Traditions of Watercolours

Gatineau Hills, Kristin Krimmel. Copyright

One of my readers asked if watercolour was a relatively new media for artists to work in. He hadn’t seen much of them in his visits to galleries.

One of the reasons you will not see many watercolour paintings in institutional galleries (like MOMA, The Louvre, the National Gallery, etc) is that watercolours are still considered drawing, not painting, illogical as that may be.
Watercolours are thought to be a lot less permanent than oils that have a durable film of oxidized oil and then varnish over the oil film. These protect the pigments better than the watercolours. Watercolours depend on a very weak glue called gum arabic and the tooth of the paper.

Good hand made watercolour paper is made from cotton rag that has been ground down into a pulp and mixed with sizing, which is a glue (or binder) and water, and then mixed together into a pulpy liquid mush about the consistency of pablum. The pulp is then scooped up onto a woven metal screen which allows the water to drain away leaving only the pulp and the glue. Once the water has drawn off, the paper takes on the consistency of very wet corrugated cardboard.

Next, this solidifying pulp is flipped onto a felt and stacked with other similar sheets – felt, set pulp, felt, wet pulp, felt, etc. They are then pressed to extract as much water as possible – it absorbs into the felts – and then hung out to dry.

If you look at the finished paper under the microscope. you will see tiny little hairs of the cotton sticking up off the surface. This is called the tooth of the paper. When papers are cold pressed, there is more tooth. When they are hot pressed, usually through heated rollers, the paper is smoother and has much less tooth.

In watercolour, there are two categories of colours – pigments and dyes. The pigments will settle just under the tooth of the paper whereas the dyes soak in and stain the paper. That’s a critical thing to know, because if you may want to remove some colour that has been laid down, you have a chance of removing a pigment, but if you have used dyes, then the process is much less successful.

True pigments are made of ground minerals and sometimes are chemically created. For instance, cerulean blues come from the mineral deposits that sit along side the precious stones called Turquoise. Some natural occurring blues come from the mineral deposits that also give us lapis lazuli. When Illuminations – those jewel-like illustrations in Medieval Bibles – were made, the colours were so precious that they were listed in the inventory of princes as part of their valuables along with the silver and gold that was also used in their creation.

Obviously, with pigments costing so much, only the Church and the aristocrats could afford to provide pigments to artists. You can bet that the artists had to be the cream of the crop before they could get their hands on them.

When I studied in Rheims, France, I studied illuminations at the Carnegie Library there. They had a fine collection. The oldest I held in my hands was a mathematical text written in Roman numerals. The sides of the pages were decorated with geometric figures in yellows and oranges (less costly pigments). There are many natural sources for these colours, but two easily available ones come from naturally occurring iron ores. Raw and Burnt Sienna, Red Earth and yellow ochres fall into the categories of earth pigments. Copper oxides provide greens. Toxic Mercury and sulphur provides a vermillion – a brilliant warm red (it’s now replaced by Cadmium red) . Other pigments were made from bugs, like cochineal (reds and purples); or from animal-secreted inks such as sepia.

In the late 19th Century, chemists learned how to produce colours much less expensively than the precious earths. It was a good thing and a bad thing for the watercolourists. It was good that the pigments could be produced much less expensively. Painting became more popular. An educated woman would surely learn to paint in watercolour. It was an accomplishment that helped position her amongst the elite. Unfortunately, some of the pigments were poisonous. Mercury oxide is a wonderful brilliant and pure red. Some of the best greens are made with chrome or arsenic. Mixed together with the wrong pigments, noxious fumes could be created making the dilettante painter ill. Chinese white contained lead. Lead oxide goes right through the skin – a nice white pigment, but a poison that causes brain and liver damage.

When I was studying at University in the ’60s, these things were not even mentioned in our classes. During my studies in France, I started to investigate the nature of the pigments I was using. After much deliberation, I selected a palette of colours that was least likely to cause me poisoning. When I started teaching, myself, I made it a part of the curriculum to make sure that the students were aware of the toxic or non-toxic nature of their pigments.

Amongst the newly discovered pigment were the Pthalo group  – mostly greens and blues. These stain the paper and cannot be controlled as easily as the pigment type of paints. i s a good reference site for reading about the composition of pigments.

But I digress.

I can’t say when the first watercolours were done, but there are ones on that survive from the 17th century. The heyday of watercolours was in the 19th Century when it became fashionable for aristocratic young ladies to learn how to paint.
Most serious painters and sculptors would have done a lot of figure drawing in inks and washes, graduating to colour when they had their drawing skills established. Rodin did very loosely painted  watercolours of his models. John Singer Sargent was a real master of the medium, but they were considered sketches in colour by the galleries. There are several books published concerning his watercolour production and they are just luscious to browse through.

Whistler used the medium to work up studies of a “finished” oil painting.
If you want to see watercolours in the Museums, you most often have to make an appointment with the Drawing Department or the Works on Paper Department. In commercial value, because they are considered drawings, they are not accorded as much value as paintings; but they are usually worth more than graphite, ink and wash or charcoal drawings.

The medium is much loved by those who like a direct approach to drawing and painting. Watercolours are  generally more lively and the transparency of them has much charm. While traditional watercolours have lots of rules and regulations associated with them, today’s watercolourists are experimenting with new techniques.
Gouache is another water based medium, but the colours are not used transparently. Instead, they are used opaquely.The pigments are ground less finely than watercolour. Rather than depending on the transparency of the colour on the paper to achieve white and light areas, white pigment may be added which substantially changes the nature of the pigments.

I found this charming reference which gives an interesting history of the watercolourist’s art at:

I also checked out the  following web site which dates the first watercolours from Albrecht Durer in the late 15th to early 16th Century.

and that led me to look up Albrecht Durer. If you are interested, there is a lot of informtion on this artist as he kept a diary and careful records all his life.  Google his name and choose the Wikipedia entry for a good but rather lengthy read.

5 Responses to “Traditions of Watercolours”

  1. Helen Melvin Says:

    Thank you! This is a fantastic article and very informative.

  2. Chris Miller Says:

    I was having a good time at your life stories blog yesterday — and somehow forgot about your art blog – which is just as enjoyable (since we both like to look at the same things) I’ll have to visit both of them more often.

    Why don’t museums show more watercolour ? I guess their impermanence would be one reason — but then — why don’t they have a gallery with a rotating display ? (like our Chicago museum has for Asian prints and paintings) Indeed — why don’t they put all of their galleries into constant rotation — since they all own far more paintings than they can display — and there’s only a handful of things that are too famous to come down.

  3. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Thanks for your comments Helen and Chris,
    Helen, I took a look at your site and I really loved your opening page felt work.
    Chris, Always good to hear from you.
    Galleries do rotate work quite a bit and often lend to others.
    Degas’ pastels are really fragile to light and when you visit them in a museum they are housed behind glass, in a chamber with special lights that don’t do as much damage to the pigments, and the windows to these works are covered with a black out curtain so that the room’s light doesn’t affect them either. It’s awesome what some galleries will do to protect valuable works of art.
    While the original are obviously a quantum leap both in quality and in value from a print, it does make a good case for reproductions. I would not want to go through all that falderal to put a painting – watercolour or pastel up in my home. I just want to see it, every day, in passing as I go about my daily tasks. N’est pas?

  4. forestrat Says:


    Thanks for this post – I love learning about this kind of stuff.

    Once again I go away for a week and when I come home you have a gojillion new posts up. I’ll have to work my way through them a little at a time.

    Watercolor’s situation sounds a lot like photography’s. Many of the early chemicals for processing were way poisonous. If I remember right, arsenic and mercury were used a lot in the old wet plate days.

    I also think that watercolor and photography may both be less highly regarded in “art” circles because of their accesability to the masses. Everybody’s grandma can retire and start doing watercolors and everybody’s cousin takes pics and has a flickr account. Not everyone can break out the canvas and oils or whack away at a chunk of marble in their spare time.

    Of course there is a big difference between taking a snap of Aunt Wilma at the lake cottage and a Cartier-Bresson photograph. The same with watercolor – it may be a medium that is available to a great many people, but not many can create significant works with it.

    Just a thought.


  5. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Thanks for the comment FR/MDW
    I think you have put your finger on a very good reason why watercolours are less appreciated than others.

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