Watercolour Painting
Techniques, Origins, History, Famous Watercolour Paintings.

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A Young Hare (1502) Albertina, Vienna.
By Albrecht Durer.

Watercolour Painting


What Is Watercolour Painting?
Watercolour Technique
Origins and History
Watercolour Painting in the 15th and 16th Centuries
19th Century English School of Watercolourists
Rise Of Watercolour Societies
20th Century Watercolourists
List of Famous Watercolour Paintings

Note: "Gouache", a form of opaque watercolour, differs from regular watercolour because its pigments are bound with glue and its lighter tones are produced by adding white pigment.

To learn how to interpret a painting
see: How to Appreciate Paintings.

S. Giorgio Maggiore: Early Morning
(1819, Tate). By JMW Turner.

What Is Watercolour Painting?

In fine art painting, the term 'Watercolour' denotes a painting medium in which colour pigments are bound in water-soluble agents. Originally, these binders were animal glues or certain sugars, but nowadays the standard substance is gum arabic. A variety of additives can be used (eg. honey, glycerin) to increase plasticity and create other effects. Watercolours are generally applied by sable or squirrel-hair brushes onto white tinted paper or card, although supports can encompass canvas, leather, and papyrus. In China and Japan, watercolour art (known as brush or scroll painting, or ink and wash) is the universal painting medium, except that East Asian watercolourists typically use only black inks. Watercolour dries much faster than oil painting and permits the creation of finer, more precise works of art. However, regular exposure to light causes colour to fade, and many masterpieces - including several examples of landscape painting by JMW Turner (1775–1851) - have suffered irreparable damage.

A Study Of Clouds And Trees (1821)
By John Constable.
British Musuem.

See: Greatest Paintings Ever.

Watercolours are a highly versatile medium, they can be applied to everything from paper to canvas, stone, wood and fabrics. Many fine versions of watercolour paintings rendered on paper, manuscripts, maps and miniatures can be found in our museums today. While watercolour painting dominated Asian art for thousands of years, in Western art it was largely confined to preparatory sketches until the late 18th century. In what is now referred to as the Golden Age of watercolour painting, artists from the school of English landscape painting raised the status of watercolour painting to a serious and independent artform. In addition to William Turner, famous watercolourists from the English school included: Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), John Constable (1776-1837), and Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28). In the late 19th century and 20th century, European artists like Emil Nolde (1867-1956) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918), as well as American painters such as Winslow Homer (1836-1910), Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924) and John Marin (1870-1953), produced hundreds of colourful paintings using the medium.

For a list of important dates in the
evolution of painting, including
movements, schools, styles
and famous artists, please see:
History of Art Timeline.

Watercolour Technique

In 'pure' watercolour painting, (sometimes called the 'English Method') no white is used. Instead, patches or spots of white paper are left unpainted to depict white objects or reflected light. Colour tones and atmospheric effects are achieved by staining the paper when wet with varying amounts of colour pigments. Referred to as a 'wash', this technique can also be used to minimize or erase individual brush strokes, or to create large areas of similar colour (eg. blue sky). The artist controls the effects of these washes by varying the dilution of the pigments. JMW Turner - perhaps the greatest English watercolourist - preferred to add white to his paintings and used other methods to create his unique effects of light. (For interpretation of great paintings including watercolours, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed).

Origins and History

Watercolour art dates from Stone Age cave painting when early Paleolithic man first painted pictures of animals and humans on their caves using charcoal, ochre and other natural pigments. It was later popularized in Egyptian art after the discovery of papyrus (paper). However, papyrus is very fragile and the only paintings that have survived from the Ancient Egyptian era are those that were buried in pyramids in dry conditions. In traditional Chinese art, watercolours developed around 4,000 BCE, primarily as a medium of decorative art. By the 4th century CE, watercolour landscapes had become established as an independent form of Chinese painting, and would eventually dominate all Chinese brush painting. For a guide to the principles behind Oriental fine arts and crafts, see: Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics. During the Middle Ages in Europe, watercolours were used to create illuminated manuscripts and colour maps. During the era of Renaissance art they were used to make portrait miniatures or create studies from nature.

Watercolour Painting in the 15th and 16th Centuries

Modern watercolour painting has its roots in the Northern Renaissance. Its first supreme practitioner was the German artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) who anticipated many of the English watercolour techniques in a series of magnificent plant studies and landscapes. Durer was one of the first artists to recognize the potential of this medium. His early watercolour paintings focused on depicting topography, but over time he placed much greater emphasis on capturing atmosphere. He also produced highly realistic nature studies, typically combining watercolour and gouache on paper. Famous examples include A Young Hare (1502) and Great Piece of Turf (1503, Graphic Collection, Albertina, Vienna). However, despite efforts by painters of Flemish Baroque and Dutch Baroque schools, the medium - with the exception of botanical or wildlife illustration, which developed a specialist watercolour tradition of its own - was largely confined to preparatory sketching, or large scale design drawings, until that is, the advent of English watercolourists in the late eighteenth century.

19th Century English School of Watercolourists

Today, watercolour painting is commonly associated with the achievements of the English school of landscape painters (especially Paul Sandby, Thomas Girtin and JMW Turner). This group was active from the late-18th century to the mid-19th century, the so-called Golden Age of Watercolour. Initially the artists restricted their paintings to tint washes. This is a drawing made in ink or pencil, and a brush and water is used to spread the ink to create a tint effect. A restricted range of colours were allowed, but the overall effect was quite monochromatic. While some artists continued to create tinted drawings, others began to push the boundaries. Artists like William Pars (1742-82), John Warwick Smith (1749-1831), Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) and Turner, began using a wider palette of stronger colours to create a more painterly effect. Watercolours soon became popular throughout the UK with an upsurge in wildlife and plant paintings, as well as new demands for plein-air painters to replicate the scenes and topography of both tourist and military sites, and to accompany archeological and anthropological expeditions around the globe in order to document images of flora and fauna. A new Romantic style of watercolour painting emerged. Using rough-textured paper, paint was applied with a freer brushwork to capture fleeting effects in the landscape. Popular watercolour landscape painters included David Cox (1783–1859), Cornelius Varley (1781–1873) and Samuel Prout (1783–1852).

Rise Of Watercolour Societies

In 1804, a group of leading watercolourists founded the Society of Painters in Water-Colours, later to become the Royal Watercolour Society (RWS). Founding members included Francis Nicholson, Samuel Shelley, William Frederick Wells, John Glover, William Henry Pyne and Robert Hills. Current notable members include Dame Elizabeth Violet Blackadder, the Scottish painter and printmaker. Her work can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Tate Gallery. Also, David Remfry best known for his life size watercolours of urban nightclubs and city scenes (he received an MBE for services to British Art in the 2001). The Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, founded in 1831 in competition to the Royal Watercolour Society is also still highly active today. Notable members over time have included the children's book illustrator Kate Greenaway (1846–1901), caricaturist Sir Coutts Lindsay (1824-1913), Vanity Fair illustrator John Hassall (1868-1948) and Queen Victoria's granddaughter Princess Patricia of Connaught.

In the Republic, the Watercolour Society of Ireland (WCSI) was founded in 1870. Over the years, members of the WCSI have included such famous Irish artists as: Rose Barton (1856-1929), George Campbell (1917-79), Lilian Davidson (1893-1954), Gerard Dillon (1916-71), Percy French (1854-1920), Mildred Anne Butler (1858-1941), Letitia Hamilton (1878-1964), Paul Henry (1876-1958), Harry Kernoff (1900-74), Maurice MacGonigal (1900-79), Nora McGuinness (1901-80), Frank McKelvey (1895-1974), Walter Osborne (1859-1903), Nano Reid (1905-81), George Russell (AE) (1867-1935), and Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957). In Northern Ireland, the Ulster Watercolour Society (UWS) has been the leading body. Members of the latter have included such distinguished artists as: Gladys MacCabe (b.1918) and Maurice Wilks (1910-84).

Watercolours were also taken up by American artists, notably Winslow Homer (1836-1910), strongly influenced by the Barbizon School, William Trost Richards (1833-1905), Henry Roderick Newman, and John LaFarge (1835-1910). The American Watercolour Society (originally, the American Society of Painters in Watercolour) was established in 1866.

20th Century Watercolourists

Notable twentieth century watercolourists have included the Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), the Swiss modernist Paul Klee (1879-1940), and the French expressionist painter Raoul Dufy (1877-1953). In the United States, important watercolour artists included: Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), John Marin (1870-1953), Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924), Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) and Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009). American art movements favouring watercolour art included both the Ohio School (from the Cleveland Museum of Art), and the California Scene (from the CalArts Academy).

List of Famous Watercolour Paintings

Very few watercolour paintings, if any, are as famous as oil paintings. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, watercolour paints fade much faster than oil paints when exposed to light. They lose their vibrancy and can look 'washed-out' very quickly - not a winning formula when it comes to public appreciation. This is why the best art museums typically display their watercolour collection only for limited periods of time. For the remainder of the time the paintings are stored in dark temperature-controlled basements. Secondly, most watercolours are painted on paper, which is more prone to damage and decay than canvas or wood. As a result, most masterpieces of watercolour painting simply have not survived the test of time. For an explanation of landcapes from the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

The following is a list of watercolour paintings worth seeing:

- Albrecht Durer: A Young Hare (1502, Albertina, Vienna)
- William Blake: Pity (1795, Tate Collection)
- Thomas Girtin: Berry Pomeroy Castle, Devon (1798, private collection)
- Fyodor Alekseyev: Monastery of Trinity (1800, Brooklyn Museum)
- John Sell Cotman: Chirk Aqueduct (1804, Victoria & Albert Museum)
- JMW Turner: S. Giorgio Maggiore: Early Morning (1819, Tate Collection)
- John Constable: A Study Of Clouds And Trees (1821, British Musuem)
- Richard Parkes Bonington: Rouen from the Quais (1821, British Museum)
- Eugene Delacroix: Saada (1832, Metropolitan Museum NYC)
- John Constable: Stonehenge (1835, Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
- JMW Turner: Flint Castle (1838, private collection)
- JMW Turner: Dawn after the Wreck (1840, British Museum)
- JMW Turner: The Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1842, Tate London)
- Rossetti: Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice (1853, Ashmolean Museum)
- Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Faust and Marguerite (1857, private collection)
- JMW Turner: Sunset over a Ruined Castle (1868, Tate Collection)
- Ivan Kramskoy: Portrait S.I. Kramskoy (1880, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)
- Mary Cassatt: Self Portrait (c.1880, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)
- Vincent van Gogh: The Zouave (1888, Metropolitan Museum NYC)
- Childe Hassam: Horse Drawn Cabs at Evening (1890, private collection)
- Maurice Prendergast: Ladies in the Rain (1893, Fort Lauderdale Museum)
- Maurice Prendergast: Grand Canal, Venice (1899, Daniel J Terra Collection)
- Emil Nolde: Wheat Field (1900, private Collection)
- Egon Schiele: Maedchen (1911, private collection)
- Robert Delaunay: Homage to Bleriot (1914, Musee d'Art Moderne, Paris)
- Egon Schiele: Seated Woman with Bent Knee (1917, Narodni Galerie, Prague)
- Georgia O'Keeffe: Nude Series VII (1917, GO'K Museum, Santa Fe)
- Emil Nolde: Red Poppies (1920, Leonard Hutton Galleries, NYC)
- John Marin: Maine Islands (1922, Phillips Collection, Washington DC)
- Edward Hopper: Mansard Roof (1923, Brooklyn Museum)
- Paul Klee: Part of G (1927, Staatliche Museen, Berlin)
- Xul Solar: Palacio Almi (1932, Museo XS, Buenos Aires)
- Edward Burra: Izzy Orts (1955, Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh)
- Andrew Wyeth: Field Hand (1985, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)


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