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History of Watercolour Art

The origins of watercolour painting can be found as further back as in the Stone Age, when cave paintings made by the Paleolithic man featured ochre and charcoal paint on walls. When papyrus was invented in Egypt the fourth millennium BCE, watercolours gained popularity, although because they were so fragile, many works from that time are now lost. The medium has also been an important part of the Asian art history for millennia, starting with the first examples in Chinese art around 4,000 BCE, and was very popular in Japan and Korea too.

While on that continent it served to decorative purposes, in Western art watercolors were used to create preparatory sketches. During the Renaissance, the iconic watercolors of Albrecht Dürer were made, including the world-famous “Young Hare” from 1502. The artworks made by the German artist are among the earliest examples of watercoloring and span many topics, from flora and fauna to landscape.

Following this period, watercolor painting rose to become a proper art form in the late 18th century with the so-called English school. Introducing what we now refer to as “The Golden Age of Watercolour”, landscape painters such as Thomas Girtin, Paul Sandby and Joseph Mallord William Turner brought fame to the technique, using it to print books, popularise wildlife and plant paintings, and create hand-painted watercolor originals or copies of their larger artworks, among other things. Their contributions led to the creation of many watercolor painting societies - the Royal Watercolour Society (RWS) and the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours for instance, and prompted many creative and technical innovations. These also reached the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, as watercoloring also became sought after in America.

With the arrival of the avant-garde in the 20th century, many notable artists around the world would make watercolors as part of their practice, fascinated by the wide range of opportunities to be original. What is discouraging about this art form however, despite this great interest in it by artists it and nearly every other aspect of the art world as well, is that thanks to its very characteristics, it can only be on display at museums and galleries for a quite limited period of time. Namely, watercolours fade much faster compared to, say, oil paint when exposed to light, and the lightness of their support puts an artwork’s existence at risk if mishandled or moved around too often.

Perhaps this is why we couldn’t think of a famous watercolour off the top of our head, but the good news is that they are definitely out there, and in this article we will showcase famous artists who have used this enchanting technique as both primary or less so, in order to reflect on its vastness and vividness.

Here we look at:

Albrecht Dürer

A painter, printmaker, and theorist of the German Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer was the pioneer of watercolor painting, having recognised its potential early on. His many topics of depiction include topography, plants, landscapes, cavaliers, nudes and animals, the most famous being the aforementioned “Young Hare” (1502). This work is celebrated for its impressive detail and the way the artist used colours to create contrast.

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