A History of Watercolour Painting - Part 2

A History of Watercolour Painting - Part 2

In part 1 of A History of Watercolour Painting we looked at the history and use of the medium from Palaeolithic times until the late 1700s. In this part we will explore the revolution of watercolour and its development from the 18th century to the present day.

From the late 17th century to the present day the British school of watercolour has become the most universally observed. In 1780, English Romantic painter J. M. W. Turner was accepted into the 1768 founded London Royal Academy of Art, the only professional artistic body of that time. He famously produced grand landscape paintings, and pioneered the use of watercolours in this large-scale format. He continued to reinvent the use of watercolour until his death in 1851, and his influence on watercolourists ever since is undeniable. 

In 1804, the Society of Painters in Watercolours was formed by a group of artists - including Samuel Shelley, William Frederick Wells, and William Sawrey Gilpin - who still felt their work in watercolours was shunned by London’s Royal Academy of Arts and stigmatised as merely a ’sketch’ medium. They established an Annual Exhibition of Paintings in Watercolours in November that year, and the organisation still exists today “to promote, by example and education, the understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of these exciting media”. It is now named the Royal Watercolour Society, after Queen Victoria granted the Society a Royal Charter in 1881.  

Another 19th century great was John Constable, whose atmospheric work is notable for its subjects of landscapes and skies, exceptional use of light and experimental approach to the medium - using expressive traces, and a mix of brush sizes.

In the early 20th century, John Singer Sargent - more typically recognised for his oil portrait commissions - created numerous watercolour paintings documenting his travels around places like rural England, the Middle East and Venice, in a distinctly loose and expressive Impressionist style. So accomplished was he that he was able to create both watercolours with intricate detail - more closely resembling drawings than paintings - as well as abstract and stylised arrangements, but which still appear realistic due to his accurate use of dark light, colours and shapes.    

Influenced by the work of Cézanne and Manet, American artist Maurice Prendergast assisted in introducing their ideas to the American school of art in the early 1900s. Now recognised as one of the first American modernists, his watercolours were vibrant and colourful, and were painted in an exceedingly fluid and loose style, reminiscent of Cézanne’s preparatory studies of the Gulf of Marseilles and Montaigne Sainte-Victoire.  

As the 20th century progressed, the medium of watercolour became more and more recognised as a medium in its own right, and no longer simply as preparatory work, or as reference for creating oil paintings, and was no longer a medium reserved for landscapes and wildlife. 

Because watercolours provide a more spontaneous and fluid approach to painting than, say, oil paints, they lend themselves to creating expressive interpretations of not just the natural world but of abstract concepts and feelings too. Russian abstract expressionist painter, Wassily Kandinsky, sought to create art which spoke a pictorial transcendental language expressing a “universal sense of spirituality”, and he used watercolours to generate immediate energetic and colourful abstract paintings, like his 1923 piece Delicate Tension.

Inspired by an exhibition of Chinese watercolours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early the 2000s, renowned English artist David Hockney began to create a series of watercolours featuring portraits of friends, the view from his room, as well as still-life paintings. He said used the medium as he “wanted a flow from my hand, partly because of what I had learned of the Chinese attitude to painting”. 

The styles, techniques and subjects of watercolour painting continued to evolve and become more experimental and adventurous throughout modern and contemporary art history. And, whilst there is still a fondness and popularity for the traditional styles and subjects of still life and landscape watercolour painting, today there is also an additional branch of colourful, energetic, and abstract bodies of work.   

Award winning Dorset artist Jake Winkle creates exuberant depictions of wild animals and Venetian scenes, using techniques which don’t employ the traditional use of light to dark, but instead place the dark traces first. His loose approach simplifies his subjects and focuses on light and shape, often using an unconventional technicolour palette, and bold ‘sprays’ of paint. His approach is exceptionally effective at capturing the ‘essence’ and movement of his subjects, as can be seen in one of his recent paintings Dappled Lion.

Renowned contemporary watercolour artist and former president of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours (RI), Rosa Sepple, creates rich, colourful and playful worlds by combining watercolour and collage. Her distinctively animated compositions feature vibrant villages, bustling harbours, and lively gatherings, and have been described by RI members as “vibrant, energetic and magical”. 

Widely exhibited and highly collectible, the work of wildlife artist Dominique Salm is described by the artist herself as “distinct, quirky and original”…and we are inclined to agree. Although her large scale watercolour paintings are highly realistic in portrayal of her animal and avian subjects, her use of a flat white background sets them apart from more traditional wildlife compositions and generates a dramatic and graphic painting style which is intrinsically her own.  

Shropshire artist Bev Davies continues the tradition of using watercolours to express the contemporary fascination with nature, but in an unorthodox, lively and energetic style which is free, instinctive and unequivocally ‘hers’. By using a limited palette of earthy natural hues, Bev combines watercolour with Pen and Ink and applies it with spontaneous and animated strokes, to create characterful portrayals of a range of wildlife subjects. 


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