facade is the end result of over three years fraught with design turmoil—a painful struggle that, at the end of which, the plans were burned and all those involved were sworn to perpetual silence—a most literal palace intrigue. Today the watercolor hangs in the office of the president of the Domaine de Versailles.

The second illustration depicts the centerpiece of the Hameau de la Reine or the Queen’s Hamlet at Trianon; the queen in question being Marie-Antoinette. We like this watercolor for a number of reasons though, like so many, it really is an outsized miniature. It doubtlessly can’t be discerned in the reproduction (as the original watercolor is nearly a meter long) but each brick of the picturesque turret at the far right has been individually rendered, and the thatch and tiled roofs have been laboriously rendered in order to capture the fine sheen and texture of aged and weathered straw.

Likewise, a great deal of attention has been paid to the windows, which are quite lovely in real life: predominately clear leaded panes accented by panes blown from recycled bottles that were intensely green back in the day and created a charming kaleidoscopic hodgepodge of pale olive to bottle-green tints. We’ve tried to capture that in the watercolor, particularly with windows found in the half-light of deeply recessed walls, where the panes reflect a cool slate grey, silvery light.

The palette is dominated by the gamut of Naples yellow and pale ochre tones in both shadow and sunlight, and a great deal of effort was expended to create deep but luminous shadows in the structure’s many quirky and picturesque recesses.

All the woodwork at the Hameau is painted in trompe-l’œil to mimic aged and nearly rotted wood. The base color is bronze with highlights of ruddy rust and mossy green, and with the silvery thatch it shifts the palette to something quite neutral, even with all those light earth colors; the red brickwork and the ultramarine blue of the iris blooms are the only moments of bright color. The irises lining the roof crests may seem to be pure scenography but in fact are quite utilitarian, they are planted in packed clay so that their strong roots knit the thatch together and seal the roof ridges from wind and rain.

The Hameau really was Disney before its time. Everything there is artificial, from the lake around which the major buildings were grouped to the trompe-l’œil woodwork and the cracks and fissures painted on the stuccoed walls. The stonework of both buildings is also trompe-l’œil, mimicking a rough patchwork of ochre toned limestone blocks on the Billiard House to the left and freshly cut and carefully laid limestone stonework on the Queen’s House at the right. Excluding the chimneys and the turret at the far right, all the brick patches in the recessed half-timbered walls and in the arcade at bottom left are faux-painted on stucco with the intent to depict the underlying brick work, which had been exposed when the stucco had fallen away from age.

We have characterized before the Hameau as “a supremely false vision of peasant life” and this really does sum it up quite nicely; everything there is a wink, everything there is staged to charm and delight.

There was an actual working farm appended to the compound to the west, though of course stocked with exotic breeds of sheep and fowl, just as the lake was stocked with fish so that one could actually fish from the Fishery tower, and one could make real butter and cream from the milk of fancy cows in the working Preparation Dairy, then enjoy tasting it in Sèvres bowls in the magnificent marble interior of the tasting room of the actual Dairy.

The interiors used by the queen and her guests were sumptuously decorated with silk hangings, stenciled and fresco-painted walls, finely cut statuary marble or boiserie panels. Of course this dramatic contrast between faux-rustic exteriors and magnificently furnished interiors was the most delightful aspect of the compound’s many theatrical moments.

...

Vases and Orange Trees

Two subjects we have explored from the outset are garden vases and orange trees grown in containers. We like vases so much because of their wide range of materials—we have rendered them in marble, bronze, stone, lead, terracotta, silver, porphyry, porcelain and gold—as well as for their expressive volumes and forms, which translate so easily to paper and create watercolors with equally expressive outlines.

Their decorative vocabulary, along with their proportions and volumetrics, distill the architectural aesthetics of their time, so if you know well the history of architecture’s ornamental vocabulary, you can easily deduce the country of origin and the date of a vase to within a decade. Above, the vase on the left is from the Trianon de Porcelaine, the other is a silver vase also from Versailles.

...

J. Kugel Antiquaires

This commission came from Nicolas and Alexis Kugel, among the most learned antiques dealers in the world, when they moved to this handsome neoclassical town palace designed by the architect Louis Visconti in the 1840s.

Sited on the quai of the Seine, just a stone’s throw away from the Assemblée Nationale, the building cannot be easily viewed or photographed except obliquely, hence this commission. The elegant limestone facade, so redolent of early nineteenth century neoclassicism, features mirrored Italianate stairs leading to the piano nobile, a scheme unique in all of Paris. We particularly like the watercolor for its luminous stonework and for the rendering of the hunter-green lacquered carriageway doors.

...

Château de Barly

Barly is a beautiful château, perfectly proportioned and detailed, built of the luminous, chalky white limestone found in the Pas-de-Calais region and in the Loire. It has the perfect scale; neither too grand to be off-putting nor too small to be pretentious. In its form and detail it is the perfect summation of the eighteenth century French château. A great mystery surrounds the question of its architect as the local archives, fragmentary, offer up no wellknown names, rather they suggest an otherwise forgotten local builder who clearly had a talent far outstripping his complete obscurity.

This watercolor, one of a pair commissioned by the owners, depicts the ideal garden facade of the château as the low, flanking wing at the right was never completed and rises only to the first floor. Quite a pity and a source of endless frustration for the owners, stymied as they are by perverse preservation laws that forbid undertaking something as self-evident as making a building whole.

...

The Pavilion San Rafael

This elegant stucco-clad pavilion is located near Pasadena, California and was once part of an extensive country estate. It is a perfect exemplar of what we like to call Paul Mellon classicism, a uniquely American style from the early twentieth century.

It is an elegant fusion of late Beaux-Arts planning, overtones of Edwin Lutyens-inspired anglophilia allied with Grand Tour Medicis Italianism, all ruled by the reserved aesthetic understatement of the French Moderne. This style was a far cry from the brash Robber Baron classicism of the Gilded Age, itself a bombastic and often clumsy American interpretation of French Belle Époque Beaux-Arts classicism.

With Paul Mellon classicism, American architecture truly came into its own. Its foremost practitioner was of course John Russell Pope, architect of the National Gallery in Washington— otherwise known as “Mr. Mellon’s picture gallery”—and the Pavilion San Rafael encapsulates in perfect miniature that particularly satisfying aesthetic.

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The Pagoda at Cassan, Isle-Adam

This watercolor is full of life and vigor. It has such a pleasing subject and is one that we hope is representative of our great fondness for eighteenth century Europe’s fascination with Chinoiserie architecture. Chinoiseries are an abiding pleasure.

Over the years, we have done several dozen Chinoiserie watercolors but this detail of the pagoda at Cassan, at Isle-Adam, France, is unique among them. At once fanciful and austere, elegant and dignified, this pagoda, as architecture, is most surely the apex of the Chinoiserie style. We have fond memories of hopping fences, back in the day, so as to measure and photograph this most exquisitely preserved example of France’s Chinoiserie mania.

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A Grotto at Vizcaya

This watercolor of a grotto at Vizcaya was commissioned by a collector in the Miami area with a special attachment to the estate; certainly the most beautiful property in Florida and one of the most exceptional in the United States.

Stylistically, Vizcaya is a Mediterranean/Italian Renaissance pastiche with French accents, but it is carried out with such authority and élan that all qualms are put aside when confronted with the sheer, seductive beauty of the place. In the gardens, bleached and pitted coral stone replaces European limestone, allées of palms replace trimmed chestnuts and algae-green lagoons replace reflecting basins, all under the tropical glare and deep shadows of the Florida sun.

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Cathedral of the Assumption at Sviyazhsk, Tatarstan Russia

There is a unique beauty and character to these Russian churches, so expressive of the country’s history and so anchored in their time and place.

This remarkable sixteenth century cathedral, like so many Russian churches of the period, is built of whitewashed stone and capped with a lyrically undulating metal-clad roof and a magnificent onion dome. Again, like so many Russian churches of the period, it has been impeccably restored after miraculously surviving the unconscionable depredations of the Bolshevik era, and today finds itself on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. Russian architecture could not be further removed from that of ancien régime France but it is of such robust character and authenticity that it effortlessly projects its power and presence when transported to paper, and consequently nearly paints itself.

What is so particularly refreshing about many of these Russian buildings is that most were built before the onset of the tyranny of symmetry, which began during the reign of Louis XIV and for which the king’s architects and the académie he founded are to blame. A favorite quote comes from Madame de Maintenon, the king’s morganatic wife, who once simply looked up from her needlework and blurted out “Symmetry! Fie! I’ll die of symmetry!”.

Though Versailles itself largely escaped that Cartesian straitjacket by the luck of having been built accretively—changed by the king over time so much that it became a built catalog of his (and his architects’) architectural education—, its imitators and followers rarely enjoyed similar serendipity with their vast palaces being drawn and built in one fell swoop. Caserta comes first to mind here: vast, magnificent but somehow dead. Though unbeknownst to the King of Naples or his architect Vanvitelli, this of course is why Hopi potters punched holes in perfect pots.

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The Royal Pavilion at Marly

Ah, Marly... Marly, at least in certain circles (the more royalist the better), is a mythic place, the apotheosis of the Age of the Sun King: a theatrical, neo-Palladian compound embowered in gardens and ensconced in a valley not far from Versailles.

Its richly polychrome marble facades, painted in trompe-l’œil illusionism, were a vast baroque stage set wherein the king entertained a selected few courtiers. It was the ancien régime’s ultimate weekend getaway estate, the haunt of fawns and satyrs, with nymphs and fairies peopling its woods. The legend is surely deserved, for if it had survived intact Marly would eclipse Versailles; and it would fundamentally reorder our understanding of French history and architecture.

The watercolor above depicts the Royal Pavilion, a foursquare neo-Palladian building that straddled the estate’s main axes. It dominated the small cubic pavilions for the courtiers, laid in two rows of six before it, flanking a large water basin.

Thomas Jefferson visited Marly and he based the design of the University of Virginia on its layout: substitute the royal pavilion for the library; the courtiers’ pavilions for the students’ pavilions; the arched bowers and bosquets for the colonnades; and the pièce d’eau for the lawn. Now make everything half again as big and voila! you have just the spirit of Marly in Virginia.

Remarkably, all the estate’s facades were simply flat stucco and had no actual architectural ornament other than the raised corner quoins and the cornices. All the pilasters, ornaments and moldings were painted in trompe-l’œil fresco by the atelier of Charles Le Brun, who we are convinced was the estate’s actual architect. Ponder all that for a moment and you don’t need much imagination to realize how overwhelming the effect must have been and how justified the legend of Marly actually is.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN
SCALA REGIA #5
scala regia magazine

Opening spread of the paper version.

SCALA REGIA, 2020