From Cave Paintings
to Modernists: A
History of
Watercolor Painting

Watercolor painting is a distinctive medium, straddling the worlds of painting and drawing to create a unique art form. Paints are made of pigments suspended in a water-soluble medium and can be applied to everything from paper to canvas, and from wood to fabrics. What makes watercolor painting so unique is its unforgiving nature; lines, colors, and forms must be applied perfectly the first time around, as any attempt to paint over simply renders the entire effect muddied. Watercolors have dominated Asian art and still do today, but they have also enjoyed a prominent place in Western art history.

Early Examples of Watercolor Painting

You have to go far back in time to find the roots of watercolor painting, to the time when prehistoric humans in the Paleolithic ages painted the walls of their caves with mixtures of ochre, charcoal, and other natural pigments. Watercolors were also painted on papyrus and used in Egyptian art forms. In Asia, traditional Chinese painting with watercolors developed around 4,000 B.C., primarily as a decorative medium, and by the 1st century A.D., the art of painting religious murals had taken hold. By the 4th century landscape watercolor painting in Asia had established itself as an independent art form.

Advances in Watercolor Painting in the 15th and 16th Centuries

Watercolor painting emerged in Europe during the Renaissance period with advancements in papermaking. While early European artists prepared their own watercolor mixtures for fresco wall painting, this was soon applied to paper. With an increase in the availability of synthetic pigments, printmaker and Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) developed new methods of working with watercolor paints, highlighting the luminous, transparent effects it offered and inspiring other artists to experiment. This trend was picked up by Hans Bol (1534–1593), who founded an important school of watercolor painting in Germany as part of the Dürer Renaissance. However, despite these efforts, the medium remained largely isolated to preparatory sketches, with the exception of botanical and wildlife illustration schools where its striking effect could bestow a real-life look to natural subjects. Watercolor paints were also popular for map-making and were considered especially effective for rendering the topography of an area.

The English Watercolor Movement and Its Influence on Modern Art

Watercolor painting really gained a foothold in Western art during the 18th century, particularly in England where Paul Sandby (1730–1809), an English map-maker turned painter (and one of the founders of the Royal Academy), used the watercolor paints so popular in the creation of maps for his landscape paintings. It was at this time that watercolor painting became established as a serious and expressive artistic medium. Leading this movement was J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851), a technical innovator and Romantic landscape artist who experimented with available synthetic mineral pigments. Inspired by the work of watercolorist Thomas Girtin, who pioneered its use for large format, romantic or picturesque landscapes, Turner explored both the expressive nature and technical aspects of the medium. By the mid-1800s, English art society had seen the formation of the Society of Painters in Water Colours (1804) and the New Water Colour Society (1832).

The unique effects of light and freer brushwork created by the English school of watercolor painting caught the attention of the early Impressionists and influenced their work. In the 19th and 20th centuries, watercolors emerged as a medium used by many prominent artists. Of course, John James Audubon notably used watercolors to document his wildlife subjects, but other artists known for other mediums such as oil painting worked with watercolors as well. American artist Winslow Homer used watercolor paints to explore the beauty of the natural world. Paul Cézanne used a technique of overlapping watercolor washes in some of his still life paintings, while Vincent Van Gogh used watercolor techniques to create remarkable art forms. German abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky and Swiss Modernist Paul Klee are both notable 20th century watercolorists, an indication that in the modern era, too, watercolor has been appreciated by artists regardless of their nationality or movement.

Into the 21st century, artists have taken advantage of this unique medium to create striking works of art. Above all, watercolor painting is versatile, alternately offering rich, vivid tones or soft, soothing forms. Take a look at the watercolor paintings showcased in Agora’s online galleries, and you’ll see the versatility and beauty that watercolors have to offer.

This article was written for ARTmine by Laura Monroe.

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