Watercolour ReviewReviewing the Reviewers: ‘Watercolour’ at Tate Britain

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The occasion of the extensive exhibition, ‘Watercolour’, at Tate Britain presents an opportunity to review a whole range of reactions to the show which have been presented in the press.  The attention drawn to the medium has engendered a new focus on the tradition of watercolour, which has deep roots in the history and culture of Great Britain. It also provides a look at varied approaches to watercolour being employed in contemporary art practice.

While the reviews have offered many viewpoints, and are primarily supportive of the huge undertaking which this exhibition represented, individual articles highlight the author’s favorite selections, or note disappointments about certain exclusions, or opposition to some works which are represented.

Through these reviews, there are some broader generalizations which have been made. It is fascinating to make some of these comparisons.  A number of reviewers seemed to be basically in sync with most of the historical rooms in various categories, but then find a stumbling block when confronting the selections made for the contemporary section.  There seemed to be a way to look for a means of stretching the range of what a watercolour is.

Karla Black, 'Opportunity for Girls' 2006

Karla Black, ‘Opportunity for Girls’ 2006

Some of the more controversial choices seemed to be the Karla Black “sculpture” which incorporates some watercolour pigments but with a wide variety of other materials. Some individuals have praised that inclusion because of its transparency and therefore, a relationship to translucent, transparent aspects of the traditional use of watercolour.

But here is the other side: “This room closes with Karla Black’s waving pink cellophane drapery “Opportunities for Girls”, a vapid installation smeared with Vaseline, shampoo, hair gel, toothpaste and – yes – a daub of watercolour: surely incidental to the conception, and to the medium’s 21st-century development.” ((By Jackie Wullschlager)http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/894a2aa2-3ae3-11e0-8d81-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz1Pk2iFHgE

“And watercolour is only one of the many materials rising star Karla Black uses in her formless cloud of pink cellophane, which is a work of sculpture.” Richard Dorment, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/8325161/Watercolour-Tate-Britain-review.html

“But the show does end wonderfully with Karla Black’s Opportunities for Girls, a great crumpled swag of cellophane slung like a mad hammock from thread. It looks like a housepainter’s discarded polythene sheet, covered with pink emulsion, slathered with Vaseline, shampoo, hair gel and toothpaste, some of which resists the paint applied over it. The whole thing is reminiscent of watercolour’s effects – the translucency, the broken brushstrokes, the way that light passes through it.” Adrian Searle guardian.co.uk, Monday 14 February 2011


Tracey Emin, ‘Berlin, The Last Week in April’ 1998

Others questioned the inclusion of Tracey Emin who many thought was selected simply because of her fame, rather than her particular skill in the medium.

“I am sure Tracey Emin is here because of her name” Adrian Searle guardian.co.uk

“These days watercolour seems to be making a virtue of its old reputation for quiet discretion. The later work in the exhibition shows contemporary artists using the medium to explore inner visions rather than outer spectacle. Tracey Emin’s Berlin the Last Week in April 1998 is a delicate smudge of watery monochrome which wistfully recalls an intimate bath taken with a lover in a hotel room.”  Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian, Saturday 5 February 2011

“On the other hand, completely absent is David Hockney, the artist who has truly reinvented contemporary watercolour, upping its scale, scope and argument with abstraction in landmarks such as the two-metre Spanish and Moroccan landscapes shown at the Royal Academy in 2004, and the dynamic portraits of his 2006 National Portrait Gallery show.” Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times

To read a collection of original reviews on ‘Watercolour’ go directly to: Watercolour Reviews


Watercolour,WatercolorWatercolour, Watercolor, Aquarelle!

Looking at the Historical and Contemporary Stereotypes and Preconceptions

It doesn’t matter how it is spelled, the medium of watercolour, watercolor, or aquarelle, has taken some direct hits. The opening statement by the Tate acknowledges this:

“Watercolour at Tate Britain invites you to challenge your preconceptions of what watercolour is.”

Now, as we take a look at a group of reviews of this exhibition, many present comments which reflect upon this issue.  Let’s take a look.

“But watercolour has connotations: pallid things hanging in the parlour, amateur-hour sunsets, wintry reed-beds in a fenland dawn. As well as being relatively mess-free (unless you are me), it doesn’t require much space or expense, and you can even do it outdoors.”

(From Adrian Searle guardian.co.uk)

“It is arguably one of the most ambitious surveys of watercolour staged in London but any visitor expecting safe, gentle and reserved should prepare for a surprise. “We do hope to confound preconceptions, yes,” said chief curator Alison Smith.

Tate Britain on Millbank is staging a show simply called Watercolour, opening on Wednesday, which the curators hope will blow away the myths and falsehoods about a medium sometimes seen as very British, profoundly conservative and, to put it bluntly, not very cool.”

Mark Brown, Arts correspondent, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/feb/14/tate-britain-watercolour-exhibition

“Despite associations with Victorian ladies and flower paintings, watercolour has often been far from wishy-washy. The Tate’s new survey – from the haunting visions of William Blake to intimate scenes by Tracey Emin – shows the medium’s versatility and power.”

“Historically, watercolour has been perceived as the medium of the dabbling amateur. Children, ladies and gentlemen of leisure have all been drawn to its cheapness, speed and apparent ease. Its subjects, too, have tended to be minor in size and scope: a domestic scene here, a botanical drawing there, stretching at most to a charming landscape. When professional artists use watercolour, so the grand narrative goes, it is to make preliminary sketches, try-outs, what-ifs that are supplementary to the real business of art, which involves painting in oils.”

(From Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian, Saturday 5 February 2011)

Does watercolour painting suffer from an image problem? Do you think of the wild, vaporous seascapes of Turner, or Victorian ladies at their sketchbooks dabbing daintily at wishy-washy flower paintings? Do you associate the medium with radical innovation or with staid tradition? And would Jackson Pollock have appeared quite so heroic flinging thin washes of watercolour around instead of viscous oils?

Fisun Güner, The Arts Desk, mon 27/06/11

“And it has a reputation, not entirely countered at Tate Britain, for being irresistibly English and elegiac. It is primroses and birds’ nests, hop farms and watermills, miles of dappled trees beneath mildly overcast skies. It is Winsor and Newton, Queen Victoria and Beatrix Potter, the herbaceous border and the lost summers of childhood.

Even Ruskin, champion of the medium and no mean practitioner, described watercolour as an art for suburbia, ideal “for the moderate-sized breakfast parlour opening on a nicely mown lawn”.

So who would go for watercolour? Why everyone, of course. Cheap, portable, easy to learn (if very hard to master), watercolour is the democratic medium, the paint we all use. And yet even that seems to go against it. The high-minded (apparently) hold watercolour in contempt, regarding it as the medium of children, amateurs, Rudolf Steiner teachers and art therapists, paint for the young, the ill and the old.

But is that true? There are strong suggestions of such widespread prejudice in the catalogue and the advance publicity for Tate Britain’s huge survey, but it all sounds like an Aunt Sally – a peg for arguing the case for watercolour anew. For assumptions are to be questioned, orthodoxies challenged in this show. We are to see the medium in a new way.”

(From Laura Cumming, The Observer, Sunday 20 February 2011)

“A kind of hierarchy has operated in the world of painting for as long as anyone can remember, with oil-based work being considered the gold-standard. If watercolours are seen as an important ‘entry point’ to painting or a suitable forum for more established artists to sketch out early drafts of work to be completed in oils, then this has led to a general lack of respect for the form.  In fact at one point painters who worked exclusively in watercolour were respected so little that they were virtually banned from the Royal Academy and forced to set up their own society, The Royal Watercolour Society, which still exists today.”

“One thing that IS unfortunately true however is that painting in watercolour is considered naff, uncool and unfashionable.  Interestingly, in the Far East there’s no tradition of oil painting and all painting is water-based.  So there are no pre-conceived ideas about the form and it doesn’t come with any baggage.  But here in Britain, most of us have a very fixed image of what a watercolour should look like. And there’s a general acceptance of a fixed set of rules for painting ‘correctly’ in watercolour.  For the most part, these rules have been obeyed – something which is almost unheard of in every other territory of the art world.  With watercolour we think of misty landscapes, cloudy skies and choppy seas all rendered by thin washes of somewhat anaemic colour.  We think of climactic effects like the dapped sunlight falling on the walls of twee old country buildings.  We certainly don’t think of subject matter that’s remotely cutting edge.  No wonder watercolour is considered conservative and boring.”

See Mathew Cain at Tate Britain in the following video:

“Often derided as prissy and polite, watercolour is the most misunderstood of mediums. But a blockbuster show shines exotic new light on its delicate and intimate charms.” Mark Hudson reports.

“Watercolour! Is there a single phenomenon that is so intrinsically British and at the same time so bathetically unsexy? Watercolour remains popular with a whole section of society – still practised by a public that probably runs into the millions. Yet for many more it smacks of a cringe-making smallness in British culture, the very word redolent of the sort of old-world holiday that was about sitting in the car with a Thermos flask waiting for it to stop raining. Let’s leave excitement to the foreign johnnies, runs the watercolour ethos – we’ll sit out in all weathers with our little painting sets, a plaid rug over our knees, reducing the most spectacular landscapes to vapid dishwater hues.” (Mark Hudson)


Just as the revival of drawing is symptomatic of the rejection of a rigid hierarchy in the arts, where history painting occupied the highest place and flower painting, the lowest position; oil paint was deemed superior to pastel or works on paper; contemporary watercolour can in fact free the creative process for many practitioners. It possesses an innate immediacy and sensual quality, and when it is amplified in scale it thus possesses great emotional resonance. ”

Dr. Janet McKenzie http://www.studio-international.co.uk/reports/watercolour-2011.asp

To read a collection of original reviews on ‘Watercolour’ go directly to: Watercolour Reviews

Viewpoints From The Artists

“Artists (in the ‘Watercolour’ exhibition) have been asked to speak about the position of watercolour in their art practice, and some of these responses are most interesting.”

Peter Doig, for example, enjoys watercolour’s ability to be left “very open like a sketch or thought”. Anish Kapoor says it is watercolour’s “ability to induce a dreamlike reverie” that he finds appealing and Sophie von Hellermann is refreshingly pragmatic, admitting that watercolours are supremely portable (lightweight, compact and only needing water!) and enabling her “to translate mental images or dream … anything of transience, … and drama [such as] stormy clouds”. Tracey Emin travels with watercolours, “and fills sketchbooks like a picture diary”.

“Howard Hodgkin, who has used watercolour since childhood values the medium for its transparency and immediacy. He uses it extensively on his hand-coloured prints because the print is still visible through the washes of colour. “The reason I like it now is because I can have a ‘puddle’ of a colour and it gives many different weights of that colour”.

David Austen describes watercolour’s place, in the way many artists describe drawing, as being the “closest art I make to myself. The art I make in other media is more like building work. Watercolour is like a breath. It is the most intimate of mediums.”

Dr. Janet McKenzie http://www.studio-international.co.uk/reports/watercolour-2011.asp