The World of

John James Audubon.  Thomas Eakins.  Winslow Homer.  James McNeill Whistler. John Singer Sargent. Helen Frankenthaler. These are only a handful of the famous names which over the centuries came to be associated with watercolor painting.

Watercolor is a medium with a rich artistic heritage, from landscape to abstraction. It is a medium valued for its ability to capture the spontaneity of life. No matter the age, a watercolor painting always remains fresh. 

Watercolor as a medium is composed of ground colored pigment suspended in gum arabic, diluted and spread with water. It is most often used on paper of three kinds: hot pressed, cold pressed, and rough. Hot pressed paper is very smooth and allows for quick lines and deft brushwork. Cold pressed (or non-pressed) paper has moderate texture and takes color smoothly while allowing for flowing washes. Rough paper is coarse and absorbs the color most fully, and is able to take many layered washes. 

What makes watercolor unique among mediums is the luminosity it achieves through its transparency. In contrast to opaque mediums, such as oil and acrylic, watercolor creates its unique sense of light by revealing the white substrate, usually paper, underneath the paint. In this way, it is much like drawing. In fact, watercolor is classified as drawing in museum archiving, rather than falling into the category of painting as one might expect. 

Oil and acrylic, on the other hand, create light areas by adding to the surface light toned paint, often built on top of dark and middle tones. In the classical tradition, the substrate, usually canvas, is first given a dark to middle tone, often an earthy color, allowing the lights and darks to be added, cumulatively, in either tonal direction. Light is additive. 

The technique of watercolor may be called subtractive, although there is no erasing as such; and this is what makes watercolor especially difficult. There is a general misconception that watercolor is a good medium to use if a person wants to give painting a try; it is for beginners. Not so!

Watercolor is perhaps the most challenging of all painting mediums. It does not allow erasing. It cannot be painted over. It is not easily controlled. It is unforgiving and demands the artist work on its terms, not the other way around. Oil and acrylic are forgiving in that there is always the possibility of revision, endless changes, extending and retracting shapes, covering disliked areas, and making dark areas ever lighter.

With watercolor, the first strike of the brush is permanent, made with water, which is unpredictable. A painter may begin with precise pictorial intentions, but must always adapt to what is happening on the paper. This skill is what makes a great watercolorist.  This unpredictability is what makes watercolor paintings so fresh and exciting.

We invite you to explore our range of Original Watercolor Paintings for sale now!

This article was written for ARTmine by Rob Wright.

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