‘Watercolour’ Catalog And Categories

watercolour-catalogWatercolour, February 2011, Tate Publishing

265 x 215 mm Paperback, 208 pp 170 colour illustrations

ISBN 978 1 85437 913 9 £19.99

Exhibition Tate Britain, London

16 February – 21 August 2011

Alison Smith (Author) Alison Smith is Curator and Head of British Art to 1900 at Tate Britain


Thomas Ardill, Anna Austen, Tabitha Barber, David Blayney Brown, Karen Hearn, Matthew Imms, Nicola Moorby, Phillipa Simpson and Katherine Stout

Introduction To The Publication

JMW Turner, 'The Scarlet Sunset' c1830-40

JMW Turner, 'The Scarlet Sunset' c1830-40

“Watercolour has long been seen as a distinctive part of the British cultural heritage, with British artists widely acknowledged to be among its greatest exponents. At the same time it is a universal and much-loved medium, valued and practised by devoted amateurs around the world as much as by professional artists. What can watercolour achieve in terms of technique and expression that no other medium can, and why is it so central to Britain’s idea of itself?

While most books on the subject focus on watercolour as an immediate response to nature, associated with Romanticism and Impressionism, this book traces its roots from the Middle Ages through to the present day.Featuring classic works by artists including J.M.W. Turner, Thomas Girtin and Samuel Palmer, it also features watercolours by modern and contemporary artists including Peter Doig, Tracey Emin and Anish Kapoor.

Separate sections look at watercolour in cartography and scientific illustration; the way its portability allowed it to capture the impressions of travellers; its arrival as a subject of exhibitions; its facility as a medium of the interior vision of artists including William Blake, Richard Dadd, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Surrealists; its adoption as the chosen medium of war artists; and its use as a vehicle of abstraction.”

The Categories For The Exhibition

  • Introduction
  • The Natural World
  • Intimate Knowledge
  • Travel and Topography
  • Watercolour and War
  • Inner Vision
  • The Exhibition Watercolour
  • Abstraction and Improvisation
  • Water + Colour: Exploring the Medium

The following descriptions are directly from the Tate Watercolour Exhibition, and describe the categories which were used as a basis for organizing and curating the exhibition.


John Singer Sargent, 'Miss Eliza Wedgwood and Miss Sargent Sketching' 1908

John Singer Sargent, 'Miss Eliza Wedgwood and Miss Sargent Sketching' 1908

This exhibition explores what watercolour can achieve in terms of technique and expression that no other medium can, and why it is capable of producing an astonishing variety of effects, from subtle atmospheric washes to brilliant translucent colour.

British artists have been among the greatest exponents of watercolour, and the medium has long been regarded as a distinctive part of British cultural heritage.

The exhibition celebrates the association of watercolour with famous masters such as Blake, Turner and Girtin, and also presents watercolour’s huge range and appeal, for amateurs and professionals, for show and intimacy, for realistic representation and for hallucinatory or abstract invention.

The Natural World



Aalexander Marshal

Aalexander Marshal

An important early role of watercolour was the dissemination of knowledge. A category of botanical illustration developed from types of miniatures and manuscript illustration explored in the previous room. Many illustrators of the natural world were among the most technically gifted watercolourists of their age, whose work combined beauty with scientific accuracy. They developed a visual language which, once established, has remained standard up to the present day.In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when travel, trade and voyages of discovery brought images of flora and fauna unknown to Western Europe, illustrators played a central role in making new knowledge visible.

Acute observation and accurate delineation were critical for the identification and classification of new species. Florilegia, or pictorial flower books, captured the newest, rarest specimens growing in the gardens and hothouses of collectors, while printed volumes served both the scientific community and a curious public.

The development of natural history illustration mirrors the evolution of science. Carl Linnaeus’s new classification system for plants, based on their observable reproductive characteristics, focused attention on the flower and fruit, and the portrayal of ideal specimens. Technological advances in microscopy made possible the drawing of dissections and magnifications of great detail and precision. Such drawings became integral to the study and understanding of the natural world.

Intimate Knowledge

John Dunstall, 'A Pollard Oak near West Hampnett Place, Chichester', c 1660

John Dunstall, 'A Pollard Oak near West Hampnett Place, Chichester', c 1660

The art form we think of today as ‘watercolour’ originated in a variety of practices including cartography, miniature painting and manuscript illumination, examples of which are displayed in the opening room. Watercolour was chosen as a medium for its delicacy and precision, and was utilised for the purpose of recording and retaining information, be it a map demarcating boundaries of ownership or an image glorifying a monarch or a beloved one’s face. Because colour was regarded as an additional tool for drawing and illustration, it was generally applied in a careful and minute way and used to articulate line in conveying information.

Early works in watercolour also had an intimate role and were often to be found in manuscripts and folios, or secreted in cases for private viewing.It was through the work of itinerant artists such as Anthony van Dyck and Wenceslaus Hollar that genres associated with later watercolour such as topographical landscape began to develop along distinct lines, as will be explored in subsequent sections of the exhibition.


Travel and Topography

The history of watercolour is closely associated with topography (the representation of places), and some of the most famous images in British art are landscapes painted with the medium. By virtue of its very fluidity, watercolour is often regarded as the ideal technique for evoking the atmosphere, climate and picturesque effects found in the British landscape.

Thomas Girtin, 'The White House at Chelsea' 1800
Thomas Girtin, ‘The White House at Chelsea’ 1800

During the eighteenth century the portability of watercolour encouraged artists to travel overseas. With the growth of trade and empire, they became skilled at adapting watercolour usage at home to capture the landscape, light and colour of different places. As an illustrative medium it also provided documentary information and was employed to offer apparently authentic descriptions of the unfamiliar and exotic.

Topography has changed less dramatically than other genres of watercolour. This medium is still used to convey an unchanging ideal of the British landscape. Even in the age of the photograph, watercolour could suggest an alternative way of looking at the world and in the twentieth century artists such as Mackintosh, Ravilious and Procktor continued the tradition of responding to the spirit of place.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Eric Ravilious, 'The Vale of the White Horse' c.1939 Eric Ravilious
Eric Ravilious, ‘The Vale of the White Horse’ c.1939 Eric Ravilious





Watercolour and War

'Devastation, 1941: An East End Street 1941' by Graham Sutherland
‘Devastation, 1941: An East End Street’ by Graham Sutherland

Watercolour has proved to be a highly practical and resilient technique for use in extreme situations, even under the conditions of war. Before the advent of photography it allowed for swift execution on the battlefield and was also employed in a scientific capacity to document trauma and injury to the body.

Most of the works in this section were produced during the First and Second World Wars when watercolour was galvanised for documentary purposes by the Ministry of Information. Many display a tension between the demands of illustration and the underlying reality that artists felt compelled to represent. In order to convey experiences of shock and horror some made technical experiments by combining watercolour with denser materials such as chalk or crayon.


Gothic or surreal conventions were also utilised for expressive ends.The development of new reproductive technologies – particularly photography and film – has led to a decline in recent times in the number of artists being employed in situations of war, especially as none of the conflicts involving Britain since 1945 has resulted in national art programmes on the scale of earlier schemes. But artists have explored other ways of expressing trauma, upholding watercolour as the ideal medium for communicating the limits of experience.

Inner Vision

Richard Dadd 'The Child's Problem' (1857)

Richard Dadd 'The Child's Problem' (1857)

David Jones 'Aphrodite in Aulis' 1940-1 Tate

David Jones 'Aphrodite in Aulis' 1940-1

From the eighteenth century to the present, artists who have drawn on imagination or memory have been attracted to watercolour for both aesthetic and ideological reasons. The ease with which it can be applied conveys an impression of immediacy, the sense of a vision ‘captured’ at the moment of conception. In some instances, however, the use of the brush as a drawing tool results in a precision that suggests a more considered, analytical approach to recording ideas and impressions.

By exploiting watercolour’s potential to appear light and transparent or heavy and opaque, artists have been able to construct an enormous range of unsettling, dreamlike, surreal and hallucinatory images. Personal, interiorised subjects were often employed by artists during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to challenge conventional, mimetic modes of art. These apparently marginal activities were validated by Romantic theories of art, which argued for the primacy of the imagination as a creative source. Today, it is accepted that any view of the world is subjective, and the drive to invest a figurative image with an emotional or psychological charge has become a key aspect of contemporary art practice.

The Exhibition Watercolour

Arthur Melville, 'The Blue Night Venice', 1855

Arthur Melville, 'The Blue Night Venice', 1855

Early in the nineteenth century, watercolour made a decisive leap from the album and portfolio onto the wall. No longer content with often grudging admittance among oil painters to the Society of Artists or the Royal Academy, watercolourists founded their own exhibiting societies where they could show off their skills and the array of new materials available.


William Henry Hunt, 'Primroses and Bird's Nest'

William Henry Hunt, 'Primroses and Bird's Nest'

Dedicated watercolour exhibitions began in 1805, a year after the Society of Painters in Water Colours was formed in a London coffee house. A rival New Society began in 1807. As the Royal Watercolour Society and Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, these organisations still flourish today.

On their walls in the early years of the nineteenth century the ‘exhibition watercolour’ became an art form in itself, one of the innovations of the age. Grand, close-framed in gold and conceived to rival oil, with sheer size at a premium, it was more than just a watercolour in an exhibition. It was a spectacle – fashionable, showy and sometimes very expensive. Although landscape predominated in the exhibitions, especially at the increasingly conservative SPWC, watercolourists also challenged history painters or explored newly-popular narrative and genre subjects. They competed for depth or brilliance of colour, and inventive combinations of media.

Abstraction and Improvisation

Patrick Heron

Patrick Heron

Howard Hodgkin's 'A Storm' (1977)

Howard Hodgkin's 'A Storm' 1977


The development of abstraction is generally seen as a twentieth-century phenomenon.

This room, however, brings together works from across three centuries, demonstrating an established tradition of artists using the natural fluidity of watercolour to explore colour and form.

The loose, unconfined nature of wash lends itself to images based upon mass and tone, rather than linear outline, while its innate transparency highlights the force of pure, rich colour.

Furthermore, watercolour has a flexibility and immediacy which make it a powerful tool for personal, emotive expression.

All the artists represented here have engaged with the physical nature of their chosen medium through the form and appearance of their work. Sometimes this reveals a measure of unpredictability as part of the creative process.

Alexander Cozens, Plate 2, 'Blot' Landscapes' (1785)

Alexander Cozens, Plate 2, 'Blot Landscapes' (1785)

Peter Lanyon, 'Coast' 1953

On other occasions the works result from a more controlled approach to materials, or the combination of conventional watercolour with unorthodox substances and supports. Common throughout is the use of watercolour for innovative practice, reinvigorating, extending or even challenging its traditional reputation.


Water + Colour, Exploring The Medium

Winsor & Newton painting satchel owned by Queen Victoria

Winsor & Newton painting satchel owned by Queen Victoria

Watercolour is often associated with tradition, yet it is a versatile and eclectic art form with a long history of innovation and change. One of the most significant factors in its evolution is the close relationship between the properties of the paint and the way in which it can be applied. Many techniques were established with a conventional set of apparatuses materials (brushes, paints and paper) to exploit and control its two most distinctive qualities: liquidity (or wateriness) and transparency (the way that light is reflected through it). However, watercolour can be used in many other ways, employing a variety of tools and products.

This room presents a history of changing materials and processes from the late sixteenth century to the present day. Many of the important moments in the advancement of the medium were the result of innovations by British artists and manufacturers. Objects on the wall and in the display cases present a broad chronological survey of key developments, and provide an introduction to the commonest techniques and terminology. Additionally, insights into the approaches of four contemporary practitioners reveal the range and flexibility of watercolour, and demonstrate how the medium is being challenged and reinvigorated today.