Home Art magazine A list of 23 surprisingly famous watercolor artists

Watercolor (or watercolour to the Brits) is one of art history's most popular mediums. Painters have experimented with the technique from the pre-historic era to the present. But how much do you know about the history of this celebrated medium? And how many watercolour artists can you name? You'd be surprised how many famous painters have dabbled in the technique.

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From the great Renaissance masters to movers and shakers of the contemporary avant-garde, watercolor has captured the imaginations of painters through the centuries. Some artists strictly defined themselves as “watercolorists”, while a surprising number of artists incorporated watercolor within their oeuvre. 

Simple, inexpensive and incredibly beautiful, it’s easy to understand the enduring popularity of the technique. Unlike the costly and often cumbersome supplies needed for oil painting, watercolor artists only need the right soluble paint and a piece of paper. This ease gave the form an immediacy and mobility: artists could paint on the fly and capture mesmerising landscapes scenes plein-air, while watercolor portrait artists could swiftly immortalise their subjects with a greater degree of informality.

So let’s take a look at the rich history of watercolor  (aquarelle in French) painting and discover how this humble technique caught the imaginations of some of art history’s masters.

What is watercolor painting?

Watercolor is a type of Fine Art painting that combines color pigments with a water-based solution. In watercolor painting, artists apply pigments to paper or other media such as fabric, canvas, and stone. The amount of water, the variety of pigments and the surface texture all provide watercolor with a wealth of visual possibilities.

In the past, artists mixed gum arabic—a natural kind of binding— with sticky substances like honey to achieve different visual qualities. Nowadays, some artists consider all kinds of water solvent media to be part of the wider watercolor family: brush, pen, inks, temperas and gouaches, and even modern acrylic paints, for example.

The enduring attraction of watercolour to artists and painters is its unpredictability. Artists often experiment with luminosity and transparency, working to control light and colour. But watercolor's spontaneity is precisely the quality that delivers such mesmerizing results.

A short history of Watercolor Art

We can trace the origins of watercolor painting as far back as the pre-historic age, when Paleolithic man first applied ochre and charcoal pigments to cave walls. When Egyptians invented papyrus in the fourth millennium BCE, watercolor gained widespread popularity—though many of these fragile works are now lost. Watercolour has a rich history in Asian art too, where it served decorative purposes in China from around 4,000 BCE and in scroll paintings from ancient Japan and Korea.

In Western art, artists often used watercolors to create preparatory sketches. During the Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer produced his iconic watercolour paintings, including the world-famous “Young Hare” from 1502. The artworks made by the German artist are among the earliest examples of watercolor painting as we know it today, spanning many subjects, from flora and fauna to landscape. 

Watercolor landscape artists 

Following this period, watercolor painting became a principal art form in the late 18th century amongst the so-called English school. Marking the start of “The Golden Age of Watercolour”, landscape painters such as Thomas Girtin, Paul Sandby and JMW Turner adopted the technique. These artists used watercolour to illustrate printed books and depict wildlife. They also created hand-painted watercolor originals or copies of their larger artworks. Their contributions led to the creation of many watercolor painting societies — the Royal Watercolour Society (RWS) and the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. These societies generated interest from the other side of the Atlantic, where watercoloring soon became incredibly popular.

With the arrival of modernist art at the turn of the 20th century, many painters sought opportunities to show their originality. The invention of photography in the mid-1800s encouraged artists to adapt to the fast-changing visual world. Painters who had made their name making oil portraits of the rich and famous soon turned their attention to the possibilities of watercolour, a faster, more immediate art form.

Watercolor portrait artists

One of the greatest American watercolor portrait artists of the age, John Singer Sargeant, revolutionized the art form. Known mainly for his lifesize oil paintings of fashionable high-society women in the UK and USA at the end of the nineteenth century, Sergeant found himself eager to move away from the formulaic world of oil portrait commissions. The painter set sail on a voyage across North Africa and Europe in search of a new vernacular. The versatility of watercolor—portable, quick, and inexpensive—helped Sargeant capture the vitality of scenes he saw on his travels. The artist’s watercolor portraits of characters from everyday life—young women, bedouins, travellers and passersby—have a dynamism that could only be brought to life through the ease and immediacy of watercolor—a kind reportage in its own right.

Sergeant is by no means the only watercolour portrait artist of this period. The British-born American artist Rhoda Holmes Nicholls was a celebrated painter who exhibited widely in Boston and New York at the end of the nineteenth century. As a member of the American Water Color Society, Nicholls was recognised as an innovator in the use of color and light. Her watercolor portraits of figures in bucolic landscapes, such as ‘Picking Wildflowers’, show the artist’s adeptness with contrasting tones and her ability to control the inherently slippery colors of her medium.

These watercolor portraits have inspired a generation of artists in the twentieth century, from Anselm Keifer to Tracy Emin. But how many of these paintings have you actually seen?

Where to see these watercolors

Watercolor paintings are often artists’ lesser known works because they’re actually less likely to go on display. Watercolor is an incredibly fragile artform. When exposed to light, these paintings fade much faster compared to oil painting, so they can only be displayed at museums and galleries for limited periods. And the natural fragility of the media puts an artwork’s existence at risk if mishandled or moved around too often.

Perhaps this is why you'll be surprised to find these famous artists have all dabbled in watercolour as their primary or secondary medium. How many of these famed artists did you know used watercolor?

Famous Watercolor Artists

Albrecht Dürer

A painter, printmaker, and theorist of the German Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer was the pioneer of watercolor painting, having recognized its potential early on. His many topics of depiction include topography, plants, landscapes, cavaliers, nudes and animals, the most famous being the aforementioned “Young Hare”. This work is celebrated for its impressive detail and the way the artist used colors to create contrast.

 

Albrech Dürer, Hare, 1502. Google Art Project

 

William Blake

Primarily known as the English poet, William Blake was also a printmaker and watercolor artist. His experimentations with the technique were unconventional, standing out from the traditional methods used by his contemporaries in the 19th century - he would typically first draw in graphite or pen and ink, and then apply watercolors. Perhaps the most famous, yet incomplete watercolor body of work is the illustrations he made for Dante’s “Divine Comedy” from 1826, a year before his death.

 

JMW Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner, also known as JMW Turner, left behind more than 2000 watercolors. Many of them capture the “spirit” of a certain place rather than depicting it faithfully, which is only one of the reasons why he is one of Britain’s most beloved artists. Testifying to his great talent when it comes to this medium is the fact that his very first watercolor, titled “A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth”, was accepted into the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1790, when Turner was only 15.

 

JMW Turner,  Clare Hall and the West end of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, from the banks of the River Cam, 1793. Yale Center for British Art

 

John Constable

After the year 1829, famed British artist John Constable preferred working with watercolor, as opposed to the oil sketches he had been making until then. These follow his trademark naturalistic tradition and seem to hold a particular interest in the way the atmosphere changes in the sky. He depicted it often by using opaque pigments and thicker brushes, perhaps in order to convey a darker environment.

 

John Constable - Stonehenge, 1835. Victoria and Albert Museum

 

Elizabeth Murray

One of the most prominent British watercolor painters, Elizabeth Murray spent ten years living in the Canary Islands, so naturally many of her works are inspired by its landscapes and people, but also those of Morocco and Andalusia. Learning the craft from her father Thomas Heaphy, she developed a recognizable style and used the “traditional English method” - she superimposed fine layers of elaborately mixed colors to create an effect of color and depth. Elizabeth Murray is also the founder of The Society of Female Artists in London.

 

Elizabeth Murray, Watercolour of a landscape of Morocco, 1849. Wikimedia Commons

 

Winslow Homer

Riding on the watercolor wave that took America in the 19th century, Winslow Homer began creating them in 1873, after which they became a permanent fixture in his oeuvre. Although his first examples did not go well with the critics, more and more of them were selling, be it as original artworks or preparatory sketches for his oil paintings.

 

Winslow Homer, The Green Hill, 1878. National Gallery of Art

 

Paul Cézanne

In Paul Cézanne’s quest to explore the possibilities of color, watercolors had a major role. They were studies for his paintings and were often key to understand those works, yet they offered him an aesthetic that painting simply couldn’t achieve. Knowing all this, we could still consider them proper artworks in their own right, which toward the end of the artist’s, they actually were. The most notable examples of Cézanne’s watercolors are those of Mont Sainte-Victoire, close to Aix-en-Provence.

 

Paul Cézanne, Self-Portrait, circa 1895. Feilchenfeldt Collection

 

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh was introduced to watercolor by Anton Mauve, his second cousin, who took him on as a student. This encounter resulted in the Dutch artist producing nearly 150 works, most of them being studies for his larger-scale paintings. These served to perfect his skills, although van Gogh was never impressed by them; in the letters he sent to his brother Theo, we can clearly see that he didn’t consider them masterpieces, yet he believed that”there is some soundness and truth in them, more at any rate than what I’ve done up to now.”

 

Vincent van Gogh, Peach Tree in Blossom / Flowering Peach Tree, 1888. Van Gogh Museum

 

Rhoda Holmes Nicholls

Many of Rhoda Holmes Nicholls’ watercolor works were awarded, exhibited in prominent institutions, and published in journals, bringing fame to both her native countries, the UK and the USA. They include vibrantly painted landscapes, seascapes, portraits and still lifes, many of which are still popular today.

 

Rhoda Holmes Nicholls, Encampment near Mount Coke, Kaffraria, Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, circa 1881-1884. Wikimedia Commons

 

John Singer Sargent

Following the footsteps of another great artist, JMW Turner, John Singer Sargent also made more than 2000 watercolors, although he only took part in two exhibitions dedicated to the medium during his lifetime, courtesy Knoedler Gallery. His adventure with the painting began when he was 44 years old, in 1900, while on numerous trips to North Africa, the Middle East, and perhaps most notably to Venice, Italy, of which we now have many watercolors made by Sargent. The artist also employed an unusual approach to the technique, using a variety of means to achieve the luminous effects - one of them being that he “sponged wet washes into each other while preserving the white of the paper for the lights.”

 

John Singer Sargent, Gondoliers’ Siesta, 1904. Private collection, courtesy of Adelson Galleries

 

Emil Nolde

A German-Danish artist, Emil Nolde was a member of the Die Brücke group, which was actively exploring explorations of color and abstraction at the beginning of the 20th century. Aside from oil paintings, he created expressive watercolors too, often depicting the sea using deep saturation and intense color choice. Even though he shared the views of the Nazi party, his works were considered “degenerate” and were banned from museums. He was not allowed to paint during WW II, but he nevertheless created hundreds of watercolors during this time. 

 

John Marin

Like many American artists of his time, John Marin went to Europe to get inspired by it and, ultimately, this trip brought him to a very abstract kind of watercolor-making. Sometimes based on his unsuccessful architecture studies, these artworks reach an almost absolute abstraction through the use of color and the play with translucency and transparency. Marin even treated his oils like watercolors, to create paintings which were among the first examples of Abstract art ever.

 

John Marin, Cover of 291, No 4 1915. Wikimedia Commons

 

Paul Klee

What characterizes the watercolors of Paul Klee, one of the most important painters of the past century, is purely abstract shapes that come together to form representational scenery. Primitive yet highly expressive, the works give out the impression of three-dimensionality, influencing the viewers’ gaze and challenging our perception. Klee’s watercolors are also sometimes adorned with actual lines that create borders between painted surfaces, further directing us toward his vision.

 

Paul Klee, Föhn im Marc'schen Garten, 1915. Lenbachhaus

 

Edward Hopper

One of America’s most notable Realists, Edward Hopper was a distinct watercolor artist. He began making them in the 1920s in Massachusetts, at the suggestion of a fellow artists Jo Nivison, who later became Hopper’s wife. It was indeed watercolors that the artist first achieved critical acclaim through, when he was in his 40s, and they typically depict houses, buildings and lighthouses he saw during his travels.

 

Charles Demuth

Unlike many of his colleagues, Charles Demuth only turned to oils after working with watercolors. With a unique sensibility, he made pictures of fruit, flowers and vegetables, vaguely inspired by Cubism. Later in his career, Demuth also portrayed his homosexuality and sexual exploits through watercolors, before dying at the age of 51 due to health complications.

 

Charles Demuth, Turkish Bath with Self Portrait, 1918. Wikimedia Commons

 

Georgia O’Keeffe

American painter Georgia O’Keeffe spent her time between 1916 and 1918 working as head of the art department at West Texas State College. In her spare time, she would make watercolors, both of the Texan landscape and of nude bodies. Many critics consider these years crucial in the artist’s artistic development, as this is when she decided to dedicate herself to abstraction which was then translated to her iconic paintings. O’Keeffe’s signature abstract shapes and gradients of color can be seen at birth in her watercolors, putting on display an absolutely sublime aesthetics.

 

Georgia O'Keeffe, Sunrise, 1916. Wikimedia Commons

 

Egon Schiele

The Austrian prodigy Egon Schiele only lived 28 years, yet he managed to create a legacy bound to leave a mark for many years to come. A few hundred oil paintings and nearly 3000 drawings and watercolors is what one can find in his oeuvre. The majority of these are portraits and self-portraits of the artist, sensual and sensitive at the same time, combining bold lining with pastel colors. These have been gathered in a marvelous book written by Jane Kallir, author of Schiele’s catalogue raisonne.

 

Egon Schiele, Liegender weiblicher Akttorso, 1910. Private collection, Courtesy Richard Nagy Ltd.

 

Reginald Marsh

An American painter born in Paris, Reginal Marsh is well-known for painting gritty urban settings. He produced many watercolor works over the course of his career, many to do with perhaps his most recognizable topic: New York City. Aside from buildings and cultural landmarks, Marsh also portrayed jobless Bowery men, crowded Coney Island beach scenes, and burlesque and vaudeville girls.

 

Mark Rothko

For Mark Rothko, watercolors represented the means of transition, that between figuration and abstraction. From a Social Realism painter became a very non-figurative one, and watercolor couldn’t have provided a better platform on which he could practice creating his legendary color fields. Some of them depict scenes from natural science, his studies; others reflect his interest in the teachings of Jung and Freud. A number of them is a nod to Surrealism also, as Rothko was briefly a part of the movement.

 

Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth got familiar with watercolors through his father, famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth. This had proven quite fruitful for the artist, as his first one-man exhibition of all-watercolor work at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City was sold out, in 1937, when Wyeth was only twenty years old. Distinctly realist as to follow his overall style, the works portray Wyeth’s life, something he painted his whole life by his own admission.

 

Frank Webb

A member of the American Watercolor Society, Frank Webb is one of the few artists who have devoted their entire careers to one medium. He has been producing watercolors and teaching workshops on how to do so since 1973, and is also the author of three instructional books on the painting. Webb’s art is energetic, to say the least, often picturing houses and buildings in vibrant colors, releasing a sense of serenity.

 

Anselm Kiefer

Although Anselm Kiefer mostly works with paintings and sculptures made of unusual materials such as lead, shellac and clay, he also authored much brighter, more open works in form of watercolors. To the artist’s own surprise, these are soaked in color and usually portray women. Kiefer is not consistent in creating them so they are quite rare, with 20 of them belonging to the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Tracey Emin

An artist drawing inspiration from her own life, Tracey Emin is a famous YBA figure in whose oeuvre watercolors take up a significant place. She has created many series throughout her career: “Purple Virgin”, the “Berlin watercolours”, which she had on display in her Turner Prize exhibition in 1999, and the “Abortion” series, painted in 1990 and marking a painful period in her life, being some of them.

 

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