What is Watercolor?

A brief look at this luminous fine art medium

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Simply put, watercolor is a painting compound using water-soluble pigments that are either transparent or opaque.

Because of the medium itself as well as the paper to which it is applied, watercolor is frequently thought of as a fugitive medium. Not so! While watercolor may not rival oils for durability and longevity, it is a medium that has a very durable and distinguished history and, clearly, a healthy future.

While American artists in the early 19th century seemed to regard watercolor primarily as a sketching tool preparatory to the "finished" work in oil or engraving, English artists of the mid-1700s had already elevated watercolor to a serious medium equal to oil. In England, watercolor was first used by architectural draftsmen and topographers, but soon watercolorists were introducing figures into their compositions. It took the genius of Winslow Homer to reveal to American artists the extraordinary potential of watercolor as a medium of serious expression.

Betty Carr flowers
Betty Carr
"Garden Reflections"
23" x 30" (Detail)

Once accepted, watercolor became an inevitable medium for the American painter who, from the beginning, made landscape painting one of the dominant features of the American art tradition. Watercolor's inherent luminosity, combined with its capacity for rapid execution, gave landscape painters an ideal means for recording the fleeting effects of nature.

Some background on the use of watercolor

The history of watercolor is inextricably bound to the history of paper, invented in its present form by the Chinese shortly after 100 AD. Papermaking was introduced to Spain by the conquering Moors in the mid-12th century and spread to Italy 25 years later. One of the earliest paper centers was Fabriano, Italy with mills in operation by 1276.

The forerunner of watercolor painting was buon fresco painting: wall-painting using watercolor paints on wet plaster. The most famous example of buon fresco is, of course, the Sistine Chapel, begun in 1508 and completed in 1514. In Europe, as early as the 15th century, Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was painting in watercolor. Durer's influence was partly responsible for the first school of watercolor painting in Europe, led by Hans Bol (1534-1593).

The American West was an important area in the history of American art, and of watercolor in particular. Much of the record of exploration of the lands and people west of the Mississippi was kept by artists whose only means of painting was watercolor. George Catlin (1796-1870) was one of the "explorer artists" who used watercolor to document his travels among Indian tribes during the 1830s. Thomas Moran's watercolor sketches of Yellowstone in 1871 so impressed Congress that they voted to make Yellowstone the nation's first National Park.

Great interest in watercolor was created by the reporter/artists of the Civil War. Their on-the-scene drawings of the battlefields were used as illustrations in the newspapers and magazines of the day, the most famous being Harper's Weekly.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of the greatest American painters began using watercolor as a major medium. Among these:

James A McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)
John LaFarge (1835-1910)
Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
Thomas Eakins (1844-1916
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Childe Hassam (1859-1935)
Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924)

During the 20th century, watercolor became a medium of tremendous diversity of style as used by these and others:

John Marin (1870-1953)
Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
Charles Demuth (1883-1935)
Charles Burchfield (1893-1967)
Andrew Wyeth (b. 1917), who made his name as a watercolorist.

By Pamela Michaelis, founder of The Collector's Guide and former host of “Gallery News” radio show on KHFM 95.5 remote, classical radio in Albuquerque.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 4

Related Pages

A Brief History of Pastel Painting article
Conserving Works of Art on Paper article
Frederico Vigil: The Art of Buon Fresco article

Ledger Drawings — Then and Now article
New Mexico Watercolor Society article
Still Life Paintings article

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