Understanding Watercolor Art

April 14, 2016

The extraordinary ability of watercolor to express the effects of shifting light and color has occupied the attention of painters for more than two centuries. The need to express their own view of the world is one of the most important motivations for many artists, and throughout art history, we are introduced to many different techniques and materials used. One of the beauties and dominating factors that can explain the existence of watercolor from the beginning of art could be found in the immediacy element that this medium is well known for. The watercolor art technique seems to invite direct and spontaneous response to the subject and no other medium is able to convey the excitement with such speed and use of line. The watercolor sketches and paintings for many are statements of pure color, and they aid the artist in his exploration of the world around us.

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Left: Limbourg Brothers - Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, February / Right: Limbourg Brothers - Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1416, The Fall. Images via studyblue.com

The Early Watercolor Art

The earliest forms of paintings were variations of watercolor. The history of watercolor art is said to go back as far as cave paintings and ancient Egyptians. The definition of watercolor is pretty simple; it is a type of paint mixed with water and this would include mediums such as gauche, tempera and even fresco techniques. Early on, we witness the use of the watercolor medium for the paintings of funerary and ritual art found in Ancient Egypt and Greek art. The Ancient Greeks used watercolor medium on plaster, known as fresco, to paint their temples, buildings, and sculptures. It is in the fresco art of the Ancient Romans that we see a certain leap forward, with the more powerful use of color, more of a realistic approach to the subject matter and more delicate and detailed works. The watercolor medium then moves towards China and the Middle East. The watercolor, seemed a perfect technique to be used for the painting on silk and on paper in China while in the Middle East we do see the use of the fresco technique, but the more dominant use of the watercolor is seen in the production of small manuscripts and in the painting of illustrations. This use of the watercolor art is also evident in the works of the Limbourg Brothers and in the production of their most famous illuminated book Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, or sometimes called The Book of Hours. The rise of the watercolor in Europe is seen as a result of the development in Chinese papermaking and the decorative use of watercolor and a century later, European artists were preparing their own watercolor mixes for the fresco wall paintings. The Sistine Chapel, painted by the master artist Michelangelo, is the most famous example of the early use of watercolors as fine arts.

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Left: Albrecht Dürer - Young Hare, 1502. Image via pinterest.com / Right: William Blake, The Ancient of Days, 1794. Image via craftsy.com

The World is Not Flat

The earliest illustrators carried with themselves the boxes of watercolors and they accompanied the famous explorers, such as Captain Cook, and recorded the wildlife, new terrains, and the new world. This saw the rise of the botanical art, as well as the rise in the need for the artists who were able to produce maps and topography paintings. The need to discover and travel was also an important educational element among the elite and aristocratic classes. All of the described documentation and mappings, you guessed it, was done with the use of watercolor. This form of watercolor art is just one of many that saw this medium rise throughout its history, standing as a painting medium side to side with oil paintings. The easy cleanup and easy transportations influenced the use of the watercolor medium, but many famous artists used this medium for the creation of their finalized and celebrated works.

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J.W.M. Turner - A View of the Archbishop's Palace, Lambeth. Image via william turner.org

One Rabbit and The Vast Landscape

The increased availability of the paper allowed for the possibility of the drawing as an artistic activity. As mentioned above, the travel sketches and the documentation of the new discoveries and the voyages led the watercolor art to become a form of intimate documentation, but it was the printmaker Albrecht Dürer who led the new school of thought and the use of the medium. His most famous watercolor Young Hare, kept today in Albertina in Vienna and often out on view for the public, is a study of a rabbit. This subject matter was thought of as beneath for some painters, but the printmaker used the watercolor medium to produce this fine study of light and texture of the rabbit, as well as fine botanical, wildlife and landscape watercolors. This medium, particularly in England, was used as a preliminary sketch for many of the landscape paintings and it was the famous painter J.M.W. Turner who used the transparency and the luminosity of the medium to explore the light and the atmosphere that his later paintings were so admired for. His use of the watercolor as an ideal medium for plain air paintings and the production of the startlingly atmospheric and expressive paintings of the English countryside anticipated the Impressionist movement by over 50 years and turned landscape painting into a vital discipline.

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Left: Wassily Kandinsky - Untitled ( The First Abstract Watercolor), 1910. Image via www.wasilykandinsky.net / Right: Paul Klee - Before the Lightening, 1923. Image via theredlist.com

The Contemporary Watercolor Art

What we see today and what we saw after the Renaissance art and many years later, in the beginning of Modern art, is the use of the watercolor by many artists as an independent medium. Most artists today, use this medium for sketching and for capturing the moment or the subject matter that inspires, but many of these artists at one point in their career concentrated on a certain series done with the use of this water-painting medium. Early modern artists, such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee concentrated their study of the color with the use of this medium. The move towards abstraction allowed for different experimentation to occur and this lead to the birth of all the different art movements that we know today, such as Neo-Expressionism where the variety of the works by Francesco Clemente, Gerhard Richter, Eric Fischl and Anselm Kiefer only further investigated and promoted this medium.

With the development of the medium’s characteristic, watercolors are now durable and colorful like oil colors and many contemporary painters continue to produce art with the use of this celebrated medium. Even though most would consider this medium fairly simple to master, many artists would agree that this is one of the most difficult techniques, as it requires great speed, perfect color control and lightness of touch. If given the respect it deserves, the magic of the mixture of water and color returns back and awards the artist and its public with the beautiful works that are today, more than ever, one of the dominant mediums in art. As one of the celebrated techniques used by many of the artists from the past, the watercolor art is present today and many artists still enjoy the exoloration and the experimentation that this art form has to offer.

Editors’ Tip: Mastering Watercolors: A Practical Guide

Often considered as not a relevant artistic discipline, watercolor art is for sure making a come back. This book celebrates the medium and introduces to the reader all the tricks to the trade. Amazingly illustrated, it presents examples of watercolor art and sets out to clear up widespread misconceptions of painting with watercolor. Full of practical advice and technique, the book aims to simplify the watercolor methods of working and to assist in the personal development of every reader working in this discipline.

Featured image in slider: Georgia O'Keeffe – Sunrise, 1916, watercolor on paper, (detail). Image via antiquesandfineart.com. All images are used for illustrative purposes only.