Thursday, January 1, 2009

Walter J. Phillips-Master of The Watercolor Wood Cut

Mamalilcoola Villiage B.C.
Watercolor Woodcut 1928
(c) Estate of Walter J. Phillips

I first discovered Walter J. Phillips in the late 1960's when I saw an ad in the local paper in Calgary that a collection of his watercolor woodcuts was on display at the Hudson's Bay Co. store in the downtown area. I went to see the exhibition soon after reading the ad, and was completely awestruck by the work of this Canadian artist. Phillips is another artist in my series My Favorite Artists.

After viewing his watercolor woodcuts, I became fascinated with the watercolor medium, and formed an intense desire to become an artist. My desire was not to become a watercolor woodcut print maker, but to become a watercolor painter. I felt I would achieve great happiness in life if I could paint watercolors with the same skill as he demonstrated in his watercolor prints.

This desire was transformed into action when I applied and was accepted into the Alberta College of Art & Design in 1971. However to my complete dismay, all of the painting instructors were focused on abstract art, and watercolor was not taught as a discipline. Because of this I decided to major in pottery instead.

Walter Phillips was born in the UK, and his family migrated to Canada. He studied at art school, and at some point came across the works of a number of Japanese artists engaged in the Ukiyo-e art movement. The works of Hokusai and other Japanese print makers have also fascinated me over the years as well. I love the uncluttered aspect of this art movement, and in particular the excellent design principles that these artists employed in their works.

The watercolor woodcut print, or Ukiyo-e starts with superb design and drawing skills. Each design is then transferred to a block of cherry wood, as the design is carved out in relief in the wood. A new block of wood must be used for each individual color in the print making process. Cherry wood is the most often used choice for the print maker because of it's hardness. Softer woods often do not yield the desired result, or stand up to multiple impressions, as many as 100 or more individual unique prints.

Phillips as well sometimes used the grain of the wood to indicate water ripples in a print as well.
Phillips captured many everyday scenes of life in Canada, from the shores of Lake Winnipeg to the many spectacular views found in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and BC. Eventually ending on the west coast with great attention and devotion to Haida villages, and the ever beautiful west coast landscapes of British Columbia.

W.J. Phillips was a great inspiration to me, and he has served as a guiding light in my artistic endeavors, and my never ending journey as an artist.

For a comprehensive biography of W.J. Phillips please visit the only website devoted to his work. The website was built and is maintained by Roger H. Boulet, and contains a wealth of information including many images of Phillips' works and history.

The Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta has an extensive collection of the work of W.J. Phillips.

I would like to express my gratitude to Roger H. Boulet, and David Duffin (Phillips' grandson) for permission to use the image Mamalilcoola and to write this article.

More On Walter J. Phillips


  1. Very nice blog.
    Unique and beautiful pictures.

    Please visit:

    Keep blogging.
    Happy New Year.

  2. I think one of the reason watercolours not being taught in some Art School is because it is a difficult medium which required years to master. Many students just gave up to soon. I been painting in watercolour all my life and I still discover new things in it.
    You are welcome to see sample of my work at my site.


  3. I love your work Alfred, you are a great talent!


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