The knowledge of grinding pigment and dyes with water is very old. It can be found in the earliest manifestations of human culture as the simplest decorative technique, dating to the cave paintings created with fingers, sticks, and bones. Examples can be also found in ancient Egyptian times where water-based paints were used to decorate walls of temples and tombs or to illustrate manuscripts made of papyrus like the Egyptian Books of the Dead. Watercolor has been a dominant medium in Chinese, Korean and Japanese painting, where decorative objects like hand fans, lamps, shades, and hanging images were enhanced with the paint.
For a long time, watercolor was considered a supporting method in European art. Its use was confined to preliminary sketches for oils and pen and wash illustration, for preparation of final paintings and for coloring the artwork. The Dutch and Flemish painters of the 17th century produced sketches of landscapes or interiors, and great frescoes used watercolor “only” as a quick work tool for their study compositions. The continuous history of watercolor as an art medium began with the Renaissance and it wasn’t until the end of the 17th century when it became a truly independent painting technique.
The boom of the watercolor technique started with the English school in the second half of the 18th century. Painters in this period raised the watercolor to an independent art medium, showing its strength and fineness together with extraordinary immediacy. Among the pioneers who distinguished the vast watercolor options was Paul Sandby (1731-1809), map-maker and landscape painter, who used transparent and opaque painting methods in his art. He created almost half of the watercolors works of that time, was a recognized public figure and also became a founding member of the Royal Academy. It is no wonder he was called “the father of modern landscape painting in watercolors”.
Other great painters of the English school who preferred watercolor in a definitive manner and thus were at the beginning of the deeper development of watercolor were William Turner (1775-1851) and Thomas Girtin (1775-1802). Turner, who excelled at watercolor experimentation, demonstrated the incomparable qualities of watercolor as a fine art medium. His contemplative landscapes were tremendously influential on dozens of artists during later decades and he went on to become one of the greatest painters of the nineteenth century. Girtin, with a limited range of colors, has created breathtaking landscape scenery, sketch and precise detail that always retain a fresh look.
In the early 19th century watercolor was already in the program of art schools and painting academies. It had also become a favorite technique for painters of vedute and genre paintings. It was at this time that watercolor painting became established as a serious and expressive artistic medium.
J.M.W. Turner: “Great Yarmouth Harbour, Norfolk,” circa 1840. (Photo: National Gallery of Ireland)
The influence of the English school helped popularize watercolor in the rest of Europe, especially in France. One of the most influential artists of the 19th century and the inspirator of modern art was a French painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) who developed a watercolor painting style consisting entirely of overlapping small glazes of pure color. Cézanne changed the course of European art forever as he altered both the way we look at the world and the way we record it. Among other European artists who produced important works in watercolor are Emil Nolde, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky, who is generally credited as the pioneer of abstract art.
P. Cézanne: “Still Life with Watermelon and Pomegranates” (1900-1906)
Although the papermaking tradition dates back to ancient times, the paper had to be imported to Europe from other parts of the world until the 13th century. A high-quality paper which is much needed for a quality watercolor was not produced in Britain until much later during the eighteenth century. Its manufacturing enabled the watercolor painting to evolve quicker than ever. Moreover, early watercolorists used to grind their own pigments. In the 1850s, the companies Winsor & Newton or Reeves began producing paint packaged in metal tubes and in portable dried cakes which pleased the public - amateur artists, Sunday painters, and ladies being cultured in finishing school rejoiced in easy accessibility of quality paint supplies. This development has contributed to the watercolor being spread overseas.
The growing technology which developed with the advanced paper and color making helped popularize watercolor painting in the United States during the 19th and 20th century. American artists were more interested in experimenting with watercolor since they were free of rigid English traditions. They were able to explore and find a unique approach to this medium and unlike European artists, they saw watercolor as a primary medium, even as an equal to oils. By 1866 the interest in watercolor was so distinct that the American Society of Painters in Water Color was founded and for the first time watercolors were shown in galleries alongside oil paintings. Famous American watercolorists include Winslow Homer (1836-1910), He found a rich source of themes in nature by closely observing the scenic beauty of the natural world, fishermen, the sea, and the marine weather, as evidenced in his seascapes of Maine, the soft colors of the Bahamas and the splendor of the Adirondacks. He as well as other American artists not only re-popularized the medium but continued a long tradition of innovative experimentation and thus became a huge influence in the history of watercolor painting.
W. Homer: “Flower Garden and Bungalow,” Bermuda, 1899. (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
In the 20th century, the watercolor technique continues to develop and brings itself to the attention of wider masses. In the 1940s with the increase of color magazine printing, it has become popular among illustrators and has been used to a large extent to this day. Into the 21st century, artists have taken advantage of this unique medium to create striking works of art. Comics’ artists are still coloring in watercolor as well as illustrators of books, especially those intended for children. Above all, watercolor painting is versatile, alternately offering rich, vivid tones or soft, soothing forms.
The next, once unimaginable step for watercolors is a digital environment. Many traditional artists nowadays have switched to digital painting - some felt the urge to experiment, some tried to cut the cost of the supplies traditional panting requires. There is numerous painting software available on the market nowadays which try to emulate the traditional painting techniques as best as possible.
Rebelle 3 User Interface with Philipp S. Neundorf art
Rebelle software is trying to push the boundaries of imitating this behavior even further - not only it allows the real-time diffusion of water and colors, but it also mimics the behavior of watercolors on a real-world paper.
What is the future of watercolors in your opinion? Are the advantages of digital painting tempting enough to overpower the traditional technique? Do you believe the future of watercolors or painting in general lies in the digital world? Share your feedback in the comment section below, we’d love to hear your thoughts.
Your Escape Motions Team
With great pleasure, we’d like to introduce our Rebelle Featured Artist Kamila Stankiewicz. We had a great time talking with this skilled Poland-based illustrator about her love for both digital and traditional watercolors.
Hello Kamila, we’re very pleased to talk with you today. Can you tell how has your art developed throughout the years?
I draw since my early childhood and was never apart paper and pencil since then, as any artists do. My skills weren’t very appreciated in my preschool. It’s understandable that somebody who paints beyond lines when coloring coloring pages can’t be good at drawing! My first meeting with watercolors (also in preschool) didn’t end up successfully. They were dull and spread on a sheet so quickly. I was too impatient to wait till they dry. I gave them a second chance after many years during my university studies and this time it was true love. Love at second sight. :)
During my college years, I also discovered Photoshop so I learned digital and traditional painting at the same time and very quickly started to search the ways how to make my digital illustrations more traditionally-looking.
I am still interested in different digital and traditional mediums. I love to challenge myself with new techniques, styles, and themes. One of my newly discovered passions is motion graphics.
That sounds great! Hopefully, we’ll see your watercolor animation soon! What part of a picture do you put the most effort into and why?
I pay a lot of attention to details - unfortunately too much sometimes. A long time ago, I noticed that too many heavy details can kill lightness and freshness of an illustration. It’s very hard to find a balance between depiction and looseness in the creative process. So recently, I put a lot of effort not to create overworked illustrations. :) The best artworks are created when I’m not overthinking that they should be perfect.
When you compare both traditional and digital technique, what are the most difficult parts to re-create and understand what is needed to get that realism on digital canvas?
I believe that recreating how a texture of the paper influences paint’s behavior digitally is a hard task. There’s also certain randomness which always accompanies the traditional process. In traditional art we have less control over the paints - thanks to a random splash, spot or stroke, we can see in our work something more, something different than we intended. And that puts our creativity in motion… or can ruin all the effort. But it is definitely exciting!
In your opinion, what advantages does painting in Rebelle have over other paint tools?
I’ve tried various digital software and found a lot of cool watercolor brushes, but all of them copied only the watercolor look but not a behavior. Rebelle watercolor brush was the first program where I found advantages of unexpected behavior of a paint - so similar to real one! I always watch how the paint is spreading over the sheet with eyes wide open. I love that we can control spreading by using the Tilt. A Water tool is something I have never seen in other software. Yet it is so important in the traditional painting process!
As a person who has never drawn a straight line, I appreciate Ruler in Rebelle 3. Very easy to use and intuitive!
In this year I bought an iPad Pro and I am totally crazy about it. I used only Wacom Intuos Pro so far, so I was drawing while watching the screen. I didn’t have problems with it, but drawing on iPad and seeing an image right under my hand feels way more natural! I was devastated when I heard that there is no Rebelle app for iPad. I did some research and found a solution. It is an app which mirrors a computer screen on iPad and makes it work as a digitizer. It’s Astropad for Macs and EasyCanvas for PC. Both work perfectly!
Thanks for mentioning it. Many users are asking about iPad compatibility, so this is a very handy workaround. What is the oddest setting or painting you’ve been commissioned to do?
I am a freelance illustrator specializing mostly in children books and portraits, but I’ve had a lot of odd, difficult or ridiculous commissions. Especially when I was on the begin of my path. I was commissioned to illustrate and animate how the engine of a plane works! 🤷 I had no idea how a plane’s engine works before, but I made it with lots of details. I also made realistic illustrations of retro cars in watercolor style. I was astonished how fun it was! I am also very proud of motion graphics animation about the history of my hometown, which was one of the most difficult and labor-intensive commissions.
What a versatile artist you are - hats off to you! Kamila, thank you for your time and for showing the world how beautiful watercolors are!
There are many software tools for digital painting in the world. Their visual possibilities are enormous but do you experience the feeling of wonder when color runs freely over handmade paper or when the drops of color unexpectedly run in different directions? That feeling when the color gradually changes its look and you are the director of a theater of colors and shapes?
With Rebelle 3 you can experience this feeling. Painting in Rebelle can be a crazy game of water, paint, air and creative tools. Entertainment can start very simply by painting a wet watercolor stain and blowing it in different directions. You can set the blow length, drip size, amount of water or simply forget about everything, wandering with your stylus or finger on the touch screen and letting yourself drift by the beauty. If you’re longing for more, you can tilt the canvas and the colors will run in the direction you choose – even against Earth’s gravity.
At the same time, Rebelle 3 is highly professional software with a focus on detail. Unlike traditional watercolor painting, it allows greater expression, variability and better control over the creative process. Every traditional artist knows how easily a paper can get damaged unintentionally. Rebelle 3 solves these problems by reacting very sensitively to each new layer of color with a paper or canvas. Painting is fresh and light even after many overlays. In Rebelle, you can lay wet, damp or dry layers and layers with flowing drips and have everything under control without any undesirable effects.
The sample below shows the realism of Rebelle digital watercolors alongside real-world watercolors. The papers and canvas really seem to come alive.
Recently introduced ultra-realistic papers and canvases also offer an additional unusual experience for your painting. The selection of papers in Rebelle is proven by centuries-long artistic practice. You can use not only the classic hot-pressed, cold-pressed or rough papers, but also rare Japanese Washi papers from the bark of the Kozo, Mitsumata and Gampi plants. If you would like something special, hand-made cotton watercolor papers made in cylindrical form and many exotic papers made of plants such as kenaf, elbow and yucca await your creative vision.
Real papers always have typical characteristics – a specific size, structure or color. Papers in Rebelle allow more variability. You can adjust the water absorption, paper texture density, roughness, color or structure visibility. The unique feature of the papers are the deckled edges of waving natural fibers.
Rebelle 3 can be a game software as well as a strictly rational creation tool. You can use not only watercolors but also experiment with acrylics, pastels, inks, classic pencils and other handy tools. Rebelle’s unique approach for perspective drawing allows you to draw by ruler, but the line remains very natural with slight variations. It is a perfect tool for painters, illustrators and designers. Creation of decorative elements for illustration, textile designs, painting textures – everything is a part of the moment. Available stencil tools allow creating a template from any imported image. You can then simply duplicate it, modify the shape, or tile it over the canvas. Painting through the stencil can be accurate (marker), dispersed (watercolor), or pasty (acrylic).
Rebelle 3 is the digital equivalent of real art materials and tools. However, it adds more variability and more control over creative workflow. It is a balanced harmony between creative play and deliberate rational creative process. Rebelle is having the elements of water, air, paint and creative tools under your control.
Author Mgr. Ľubomír ZABADAL, PhD is an expert for traditional art media and assistant professor at Department Of Creative Arts and Art Education at UKF University, Slovakia.