History of Watercolour

The First Painting was a Watercolour

Water-based pigments were used in prehistoric cave paintings, and in many Egyptian wall and funerary paintings. Centuries ago the Chinese painted on silk with water based inks and dyes. In the Western use of the medium, watercolour evolved from manuscript illumination in the monasteries of medieval Europe. Watersoluble materials were painted on vellum or paper and were pretty much the definition of the art form used by most contemporary watercolour organizations!

Early Masters in the Renaissance

Raphael used watercolour for the enormous cartoons or working drawings that he delivered to the manufacturers of his very expensive tapestries. Today these cartoons are considered major works of art, but the fact that they were a step in the production of a tapestry made many at the time dismiss watercolours as preparatory works: a rough sketch. Albrecht Dürer, the dominant figure of the Northern Renaissance, was the first world class artist to treat his watercolours on an equal footing with his other works in tempera and oil.

The Age of Exploration Begins the Age of Watercolour

In the late 1400’s Europeans fanned out over the world claiming colonies and creating trading partners. The explorers were accompanied by cartographers and topographers who were often amateur artists. In 1577 John White accompanied Sir Martin Frobisher’s expedition to search for the North-West Passage. White’s watercolours of Inuit men and women are unique records of the earliest contacts of European and North American cultures – and among the oldest surviving Canadian art works by these explorers.

Watercolour goes Up-Market

About this time miniature portraits in watercolour on card or ivory became tremendously popular. These prestigious and uniquely personal items could measure only a few inches across. Today works by the best watercolour miniaturists such as Nicholas Hilliard or Isaac Oliver fetch amazing sums at auction. On an “area to price ratio” they are among the most valuable paintings in the world!

Watercolour Increases in Popularity

Watercolour painting rose to prominence in the 1700’s. The best academies, particularly the British Woolwich Military Academy, placed great emphasis on introducing field officers to drawing and painting, a vital talent when planning attacks or sieges. These men, invariably from the upper classes, took this skill into their civilian lives and the idea of keeping a personal sketching or painting journal became part of the expected accomplishments of a classical education. Young men on “the grand tour” were frequently accompanied by a drawing master. Watercolours were ideal for these travelers. They were highly portable, quick drying, and a kit needed only some paints and a few brushes. However, the colours had to be ground and mixed at each artist’s studio. The popularity of the medium created a demand for good materials. Winsor-Newton, still in business today, began to produce colours for both the government’s academies and for private individuals.

Women Take Up Watercolour

Women seized on the newly available paints and used them to colour black and white prints, a popular hobby in the late 1700’s. By the early 1800’s sketching and watercolour painting had become part of the tutor-based education of upper class females. Queen Victoria took lessons from masters such as Edwin Landseer and took great pride in the paintings in her personal journals. Her example made the art form popular throughout the English speaking world.

Watercolour at its Height

All of this training meant that the monied class appreciated the skill required to produce a good watercolour. The art form became very much in demand and, in Britain for example, by the mid 1800’s, the regular exhibitions of the Royal Watercolour Society were as fashionable as those of the Royal Academy. National academies of watercolour artists were formed in most western nations. After several unsuccessful attempts in the late 19th century, the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour was founded in 1925.

Competition Appears

The best watercolour artists had always experimented within the medium. Richard Parkes Bonington, J.W.M. Turner or John Singer Sargent are good examples of this. But by the late 19th or early 20th century, the challenges of photography, impressionism and post-impressionism caused the art form to become unfashionable. By the late 20th century it was rarely taught, even in the best art academies. It survived as a tool of commercial artists and architectural renderers.

Watercolour Re-Emerges From the Shadows

In the 1970’s and 80’s there was a revival of interest in 19th century art on the part of collectors and academics. A number of highly publicized exhibitions of both old masters and innovative contemporary artists revealed that the art form lent itself to all forms of expression from non-objective to high realism. This, and a parallel interest in watercolour among an educated middle class able to travel widely, led to a renewed demand for instruction. The watercolour societies, which had barely survived the 60’s and 70’s, were once again fashionable.Today most great art museums have special galleries where their holdings of watercolours can be regularly put on display and yet still meet conservation standards.

Environmentally friendly watercolour is often the medium of choice in our pollution conscious age. And there are good products for artists to use. Modern technology has produced paints that are more light-fast (or fade resistant). Water soluble oil paints are challenging the old definition of what constitutes a watercolour. Gels and other additives, along with extra large sheets of artist’s quality watercolour paper are now available. There are also ongoing experiments with varnishes and glazes that will protect the painting and do away with the necessity for the heavy protective glass surface and frame that are now the norm.

Page text taken from an article by Anthony J Batten.

“A contemporary watercolourist can compete with the most experimental painters in other mediums.” Anthony J. Batten

Detail of a Frieze at Lascaux
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Albrecht Duher, “The Hare”, 1502 (Albertiina, Vienna)
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indian woman
John White, “Indian Woman.” (British Museum, London) Does the woman have two right feet?
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minature young man
Nicholas Hilliard, “Minature of a Young Man Against a Tree.” (Victoria & Albert Museum, London)
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lake dalbano
John Robert Cozens, “Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo.” (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.)
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the lumber raft
Frances Anne Hopkins (1838-1919) “The Lumber Raft, Quebec.” ca 1870. (Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadian travel paintings.)
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northam castle
J.M.W. Turner, “Norham Castle, Northumberland.” (British Museum, London)

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