Since 2016, July has been recognised annually as World Watercolor Month, a charitable event set up to support art education. It was founded by Doodlewash creator Charlie O’Shields to celebrate the medium of watercolour, to inspire people to paint, and to raise “awareness for the importance of art and creativity in the world”.
The painting method of watercolour is sometimes referred to as aquarelle, due to the water soluble nature of the medium (aqua meaning water). The paint itself is comprised of a pigment which is dispersed in water, and bound together by a colloid substance such as gum arabic (a natural gum made from hardened sap). This water-based solution generates a transparent coating of colour which allows the surface (usually paper) to reflect light back and create a soft ‘luminous’ paint effect.
Because watercolours dry quickly and are highly portable, they lend themselves to subjects and situations which require immediacy. For example, they were often used historically by artists to document travels, and changing scenery, or to make quick representations of a subject to be used at a later date as reference pieces for larger paintings in other less versatile mediums such as oil paints.
But, whilst the discipline is versatile and convenient, it is not without its challenges. Unlike the brushstrokes of oil paints, which typically remain where they are placed, watercolour is more ‘active’ and requires a skilled artist to anticipate the behaviour of the aqueous traces as they dry, and to control the amount of water and paint carried and applied by the brush.
The historical continuance of watercolour painting is most commonly associated with artwork from the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries onwards. However, the origins of this method can actually be dated back to ancient times and many cultures all around the world…even to Palaeolithic European cave paintings, when primitive man used pigments mixed with water.
In Europe, artists used watercolour to colour maps and embellish illuminated manuscripts, with the earliest recorded extant Illuminated manuscripts originating from the era between 400 and 600 CE. The majority of surviving manuscripts, however, are from the medieval period and Renaissance - the most well known illuminated book being The Book of Hours by the Limbourg brothers.
During the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE), Chinese ink and wash (or literati) painting was considered one of the four arts of the Chinese scholar, and involved mixing (typically black) ink with water, and using variations in tonality and shading, often on a silk surface, to create an ethereal style of painting which sought to capture the ‘spirit’ of the subject.
During the Renaissance, interest in the natural world blossomed and this led to artists generating more realistic renderings in an effort to faithfully represent the world around them. The portability, and immediacy of the medium meant that watercolours were ideal for capturing the subject, and the period saw a profusion of botanical art and landscape paintings achieve prominence - moving them out from the backgrounds of manuscripts and into the foreground as authentic depictions of the natural world.
In 2020, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London ran an exhibition of Renaissance Watercolours which they said highlighted the versatility of the medium and its “pivotal role in understanding, interpreting and documenting the natural world”. It featured a selection of botanical watercolours by French artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, and the Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo, along with artwork from Mughal India which brought to light “fresh ways of seeing, and broadened perspectives” and described how the images can now be seen as “a social and cultural dialogue between East and West”.
Following the Renaissance, Flemish painter Hans Bol led the induction of the pivotal school of watercolour painting in Germany, motivated by the work of Albrecht Dürer, whose botanical and wildlife themed watercolours identify him as one of the first European landscape artists and the first master of the medium.
In the 17th Century, the masters of watercolour emerged mainly from Northern Europe, being used largely for landscapes. Its transportable nature compelled itself as a medium of choice for topographical watercolourists, as it could be utilised whilst travelling to capture real scenes and places in real time.
Though popular, the discipline of watercolour painting was previously largely marginalised, as oil painters of historical subjects and portraits were considered more ‘important’ than watercolourists of landscapes. In the late 1700s, however, a transformation began which saw a number of artists revolutionising watercolour into a medium that, according to the Mall Galleries article History of Watercolours “could compete on the [Royal Academy of Art’s] walls with oil, not only in richness of effect but in size and seriousness of subject matter”.
Visit our blog again next week for the second part of this article on the history of watercolour painting, as we explore the revolution of watercolour in the late 1700s, and its development from the 18th century to the present day.