Donald “Jackie” Hinkson is a master watercolourist who has had a lifelong preoccupation with capturing the unique landscape, architecture and lifestyle of Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean. It was British painter Lucien Freud (1922-2011) who insisted that a painting must be able “to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince.” Hinkson has been able to achieve this with the clarity and weight of his washes, the accurate juxtaposition of tones, the ability to skilfully edit the composition, and capture the light.
Over the past five decades, Hinkson, a prolific painter, who has produced more than 2,000 watercolours, has been unrelenting in his drive not just to document, but to interpret the landscape in a technically adroit style. Hinkson’s talent was apparent from an early age, but a turning point came in 1970 when he returned home after graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree and diploma in education from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.
“I was stunned, after a five-year absence, by the light and atmosphere of Trinidad and I took up the medium seriously, plein air. I also painted the traditional and plantation architecture…for more than 20 years I struggled with the medium, frustrated and depressed that I was not making the progress I wanted. I had even stopped painting in oils. I refused to give up. It was only after some 30 years that I felt I could consistently produce a good watercolour.”
A brief cubist influence was apparent in the Seventies when Hinkson’s palette was darker, the colours less representative of the humid tropics and more reflective of a temperate climate, the washes more opaque and less varied, as seen in Mayaro House, 1976. Hinkson’s technical evolution is not easily categorised into decades; the changes are more subtle. However, in the eighties there is an unmistakable shift towards a more detailed style, particularly in painting the foliage, combined with the use of more diverse, weightier washes, as in Caparo Valley, 1987.
A few years later, there is a decided move away from plein-air subjects “bathed in light” to more morose silhouettes, shadowed landscapes with heavy, ash-grey cumulus clouds. Hinkson’s style has continued to advance; in the last few years he has sought a more abstract, minimalist style where he uses as few shapes as possible, paired with a luminous fluidity, reminiscent of the Bahamas series by Winslow Homer (1836-1910).
As a watercolourist, he avoids shortcuts or any tricks of the trade. You’ll never find Chinese white in any of his pieces; instead he uses the natural white of the paper. A disciplined draughtsman, he focuses on technical proficiency and economy of style, acquired through years of apprenticeship.
He has explained that when he is painting en plein air, although the images are recognisable, foremost in his mind are “the abstract formal relationships in the work, the weight of the washes… the tone and shape juxtapositions, the light, the swiftness of execution.”
Although it is not a priority in the painting process, one cannot help but make reference to certain germane statements, themes or tropes, which seem to echo throughout the work: light vs dark, sacred vs the profane, socio-economic rural-to-urban disparities, colonial plantation architecture vs post-modern urban sprawl, are apparent in his watercolours as well as the larger works such as the Christ in Trinidad oil-on-board series and the Queen’s Hall Carnival mural. Hinkson contends that he gives little thought to the meaning of the images, to the symbolism, but there are facets of his biography that may have informed these dichotomies.
Born in Corbeaux Town, Port-of-Spain, in 1942, into a close-knit family of four boys and two girls, he was introduced to the complexities of Trinidad society at an early age. His parents came from different backgrounds. His father A Lennox Hinkson, was a travelling officer with the Colonial Government who grew up, for the most part, in the rural Brasso/Caparo area, while his mother Jeanette (nee Bain) came from a large family of urban professionals living in the capital, Port-of-Spain. The family home was a large, aging, gabled, colonial house on Richmond Street.
The house was a popular liming spot for his friends from the Richmond Street Boys’ Primary School. At a time when Trinidadian middle and upper-income society had strict, unwritten rules on divisions according to class, colour and religious affiliation, the Hinkson household could be described as quite a liberal, welcoming space. Hinkson and his brothers would often visit their neighbourhood friends who lived in the modest homes and barrack yards of Corbeaux Town. He was drawn to the colours, sounds, smells and camaraderie.
As a young boy he also was interested in the sprawling, murky coastline and docks of Sea Lots, as well as the many fishing villages across the island. He began to record these images on paper in his early teens. He would often return to these memories of communal urban life and remote seascapes in his later work.
In 1954, Hinkson excelled academically and won a scholarship to attend the prestigious Queen’s Royal College (QRC) in Port-of-Spain. The school is one of the “Magnificent Seven” historical buildings along the Queen’s Park Savannah. There he would form a lifelong friendship with a fellow student, Peter Minshall. In 1961, Hinkson would join Minshall, Pat Bishop, Alice Greenhall and Arthur Webb in a landmark exhibition, Five Young Artists, produced by the Art Society.
The president of the Art Society, Sybil Atteck (1911-1975), was impressed and immediately honed in on the talent of the young artists. In Atteck’s review of the exhibition in the Nation newspaper (August 11, 1961) she wrote that the exhibit “shows for the first time an artist of rare talent, Jackie Hinkson.” Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, then art critic for the Trinidad Guardian, wrote of the “rich promise of all five,” and praised Hinkson’s study of Richmond Street as well as of his “Sisley-styled Entrance to the Wharf “ as “subdued but shimmering work.” Many years later, a friendship would develop between the two artists and Walcott would remain an admirer of Hinkson’s work.
As a teenager, Hinkson’s interest in landscape watercolour painting continued to grow and he began visiting the public library to learn more about art. He remembers enjoying books on English 19th-century landscape watercolourists and on the art of Cezanne. Around this time he was also impressed by the art of local stalwarts Sybil Atteck, MP Alladin, Leo Basso and Carlisle Chang.
But nothing left more of an impression on the young artist than the experiences he had while travelling thorough the countryside with his father and brothers. “Yes, well, apart from the fact that those were extremely happy times—because here we are, four boys in the father’s old 1932 Model-A Ford car with the rumble seat in the back that opened out and we were exposed to the rain and the sun and so on, travelling through the landscape, whether it’s central, or deep south, or the east coast of Manzanilla, Mayaro or Guayaguayare. I think that living in town and then being exposed to the stunning open-air landscape, the wide, wide, panoramic vistas of, let’s say a Mayaro beach at low tide, or the undulating hills of Caparo Valley, along with the architecture, left an impression.”
As an adult, there would be a thematic focus on plantation life in his paintings, capturing the daily routine of workers living in the multi-ethnic, rural villages of Trinidad and Tobago; motifs that are also mirrored in the works of Carlisle Chang and Isaiah James Boodhoo. He sought to depict the unassuming, industrious labourers on the coconut plantations, the cane cutters of the sugar estates (Looking North From Caroni, 1999), the fishermen pulling-in the daily catch (Pulling Seine, Mayaro, 2011), the planter returning home (The Planter’s Return, 2002) to his family. Although the figures are often positioned asymmetrically, on the border of the paintings, they act like a gel, connecting all of the elements (Toco Village, 2001). His figures reflect the mood of the painting, even if their backs are to the viewer— whether they are tired, relaxed, focused on a particular job or completely content, the disposition of each figure is relayed perfectly by the artist in a distinctly narrative style. The result is a series of multi-layered pieces, drawn without sentimentality or nostalgia, but with an inherent interest in documenting impactful lives.
“There was something about the way that rural people and the coastal people involved in an activity, like the copra industry, farming or fishing, that impresses you, something about their closeness to nature, something about their humbleness that moves you.”
For the past 40 years in T&T, there has been a movement away from the plantation economy to the oil and gas industry. Modern housing developments are being built on acres of fertile agricultural land, historical estate colonial houses are bulldozed to make way for multi-storey skyscrapers of glass and steel. Hinkson has been able to capture this socio-economic shift in his 21st-century watercolours. Yet he has also concentrated on the resilience and innate creativity of the people through the scores of watercolours that have focused on cricketers, steelpan men and women as well as Carnival masqueraders.
Plein-air painting in the tropics also requires a great deal of innovation, as well as stamina, speed and patience. A disciplined draughtsman, Hinkson has been able to master a demanding medium in a temperamental environment.
There are many challenges as the light changes rapidly, shadows are fleeting, torrential downpours are frequent and at times the winds can be strong enough to knock over the easel. Another challenge is the insect factor: ants, mosquitoes, even snakes. The weather also changes quickly and the heat makes the paint dry almost immediately. In fact, Hinkson prefers to work in hot conditions when contrasts are strong, even blinding. Then there is the human factor, the bystanders who observe, comment and critique, which seems to have little effect on the painter —in fact he once explained that he finds their comments “intriguing.”
On mornings, he leaves his St Ann’s home armed with a light aluminium easel and a strong portfolio with paper, board, paints, brushes, water, palette, sunscreen and of course a hat. He chooses his subject intuitively, based on a striking shape, tonal relationship, contrast or “perhaps an emotional attachment or an unconscious symbolic recognition.”
He sketches the subject quickly and loosely, in just a couple of minutes with pencil or with the paintbrush, suggesting rather than detailing the composition. Working rapidly, Hinkson applies washes economically. He prefers to stand while he paints, which enables broader arm work so that he can achieve those vigorous, expansive brush strokes. He often moves around the picture’s surface area, trying to maintain control over the emerging composition with each new wash, applying the darker tones and finally the darkest.
At a time when so many artists seek symbolism over technical dexterity and in a place where local art has become more derivative than innovative, Hinkson has steadfastly refused to move with the crowd. His pieces draw you in and represent an insightful take on Caribbean culture that is as real and intrinsic as the steelpan music he so enjoys. For me, his watercolours are cinematic to the core, comparable to the directors of modern cinema. Hinkson is able to frame his subject with the skill of Francis Ford Coppola, edit and deconstruct the image with the precision of Akiro Kurosawa, capture the light and subtle hues with the delicate vibrancy of Bernardo Bertolucci and convey the emotion and continuity of the moment with the gritty, yet epic latitude of Martin Scorsese.
More importantly, over the years he has developed the skill of understanding when the painting is finished, how not to overwork the paper, knowing when to stop.
This piece first appeared in the catalogue of Hinkson’s retrospective exhibition at the National Museum. Reprinted by permission of the writer.