Watercolor, Watermedia, Then And Now

Early Cultures, Asian, Middle East, Early European 

Watercolor circle-005The term watermedia has been used in recent years to embrace a number of media including transparent watercolor, gouache, casein, acrylic and even egg tempera. It can also be used to describe works which utilize a combination of these water-based pigments. If one examines the acrylic medium, the use and history is a relatively short one. However, if you examine the past of the watercolor medium, there are deep historical roots tracing back through many cultures and historical traditions. It is intriguing to review some of the major influences, from early history to the classical period of British watercolors, to Impressionist contributions and Contemporary expressions.

Early Examples: From Caves to Tombs and Temples

Cave Painting, Lascaux

The watercolor tradition can be said to date back to the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira, and include various examples from many cultures in the East and the West over the centuries. The well known prolific and sophisticated Magdalenian style seen at Lascaux (c. 15,000 BCE) and Altamira died out about 10,000 BCE, coinciding with the advent of the Neolithic period.

In the cave paintings the most common themes are are images of large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs, and deer, The pigments used include red and yellow ochre, hematite, manganese oxide and charcoal.

Depiction of the weighing of the heart ritual from the papyrus of Ani, c1275 BC

Depiction of the weighing of the heart ritual from the papyrus of Ani, c1275 BC

Ancient Egyptians painted with waterbased paints on tombs and temples, and with the pulp of the papyrus plant, they produced some of the first works on paper.

The images on their scrolls were painted with transparent colors. The pigments such as the ochres and siennas came from the earth. Minerals such as cinnebar produced reds, and blues came from azure, malachite for green, etc. As the pigments were combined with gum arabic and egg white, and then diluted with water, the Egyptians were, in effect, painting with watercolors.

There was also the tradition of work in fresco by the Etruscans and Romans.

Far and Middle East: Early Traditions

Pigeons by Ch’ien Hsuan, 13th Century

However, it was in the Far and Middle East that watercolor traditions, in a more modern definition, first appeared. Chinese artists, and also Japanese, painted with watercolor on silk and on handmade paper. Some of the work produced was more aligned to a literary tradition, and thereby to a calligraphic approach. However, there was also the development of the observation, appreciation and portrayal of the surrounding landscape. This work based on the natural environment was a direction which was more clearly a forerunner for the Western tradition in watercolor.

A distinctive art form of miniature painting utilized opaque body color in the Indian subcontinent, Persia and part of the Islamic world, and this narrative and decorative direcetion had a counterpart in the Middle Ages in the illuminated manuscripts. The surfaces included parchment made of sheepskin, and vellum which was manufactured from calfskin. Examples include The Book of Kells. A secular example would be the famous book of hours of the Limbourg brothers, Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry from the 15th century.

Medieval artists also worked in fresco, and that tradition continued into the Renaissance. Fresco involved mixing pigments with water which were then applied to wet plaster.


History of Papermaking and Watercolor

The next phase was dependent upon the development of the European paper industry. Since ancient times the Chinese had been manufacturing paper, and the Islamic world learned these skills from them. It was, however, the Arabs who, after having learned the rudiments of manufacturing and made a few improvements, spread the new product throughout the West.

The Old Paper Mill in Fabriano

As those sources eventually became scarce, European sources developed with the Fabriano mills in Italy, producing paper as early as 1264. Fabriano’s master papermakers invented surface sizing, which controls the absorbency of paper and improves its archival characteristics. They also invented the first watermark. Today, some of the finest watercolor papers are still produced by Fabriano.

France, Germany and Switzerland followed by the end of the 14th century, but England mills did not provide white paper until 1495, with real quality paper not being produced in the British Isles until the 18th century.

The availability of papers led in the 14th Century to drawing as an independent activity and by the latter part of the 15th century, the drawings of da Vinci and Michaelangelo and others reached new levels of achievement. Out of this drawing tradition, a younger artist in the North, Albrecht Durer, emerged as an early master of the aqueous medium.

Albrecht Durer, (1471-1528) The First ‘Modern’ Master of Watercolor

Searching back in history in the West, the German artist Albrecht Durer, is often considered the father of modern watercolor painting. He mastered sophisticated watercolor painting techniques. Durer travelled to Italy in 1494-95 and became acquainted with Giovianni Bellini and the potential of landscape painting. As he returned home through the Alps he recorded many scenes such as the Alpine Landscape (or Welsch Pirg).


Albrecht Durer “Alpine Landscape” 1495

A look at the Alpine Landscape,” from 1495, reveals Durer’s mastery of the wash technique. Layering of transparent washes creates the forms through an atmospheric space. This kind of lyrical interpretation was a singular direction at the time, and was not to be seen again until the latter half of the 19th century.

Albrecht Durer, ‘Wing of a Roller’ 1512

Other works by Durer exhibit a great deal of detail, such as “The Hare,” “The Great Piece of Turf” and “Wing of a Roller.” These very detailed studies can be said to have anticipated botanical and zoological works.

During his lifetime Durer worked directly from nature, and painted many animals utilizing watercolor, and he sometimes mixed in some opaque “body color” or gouache for highlights or specific details. Durer’s work exemplifies a great love for animals and nature.

While Northern European artists at that time were making up the color schemes in their paintings, Durer experimented with the actual, or local colors, in his subjects. This direction was later to become an important aspect of the British painter’s approach.

Albrecht Durer, 'The Hare' Albertina, Vienna

Albrecht Durer, ‘The Hare’ Albertina, Vienna

When painting watercolors of animals such as “The Hare,” Durer first laid out the shapes with broad, thin washes of light and dark colors after which he gradually built up the details followed by using white gouache for the highlights.

While Durer is considered to be the greatest German painter and engraver of the 16th century, relatively few people are aware that Durer alternated between oil and watercolor painting. Albrecht Durer was truly a forerunner in the use and practice of watercolor, but after Durer, watercolor for its own sake disappeared, and other artists did not follow in his footsteps.

For nearly 300 years, watercolor was used more as an aid and a preliminary sketching tool for oil paintings. However, one can find a few examples in the next 250-300 years of occasional works in watercolor by a number of noted artists.

Albrecht Durer, 'View of Kalchreuth' circa 1503

Albrecht Durer, ‘View of Kalchreuth’ circa 1503

VanDyck 'AnEnglishLandscape'

Van Dyck, ‘An English Landscape’

Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), for example, painted skillful landscapes in watercolor. During Van Dyck’s second stay in England (from 1632 until his death in 1641) he painted several landscapes in watercolor. These were utilized as studies and backgrounds for his oil paintings and portraits.

Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck, . . . pioneered the use of translucent watercolor washes. The artist allowed the blank paper to shine through the pigment, playing as important a role as the watercolor itself. From van Dyck’s time on, watercolorists viewed their medium as an interaction between color and paper. Getty


Anthony Van Dyck, 'Landscape'  1632

Anthony Van Dyck, ‘Landscape’ 1632

Others worked in monochrome wash, such as Rembrandt (1606–1669) and Claude Lorrain (c.1600-1682).

The Wash Technique: The 17th Century Harbinger of Watercolor

There were many 17th Century artists, including Claude Lorraine, Poussin, and Rembrandt who did not use the actual medium of watercolor, but instead utilized the techniques of wash, which required similar techniques to those used in watercolor.


Claude Lorraine 'Landscape with River, View of the Tiber from Monte Mario, Rome' British Museum, London

Claude Lorraine ‘Landscape with River, View of the Tiber from Monte Mario, Rome’ British Museum, London

Claude Lorraine (c.1600-1682) painted many large landscapes in Rome which were commissioned by both kings and clergy.

The British landscape artist, John Constable stated, “It has been said that Lorraine is the best landscape artist in the world and this is well deserved praise. His main attribute is the mixing of splendor with quietude, color with freshness, shadow and light.” Lorraine’s oil landscapes required numerous wash drawings before completion.

Nicolas Poussin  'Landscape with Trees and Tower'

Nicolas Poussin ‘Landscape with Trees and Tower’


Another French artist, Nicholas Poussin, (1594–1665) worked, as did Lorraine, from a series of wash studies, which were drawn directly from nature. While some of these sketches employed only two colors, sometimes in combination with black, the range of light and dark tones make them appear to be in a fuller palette.

Poussin has been credited with inventing what became known as French Classicism. Poussin’s invented landscapes sometimes combined the classic and the ideal to coexist naturally with the mysteries of nature.


Rembrandt van Rijn 'Young Woman Sleeping' The British Museum

Rembrandt van Rijn ‘Young Woman Sleeping’ The British Museum

In exploring the evolution of the watercolor medium through history, it is also important to recall the Dutch artist, Rembrandt, who, though he never worked in watercolor, made hundreds of sketches in brown bistre or sepia wash. Through this means he was able to suggest color, volume, light and shadow.

Rembrandt van Rijn 'Landscape' pen, ink, and wash on paper

Rembrandt van Rijn ‘Landscape’ pen, ink, and wash on paper, Hamburger Kunsthalle