From Cave Paintings to Modernists: A History of Watercolor Painting

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Watercolour painting is a unique art form that straddles the divide between painting and drawing to create a distinct sort of art. Paintings are created using pigments mixed in a water-soluble substance that may be applied to paper, canvas, wood, and textiles.

The unforgiving nature of watercolour painting sets it apart from other styles; lines, colours, and forms must be applied correctly the first time around because any attempt to paint over destroys the entire effect. Watercolours have long been a mainstay in Asian art, but they have also had a significant presence in Western art history.

Early Examples of Watercolor Painting

Watercolour painting has its origins in the Paleolithic age when prehistoric people such as Neanderthals painted the walls of their caves with mixtures of ochre, charcoal, and other natural dyes.

Watercolours were also used in Egyptian art forms, and they were even utilized in papyrus painting. Traditional Chinese painting with watercolours began around 4000 B.C. as a decorative art form and by the first century A.D., religious mural painting had taken hold in Asia. Landscape watercolour painting in Asia became an independent art form

Advances in Watercolor Painting in the 15th and 16th Centuries

Watercolour painting as we know it today was created in Europe during the Renaissance period when advances were made in papermaking. While early European painters prepared their own watercolour mixtures for fresco wall painting, this was soon adopted to paper. Printmaker and Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) devised new techniques of working with watercolours, emphasizing the light, transparent qualities they offered and encouraging other artists to experiment.

The invention of the watercolour was developed by Hans Bol (1534–1593), who established a significant school of watercolour painting in Germany as part of the Dürer Renaissance. Despite these efforts, the medium remained largely isolated to preliminary sketches, with the exception of botanical and wildlife illustration schools where its stunning appeal might bestow a realistic look to natural themes. Watercolours were also popular for mapmaking, and they were widely used for topographic depiction.

The English Watercolor Movement and Its Influence on Modern Art

During the 18th century, watercolour painting became increasingly popular in Western art, particularly in England, where Paul Sandby (1730–1809), an English map-maker turned painter (and one of the founders of the Royal Academy), used the watercolours commonly utilized to produce maps for his landscape paintings. Watercolour painting at this time was recognized as a serious and emotive artistic medium.

Thomas Girtin (1733–1811), an early watercolourist who pioneered the use of grande format, romantic or picturesque views, was inspired by Turner’s experimentation with artificial mineral colours available at the time. Thomas Girtin was an early watercolourist who experimented with artificial minerals and inspired Turner to investigate both the expressible and technical aspects of the medium. During this period, there were two British art organizations formed: The Society of Painters in Water Colours (1804) and the New Water Colour Society (1832).

The English school of watercolour painting’s distinctive light and freer brushwork caught the attention of the early Impressionists, who incorporated it into their own work. Watercolours became a popular medium in the 19th and 20th centuries, with many famous painters using them.

Of course, John James Audubon used watercolours to depict his wildlife subjects, but other artists such as Winslow Homer and Paul Cezanne utilized them as well. Winslow Homer utilized watercolour paints to capture the natural world’s beauty. Paul Cézanne frequently used overlapping watercolour washes in his still life compositions, while Vincent van Gogh employed a wide range of techniques including watercolour painting to produce stunning art forms.

Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, Swiss Modernist and abstract painter, are both well-known 20th-century watercolourists. This demonstrates that, in the contemporary period, watercolour has been appreciated by artists of all nationalities and schools of thought.

Artists have utilized this unique medium to produce stunning works of art into the 21st century. Watercolour painting is most notable for its flexibility, with rich, vibrant tones or gentle, soothing forms available depending on your preference. Take a look at Agora’s online galleries and you’ll see how popular watercolours are for their versatility and beauty.

About author
The author, Dr. David K Simson is a trained radiation oncologist specializing in advanced radiation techniques such as intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT), image-guided radiotherapy (IGRT), volumetric modulated arc therapy (VMAT) / Rapid Arc, stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT), stereotactic radiotherapy (SRT), stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS). He is also experienced in interstitial, intracavitary, and intraluminal brachytherapy.