A Brief History of Watercolor Painting

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The need for artistic expression has been accompanying mankind since time immemorial. In the past, colors soluble in water represented the easiest way one could paint and over time, these colors have evolved into one of the world’s most renowned painting methods for artists. What has been the journey of watercolors from the beginning of their use by prehistoric man until this day?


Ancient Times

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 when 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. 

English School

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)

Expansion of Paper and Color Making

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 that 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 the easy accessibility of quality paint supplies. This development has contributed to the watercolor being spread overseas.

American Watercolor

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 on the history of watercolor painting. 


W. Homer: “Flower Garden and Bungalow,” Bermuda, 1899. (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Watercolors Today

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. In 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.

Digital - Future of Watercolors?

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 painting requires. There is numerous painting software available on the market nowadays which try to emulate the traditional painting techniques in the best possible way.


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 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


Image Courtesy: Nick Collins |

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