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One of the most beloved media in the history of art, watercolor (or watercolour, as the Brits spell it, and aquarelle, as it is called in French) is also one of the oldest methods of painting in the world.

Its popularity can perhaps be credited to the fact that it is quite simple to start creating an artwork using this technique, as all one needs is the paints and, typically, paper. There are many artists out there who are only “watercolorists” by calling, but a much greater number of them includes this kind of artwork-making as an addition to their multi-media oeuvre. By its definition, watercolor is a type of Fine Art painting in which the color pigments are part of a water-based solution. Mostly being gum arabic, as opposed to other substances that were used in the past, these particles can be mixed with additives such as glycerin, honey, or ox gall, in order to achieve different visual qualities (plasticity and solubility, for example). Some consider other media that use water as a solvent to be part of a larger watercolor family, these being brush, pen, inks, temperas and gouaches, and even modern acrylic paints.

In watercolor painting, the color pigments are usually applied to paper, although many artists use other supports such as plastics, fabric, papyrus, canvas, wood, vellum, and stone. This variety, combined with the many ways a pigment can be created depending on how much water or color was used, provides the medium with many possibilities. Experiments with luminosity and transparency, as well as the spontaneity of it all, can bring different results that would be equally mesmerizing, which is exactly the thing that makes watercolors so unique and evergreen.

History of Watercolor Art

The origins of watercolor painting can be found as further back as in the Stone Age, when cave paintings made by the Paleolithic man featured ochre and charcoal paint on walls. When papyrus was invented in Egypt the fourth millennium BCE, watercolors gained popularity, although because they were so fragile, many works from that time are now lost. The medium has also been an important part of the Asian art history for millennia, starting with the first examples in Chinese art around 4,000 BCE, and was very popular in Japan and Korea too.

While on that continent it served to decorative purposes, in Western art watercolors were used to create preparatory sketches. During the Renaissance, the iconic watercolors of Albrecht Dürer were made, including the world-famous “Young Hare” from 1502. The artworks made by the German artist are among the earliest examples of watercoloring and span many topics, from flora and fauna to landscape. Following this period, watercolor painting rose to become a proper art form in the late 18th century with the so-called English school. Introducing what we now refer to as “The Golden Age of Watercolour”, landscape painters such as Thomas Girtin, Paul Sandby and Joseph Mallord William Turner brought fame to the technique, using it to print books, popularize wildlife and plant paintings, and create hand-painted watercolor originals or copies of their larger artworks, among other things. 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 for instance, and prompted many creative and technical innovations. These also reached the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, as watercoloring also became sought after in America.

With the arrival of the avant-garde in the 20th century, many notable artists around the world would make watercolors as part of their practice, fascinated by the wide range of opportunities to be original. What is discouraging about this art form however, despite this great interest in it by artists it and nearly every other aspect of the art world as well, is that thanks to its very characteristics, it can only be on display at museums and galleries for a quite limited period of time. Namely, watercolors fade much faster compared to, say, oil paint when exposed to light, and the lightness of their support puts an artwork’s existence at risk if mishandled or moved around too often.

Perhaps this is why we couldn’t think of a famous watercolor off the top of our head, but the good news is that they are definitely out there, and in this article we will showcase famous artists who have used this enchanting technique as both primary or less so, in order to reflect on its vastness and vividness.

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.

 

Stay Tuned to Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

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