What is watercolor?
Watercolor (US) or watercolour (UK) and also aquarelle, from French, is a painting method. A watercolor is the medium or the resulting artwork, in which the paints are made of pigments suspended in a water soluble vehicle. The traditional and most common support for watercolor paintings is paper; other supports include papyrus, bark papers, plastics, vellum or leather, fabric, wood, and canvas. In East Asia, watercolor painting with inks is referred to as brush painting or scroll painting. In Chinese, Korean, and Japanese painting it has been the dominant medium, often in monochrome black or browns. India, Ethiopia and other countries also have long traditions. Fingerpainting with watercolor paints originated in China.
Although watercolor painting is extremely old, dating perhaps to the cave paintings of paleolithic Europe, and has been used for manuscript illumination since at least Egyptian times but especially in the European Middle Ages, its continuous history as an art medium begins in the Renaissance. The German Northern Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) who painted several fine botanical, wildlife and landscape watercolors, is generally considered among the earliest exponents of the medium. An important school of watercolor painting in Germany was led by Hans Bol (1534–1593) as part of the Dürer Renaissance.
Despite this early start, watercolors were generally used by Baroque easel painters only for sketches, copies or cartoons (small scale design drawings). Among notable early practitioners of watercolor painting were Van Dyck (during his stay in England), Claude Lorrain, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, and many Dutch and Flemish artists. However, botanical and wildlife illustrations are perhaps the oldest and most important tradition in watercolor painting. Botanical illustrations became popular in the Renaissance, both as hand tinted woodblock illustrations in books or broadsheets and as tinted ink drawings on vellum or paper. Botanical artists have always been among 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.
Several factors contributed to the spread of watercolor painting during the 18th century, particularly in England. Among the elite and aristocratic classes, watercolor painting was one of the incidental adornments of a good education, especially for women. By contrast, watercoloring was also valued by surveyors, mapmakers, military officers and engineers for its usefulness in depicting properties, terrain, fortifications or geology in the field and for illustrating public works or commissioned projects. Watercolor artists were commonly brought with the geological or archaeological expeditions funded by the Society of Dilettanti (founded in 1733) to document discoveries in the Mediterranean, Asia and the New World. These stimulated the demand for topographical painters who churned out memento paintings of famous sites (and sights) along the Grand Tour to Italy that was traveled by every fashionable young man or woman of the time. In the late 18th century, the English cleric William Gilpin wrote a series of hugely popular books describing his "picturesque" journeys throughout rural England and illustrated with his own sentimentalized monochrome watercolors of river valleys, ancient castles and abandoned churches; his example popularized watercolors as a form of personal tourist journal. The confluence of these cultural, engineering, scientific, tourist and amateur interests culminated in the celebration and promotion of watercolor as a distinctly English "national art". Among the many significant watercolor artists of this period were Thomas Gainsborough, John Robert Cozens, Francis Towne, Michelangelo Rooker, William Pars, Thomas Hearne and John Warwick Smith. William Blake published several books of hand tinted engraved poetry, illustrations to Dante's Inferno, and also experimented with large monotype works in watercolor.
From the late 18th century through the 19th century, the market for printed books and domestic art contributed substantially to the growth of the medium. Watercolors were the used as the basic document from which collectible landscape or tourist engravings were developed, and handpainted watercolor originals or copies of famous paintings contributed to many upper class art portfolios. Satirical broadsides by Thomas Rowlandson, many published by Rudolph Ackermann, were also extremely popular.
The three English artists credited with establishing watercolor as an independent, mature painting medium are Paul Sandby (1730–1809), often called "the father of the English watercolor", Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), who pioneered its use for large format, romantic or picturesque landscape painting, and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), who brought watercolor painting to the highest pitch of power and refinement and created with it hundreds of superb historical, topographical, architectural and mythological paintings. His 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 in part through sales from his personal art gallery, the first of its kind. 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. The Swiss painter Louis Ducros was also widely known for his large format, romantic paintings in watercolor.
The confluence of amateur activity, publishing markets, middle class art collecting and 19th century painting technique led to the formation of English watercolor painting societies: the Society of Painters in Water Colours (1804, now known as the Royal Watercolour Society), and the New Water Colour Society (1832). (A Scottish Society of Painters in Water Colour was founded in 1878.) These societies provided annual exhibitions and buyer referrals for many artists and also engaged in petty status rivalries and esthetic debates, particularly between advocates of traditional ("transparent") watercolor and the early adopters of the denser color possible with bodycolor or gouache ("opaque" watercolor). The late Georgian and Victorian periods produced the zenith of the British watercolor, among the most impressive 19th century works on paper, by Turner, Varley, Cotman, David Cox, Peter de Wint, William Henry Hunt, John Frederick Lewis, Myles Birket Foster, Frederick Walker, Thomas Collier and many others. In particular, the graceful, lapidary and atmospheric genre paintings by Richard Parkes Bonington created an international fad for watercolor painting, especially in England and France, in the 1820s.
The popularity of watercolors stimulated many innovations, including heavier and more heavily sized wove papers and brushes (called "pencils") manufactured expressly for watercolor painting. Watercolor tutorials were first published in this period by Varley, Cox and others, innovating the step-by-step painting instructions that still characterizes the genre today; "The Elements of Drawing", a watercolor tutorial by the English art critic John Ruskin, has been out of print only once since it was first published in 1857. Commercial paintmaking brands appeared and paints were packaged in metal tubes or as dry cakes that could be "rubbed out" (dissolved) in studio porcelain or used in portable metal paint boxes in the field. Contemporary breakthroughs in chemistry made many new pigments available, including prussian blue, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, viridian, cobalt violet, cadmium yellow, aureolin (potassium cobaltinitrite), zinc white and a wide range of carmine and madder lakes. These in turn stimulated a greater use of color throughout all painting media, but in English watercolors particularly by the Pre-Raphaelite painters.
Watercolor painting also became popular in the United States during middle 19th century; the American Society of Painters in Watercolor (now the American Watercolor Society) was founded in 1866. Major 19th century American exponents of the medium included William Trost Richards, Fidelia Bridges, Thomas Moran, Thomas Eakins, Henry Roderick Newman, John LaFarge, John Singer Sargent and, preeminently, Winslow Homer.
Watercolor paint consists of four principal ingredients:
pigments, natural or synthetic, mineral or organic;
arabic gum as a binder to hold the pigment in suspension and fix the pigment to the painting surface;
additives like glycerin, ox gall, honey, preservatives: to alter the viscosity, hiding, durability or color of the pigment and vehicle mixture; and
solvent, the substance used to thin or dilute the paint for application and that evaporates when the paint hardens or dries.
The term "watermedia" refers to any painting medium that uses water as a solvent and that can be applied with a brush, pen or sprayer; this includes most inks, watercolors, temperas, gouaches and modern acrylic paints.
The term watercolor refers to paints that use water soluble, complex carbohydrates as a binder. Originally (16th to 18th centuries) watercolor binders were sugars and/or hide glues, but since the 19th century the preferred binder is natural gum arabic, with glycerin and/or honey as additives to improve plasticity and dissolvability of the binder, and with other chemicals added to improve product shelf life.
Bodycolor is a watercolor made as opaque as possible by a heavy pigment concentration, and gouache is a watercolor made opaque by the addition of a colorless opacifier (such as chalk or zinc oxide). Modern acrylic paints are based on a completely different chemistry that uses water soluble acrylic resin as a binder.
Watercolor painters before c.1800 had to make paints themselves using pigments purchased from an apothecary or specialized "colourman"; the earliest commercial paints were small, resinous blocks that had to be wetted and laboriously "rubbed out" in water.
Modern commercial watercolor paints are available in two forms: tubes or pans. The majority of paints sold are in collapsible metal tubes in standard sizes (typically 7.5, 15 or 37 ml.), and are formulated to a consistency similar to toothpaste. Pan paints (actually, small dried cakes or bars of paint in an open plastic container) are usually sold in two sizes, full pans (approximately 3 cc of paint) and half pans (favored for compact paint boxes). Pans are historically older but commonly perceived as less convenient; they are most often used in portable metal paint boxes, also introduced in the mid 19th century, and are preferred by landscape or naturalist painters.
Among the most widely used brands of commercial watercolors today are Winsor & Newton, Daler Rowney, Talens (Rembrandt), Sennelier, Schmincke, Daniel Smith, DaVinci, Holbein, Maimeri and M. Graham.
Thanks to modern industrial organic chemistry, the variety, saturation (brilliance) and permanence of artists' colors available today is greater than ever before. However, the art materials industry is far too small to exert any market leverage on global dye or pigment manufacture. With rare exceptions, all modern watercolor paints utilize pigments that were manufactured for use in printing inks, automotive and architectural paints, wood stains, concrete, ceramics and plastics colorants, consumer packaging, foods, medicines, textiles and cosmetics. Paint manufacturers buy very small supplies of these pigments, mill (mechanically mix) them with the vehicle, solvent and additives, and package
Many artists are confused or misled by labeling practices common in the art materials industry. The marketing name for a paint, such as "cobalt blue" or "emerald green", is often only a poetic color evocation or proprietary moniker; there is no legal requirement that it describe the pigment that gives the paint its color.
To remedy this confusion, in 1990 the art materials industry voluntarily began listing pigment ingredients on the paint packaging, using the common pigment name (such as "cobalt blue" or "cadmium red"), and/or a standard pigment identification code, the generic color index name (PB28 for cobalt blue, PR108 for cadmium red) assigned by the Society of Dyers and Colourists (UK) and the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (USA) and known as the Colour Index International. This allows artists to choose paints according to their pigment ingredients, rather than the poetic labels assigned to them by marketers. Paint pigments and formulations vary across manufacturers, and watercolor paints with the same color name (e.g., "sap green") from different manufacturers can be formulated with completely different
Watercolor paints are customarily evaluated on a few key attributes. In the partisan debates of the 19th century English art world, gouache was emphatically contrasted to traditional watercolors and denigrated for its high hiding power or lack of "transparency"; "transparent" watercolors were exalted. Paints with low hiding power are valued because they allow an underdrawing or engraving to show in the image, and because colors can be mixed visually by layering paints on the paper (which itself may be either white or tinted). The resulting color will changed depending on the layering order of the pigments. In fact, there are very few genuinely transparent watercolors, neither are there completely opaque watercolors (with the exception of gouache); and any watercolor paint can be made more transparent simply by diluting it with water.
"Transparent" colors do not have titanium dioxide (white) or most of the earth pigments (sienna, umber, etc.) which are very opaque. The 19th century claim that "transparent" watercolors gain "luminosity" because they function like a pane of stained glass laid on paper -- the color intensified because the light passes through the pigment, reflects from the paper, and passes a second time through the pigment on its way to the viewer—is false: watercolor paints do not form a cohesive paint layer, as do acrylic or oil paints, but simply scatter pigment particles randomly across the paper surface. Watercolors appear more vivid than acrylics or oils because the pigments are laid down in a more pure form with fewer fillers (such as kaolin) obscuring the pigment colors. Multiple layers of watercolor do achieve a very luminous effect because of less fillers obscuring the pigment particles.
Staining is another characteristic assigned to watercolor paints: a staining paint is difficult to remove or lift from the painting support after it has been applied or dried. Less staining colors can be lightened or removed almost entirely when wet, or when rewetted and then "lifted" by stroking gently with a clean, wet brush and then blotted up with a paper towel. In fact, the staining characteristics of a paint depend in large part on the composition of the support (paper) itself, and on the particle size of the pigment. Staining is increased if the paint manufacturer uses a dispersant to reduce the paint milling (mixture) time, because the dispersant acts to drive pigment particles into crevices in the paper pulp, dulling the finished color.
Granulation refers to the appearance of separate, visible pigment particles in the finished color, produced when the paint is substantially diluted with water and applied with a juicy brush stroke; pigments notable for their watercolor granulation include viridian (PG18), cerulean blue (PG35), cobalt violet (PV14) and some iron oxide pigments (PBr7).
Flocculation refers to a peculiar clumping typical of ultramarine pigments (PB29 or PV15). Both effects display the subtle effects of water as the paint dries, are unique to watercolors, and are deemed attractive by accomplished watercolor painters. This contrasts with the trend in commercial paints to suppress pigment textures in favor of homogeneous, flat color.
Commercial watercolor paints come in two grades: "Artist" (or "Professional") and "Student".
Artist quality paints are usually formulated less fillers (kaolin or chalk) which results in richer color and vibrant mixes.
Student grade paints have less pigment, and often are formulated using two or more less expensive pigments. Artist and Professional paints are more expensive but many consider the quality worth the higher cost.
As there is no transparent white watercolor, the white parts of a watercolor painting are most often areas of the paper "reserved" (left unpainted) and allowed to be seen in the finished work. To preserve these white areas, many painters use a variety of resists, including masking tape, clear wax or a liquid latex, that are applied to the paper to protect it from paint, then pulled away to reveal the white paper. Resist painting can also be an affective technique for beginning watercolor artists. The painter can use wax crayons or oil pastels prior to painting the paper. The wax or oil mediums repel, or resist the watercolor paint. White paint (titanium dioxide PW6 or zinc oxide PW4) is best used to insert highlights or white accents into a painting. If mixed with other pigments, white paints may cause them to fade or change hue under light exposure. White paint (gouache) mixed with a "transparent" watercolor paint will cause the transparency to disappear and the paint to look much duller. White paint will always appear dull and chalky next to the white of the paper, however this can be used for some effects.