The wonderful history of our love of  Watercolours

The wonderful history of our love of Watercolours

Watercolour is an ancient and exciting medium to work with. It’s unique approach and styles can be found across the world. My own love affair with watercolour started with a rocky relationship...

At school and at home I used those hard, powdery dry blocks which were (and still are) typical of the budget colours available in the UK. I hated them, I moved onto acrylics embracing the colour and the intensity they offer, but struggling to make them fit with my own developing style of brush work and composition.

It wasn’t until my wonderful art tutor at KIAD, Rochester, took me on an adventure with Russian Watercolour Brand, St Petersburg. He introduced me to a new way to paint, to use colour and to make marks on a surface.  I am forever thankful for having the vibrant Curtis Tappenden as a tutor.

Now, some 25ish years later, I’m still using these new techniques, and still exploring new ideas on watercolour and makes. A year ago I switched to using Schmincke Pigments and colours which again has been almost a quantum leap in vibrant colour and techniques.

What are watercolours and what’s the history behind them...  Watercolour paints are made of pigment suspended in a water-soluble medium, such as Gum-Arabic. When mixed with water, they can be applied to everything from canvas, to fabrics, wood and glass, but they really come to live when applied to papers or surfaces coated in paper-based mediums such as watercolour ground.

As a technique, what makes watercolour painting so unique is its totally unforgiving nature; lines, colours, washed, and shapes, must be applied perfectly the first time around. 

Anyone who has made any attempt to paint over or correct a watercolour in progress will know this simply renders the entire effect muddied or washed out.

Watercolours, here in England and Europe may make us think of Turner, Constable or perhaps even Tony Hart, Andy Warhol and David Hockney. Even Prince Charles is a fan of watercolour. But long before the British love affair with watercolour they have dominated Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese art and still do today. 

The Pre-History Artists onwards

The roots of watercolour painting go back to the first explorers in visual arts. Those prehistoric humans in the Palaeolithic ages who painted the walls of their caves with mixtures of ochre, charcoal, and other natural pigments. Creating the first experiments in visualisation and interpretation.

Flowing through time a few thousand years watercolours have advanced to a technique which can be painted on papyrus and used in the Egyptian art forms.

In the east of Asia, traditional Chinese painting with watercolours developed around 4,000 B.C., initially as a decorative medium, it had expanded to use brush techniques found in calligraphy. In Tibet and India the ‘Mandela’ art forms were developing to express visual interpretations of spiritual and cosmological concepts.

Further in time to the 1st century A.D., and in Europe we find the art of painting religious, icons and murals had taken hold. In the 4th century and back in Asia, landscape watercolour painting had established itself as an independent art form which quickly spread along the silk roads back into Europe, along with more advanced paints, brushes and techniques.

The 15th and 16th Centuries Education of Watercolour

Watercolour painting became celebrated in Europe during the Renaissance period with advancements in paper making and learnings from the Far East. While early European artists prepared their own watercolour mixtures of pigments and mediums for fresco wall painting, this was soon transferred to working on paper.

As the availability of synthetic pigments increased, printmaker and Renaissance artists, particularly Dutch artists, developed new methods of working with watercolour paints, highlighting the luminous, transparent effects of the intermixing of water and pigment. Their experiments and successes developed a new art movement in Watercolour across Northern Europe and West Russia.  Of note is the founding of the Watercolour work of the German Dürer Renaissance school of art.  Not just because of the advancement of the Dutch ideas but because it firmly established watercolour techniques we still see and use today.

Despite all this history and advancement watercolour remained the ‘Sketch and trial’ element to an artist’s work. It was not yet ‘masterpiece’ suitable.

The British Royal Navy, Dutch Navy and the East India Company come into shape the history of watercolour now. Not just for the discovery and import of new pigments but for their use of watercolour to catalogue, record, and study wildlife and botanical work through sketches. With watercolour being the ideal medium to record logs and samples on the go.

They were used for cartography for creating and charting new maps and nautical charts. Here, is where the British influence on this wonderful medium begins.


The British Watercolour Movement: The foundation of Modern Art.

Watercolour painting really gained a notoriety in European art during the 18th century, particularly in Great Britain where Paul Sandby, an English map-maker turned painter (one of the founders of the Royal Academy of Art), used the watercolour paints for his landscape paintings. It was at the start of the modern time of watercolour painting. Quickly watercolour established itself as a serious and expressive artistic medium. It had been elevated by artists from sketch work to masterpiece work.

My all time favourite artist, J.M.W. Turner, Who’s paintings I grow to like more and more each year was a technical innovator and a lead artist of the Romanticised seascapes and landscapes.

He achieved his art with lots of experimentation with mediums, synthetics and minerals held in watercolour suspension.

It was this experimentation that allowed Turner to use the larger formats of paintings allowing an adventure in both the expressive nature and technical aspects of watercolour.

The unique effects of light, colour wash play and expressive and impressionistic brushwork, what I would call mark making, created by British artists, caught the imagination of the early impressionists movement and inspired great attempts to tell visual stories of emotion, romanticism, colour and place.

Watercolour entered the 20th Century as an art medium enjoyed and celebrated by artists across the world and of many different disciplines. From the new Arts and Crafts Movements, to botanical painters, wildlife and travel painters and the emerging abstract movements. Artists in the west saw watercolour as an alternative to oil paints, while in the East, colour and intensity grew as the Indian Artists pushed further into the quality and diversity of pigments in their work.

American artist Winslow Homer was using watercolour paints to explore the beauty of the natural world, while Paul Cézanne used a technique of overlapping watercolour washes in some of his still life paintings, at the same time Vincent Van Gogh used watercolour techniques to create remarkable art forms. 

German abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky and Swiss Modernist Paul Klee are both notable 20th century watercolor masters, an indication that in the modern era, too, watercolor has been appreciated by artists regardless of their nationality or movement. A true paint for and of the people, which while elevated as a high art form for lead artists, was still affordable enough to be bought or made by people just starting on their arts journey as children.

Into the 21st century, artists still push further into the story of watercolour. We experiment. We research. As an artist, I am constantly looking at new pigments and new makers of watercolour. Excitedly although I am a huge fan of German paint maker, Schmincke, I also use pinks and blues from Water & Hills, a local independent watercolour paint maker. My paper comes from ‘St Cuthberts Mill’ and ‘TwoRivers Papers’, whom both produce fine watercolour paper less than 15 miles from the art studio.

In this ever growing and ever interconnected world of art, never stop experimenting and always look beyond the internet to see what local paint and paper companies are up to. You will always learn something new.

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