The History Of Watercolour

by Cass Art

The watercolour season here at Cass Art is drawing to a close - with our Make A Splash watercolour challenge, we have seen the summer in with a celebration that the medium deserves. But just because our promotion is over doesn't mean your own watercolour painting has to end, and to carry on inspiring you, we have written a brief history of watercolour painting.

Watercolour can often be perceived as an amateur medium, the paint of Victorian ladies and English grandmothers, of young children splashing around with their water pots. But it was the expressionist genius Willem de Kooning who said that ‘watercolour is the first and the last thing an artist does’, and there is a reason for that. Because watercolours have the ability to teach artists - amateurs and professionals - so much about the process of making. 

Winsor & Newton Watercolour Brushes

The Power of Watercolour

Watercolours have the power to teach you about paint, about colour, about mastering a technique and floundering when you thought you knew it all. Watercolour is unpredictable, haunting, from the scenes of Turner and Blake and Sargent, and it is about time and experience coming together on the paper. It is a process of trust and exploration, and provides a must-have learning curve for artists of all abilities.

To fully appreciate the history of the watercolour, however, you first have to imagine a world without photographs or Google search engines. Because really, today's generation is an artistically spoilt one. If you want to view the world's greatest watercolours - a JMW Turner seascape or, more recently, a Charles Reid figure painting - with a couple of key taps and a click of the mouse, you can. 

JMW Turner Watercolour, Cass Art blog

So it is easy to forget that watercolour paintings first thrived in a world where they were deemed the most accurate depictions of a place or person.

If you wanted an enduring family portrait to hang above the mantelpiece, there were no photography studios to turn to - no Olan Mills or Click shops, no instant printing photo booths at the local chemist. Wealthier families in those days would instead commission a watercolourist.

Similarly if you went on holiday, you couldn't send postcards back to friends or relatives or take selfies on the beach as a memento. Instead, you would buy a watercolour of a collectible landscape.

Back In Time

And what of paintings that came before Victorian holidays? Opinion is divided as to when the first cave paintings appeared.

Many experts point to rock shelters in northern Australia that suggest painting was being undertaken as long as 60,000 years ago. Yet France currently boasts the oldest known paint formations, estimated at over 30,000 years old.

What is less disputed, however, is that the watercolour became a consistently used medium by artists in the Renaissance during the late 15th century.

The early watercolourists can be likened to chefs. With no paint shops available, they had to evolve their own materials and kept their recipes a closely-guarded secret.

One of the pioneering watercolourists, German Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) demonstrated how graphically accurate the medium could be when depicting landscapes and wildlife. His Young Hare picture remains a particular treasure of the time.

Northern Europe continued to yield leading exponents, including Flemish Baroque artist Antoon van Dyck (1599-1641), with his great love of biblical subjects, and mythological creatures.

English national art kept pace with the rest of northern Europe, making great strides through the likes of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). The Blue Boy personified his lightness of palette and simplicity of strokes.

Watercolour Exhibition

Making Waves

Commercial paint manufacturing launched in the 1700s, supplying the public with rudimentary resins, pigments and oils. William Reeves' invention of  soluble watercolour hard cakes, in particular, was a major breakthrough for watercolour painting. Towards the end of this century, bees helped advance the work of watercolourists. Yes, bumblebees - honey was found to be fantastic for preserving moisture in paints, making the application of watercolour far easier and more durable.

Then, in the 1820s, disaster struck - or so many cynics thought. The photograph was invented. This effectively took away watercolour's primary historic purpose: to provide accurate records of the living world.

And yet, despite this evolution in technology, the good, old-fashioned watercolour has not only survived, but flourished with a series of new movements.

In fact, the period 1750-1850 is considered to be watercolour's Golden Age. The medium continued to evolve, as though the invention of the camera had freed it from its constraints. You could say photography did it a favour, offering it the possibility to do something new. 

Winsor & Newton Old Paint Box

‘Watercolour is a swim in the metaphysics of life…a mirror of one’s own character ’ – Anonymous 

A prime mover among this new freedom of expression was John Constable (1776-1837). He is popularly remembered for his Suffolk landscapes and seminal Salisbury Cathedral, and his near-mystical Stonehenge, Wiltshire (1835) is considered by many as one of history's finest watercolours.

Impressionism passed through to Post-Impressionism, challenging the established Renaissance outlook on art. Frenchman Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) established himself as one of the all-time greats through the latter movement with paintings such as The Bathers. But no less acclaimed at around this time was Edward John Poynter's (1836-1919) Venice by Moonlight, which expertly captures watery reflections with the fluidity of the medium.

In the 20th century Fauvism and Expressionism took up the baton of questioning the accepted norm, which was then picked up by Cubism and Dadaism and carried through to the contemporary art world that we know today.

David Hockney, Cass Art blog

US great Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) and today David Hockney continued to advance the watercolour medium in the 20th century and, in spite of its often domestic reputation, the medium will never stop evolving. Helped by  technology, like many other things, watercolourists can today buy paints that are as vibrant and as durable as oil paints, and experiment further with watercolour pencils.  

We may have photography and Google images now, but watercolourists remain as intrinsic to the art world as ever. It is a form of painting that artists revisit again and again - and for that, there is a reason. 

Feeling inspired?

Buy your own set of Artists' Watercolour paints and the Cass Art Synthetic Set of 6 brushes perfect for watercolour and acrylic painting.

Shop online for our range of watercolour products and stock up on all your art materials, including the Cass Art Jumbo Watercolour Gummed Paper Pad 300gsm to start making those watercolour masterpieces.


Image Credits

Winsor & Newton Pinterest 

Turner's masterpiece The Blue Rigi. Rebecca Harley/PA Wire

Collection of watercolours by John Constable on display at Petworth House in West Sussex earlier this year. Chris Ison/PA Wire

David Hockney unveiling a Turner watercolours exhibition at Tate Britain, London. Rebecca Harley/PA Wire

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