History of Watercolor

31st Aug 2016

The watercolor medium is defined as pigments suspended in a water-based solution. Overall, watercolor paint is known for its translucent qualities and its ability to dilute in water.

Watercolor painting is extremely old, dating perhaps to the cave paintings of paleolithic Europe, and has been used for manuscript illustration since at least Egyptian times but especially in the European Middle Ages. However, its continuous history as an art medium begins with the Renaissance.


The famous Lascaux Cave paintings in southwestern France that use a watercolor-like medium, dates back to 15,000 BCE to 9,000 BCE.


An example of Renaissance manuscript painting with watercolor detailing on the side panels and center image.

The Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer is generally considered among the earliest exponents of watercolor. He painted several fine botanical, wildlife, and landscape watercolors to use as scientific imagery.


Young Hare by Albrecht Dürer using early watercolors, 1502.

However, botanical and wildlife illustration perhaps make up the oldest and most important traditions in watercolor painting. Botanical illustrations became popular during the Renaissance, both as hand-tinted woodblock illustrations in books and as tinted ink drawings on vellum or paper. Botanical artists have traditionally been some of the most exacting and accomplished watercolor painters, and even today, watercolors—with their unique ability to summarize, clarify, and idealize in full color—are used to illustrate scientific and museum publications. Wildlife illustration reached its peak in the 19th century with artists such as John James Audubon, and today many naturalist field guides are still illustrated with watercolor paintings.


Watercolor painting from John James Audubon’s book Birds of America depicting a wild turkey in full detail and color.

In the late 18th century, the English cleric William Gilpin wrote a series of hugely popular books describing his picturesque journeys throughout rural England. He also illustrated them with self-made monochrome watercolors of river valleys, ancient castles, and abandoned churches. This example popularized watercolors as a form of personal tourist journalism. The combination of cultural, engineering, scientific, tourist, and amateur interests all culminated in the celebration and promotion of watercolor as a distinctly English “national art”. William Blake published several books of hand-tinted engraved poetry, provided illustrations to Dante’s Inferno, and also experimented with large monotype works in watercolor. Among the many other significant watercolorists of this period, were Thomas Gainsborough, John Robert Cozens, Francis Towne, Michael Angelo Rooker, William Pars, Thomas Hearne, and John Warwick Smith.

The three English artists credited with establishing watercolor as an independent, mature painting medium are Paul Sandby, often called the “father of the English watercolor”, Thomas Girtin, who pioneered its use for large format, romantic or picturesque landscape painting, and Joseph Mallord William Turner, who brought watercolor painting to the highest pitch of power and refinement, and created hundreds of superb historical, topographical, architectural, and mythological watercolor paintings.

Turner’s method of developing the watercolor painting in stages, starting with large, vague color areas established on wet paper, then refining the image through a sequence of washes and glazes, permitted him to produce large numbers of paintings with “workshop efficiency” and made him a multimillionaire. Among the important and highly talented contemporaries of Turner and Girtin, were John Varley, John Sell Cotman, Anthony Copley Fielding, Samuel Palmer, William Havell, and Samuel Prout.


View of Avon Gorge, watercolor by Joseph Mallord William Turner, dated 1791.

Watercolor painting also became popular in the United States during the 19th century; outstanding early practitioners included John James Audubon, as well as early Hudson River School painters such as William H. Bartlett and George Harvey. By mid-century, the influence of John Ruskin, a famous social thinker and art patron, led to increasing interest in the watercolor medium. Late-19th-century American exponents of the medium included Thomas Moran, Thomas Eakins, John LaFarge, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, and, preeminently, Winslow Homer.


Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1889.

Among the many 20th-century artists who produced important works in watercolor, Wassily Kandinsky, Emil Nolde, Paul Klee, Egon Schiele, and Raoul Dufy must be mentioned. In America, the major users of watercolor included Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth, and John Marin. In this period, American watercolor painting often imitated European Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, but significant individual styles flourished in the “regional” areas of watercolor painting from the 1920’s to 1940’s.


Although the rise of abstract expressionism, and the trivializing influence of amateur painters and advertising- or workshop-influenced painting styles, led to a temporary decline in the popularity of watercolor painting after 1950, watercolors continue to be utilized by artists like Martha Burchfield, Joseph Raffael, Andrew Wyeth, Philip Pearlstein, Eric Fischl, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, and Francesco Clemente.

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Like Fete, pictured below, has a beautiful swirling of pink and blue colors but it also has a heavy layer of texture. You can even see where the pigment in the paint has collected and pooled on the piece of paper to create a hazy purple, these up close details just make the art more accessible to the viewer.


In Sarovar, also pictured below, you can see the actual individual brushstrokes of the artist. This personal touch is preserved in the painting and can be reinterpreted dozens of times by dozens of different people. The texture of the piece showing the deliberate touch of the artist.


These small and somewhat minor details humanize the artwork and the artist by letting the viewer see the steps and process it takes to produce an original artwork. To be able to see and understand the artists’ process is to understand their decision making and the reason behind their specific choices. This inside look at process will make the final artwork much more impressive to view.