Lately I’ve been really interested in watercolors (I even made using them one of my New Year’s resolutions). In researching how to use them, I became curious about where they come from and thought you might be too. So with happy flashbacks to AP Art History, I set about learning what they are and where they come from, and here are the highlights (but it’s more fun than it sounds, promise).
What are watercolors?
Watercolor paint is, as it sounds, a water-soluble paint. In modern times, it is made with gum arabic and a pigment, which can be man-made or natural (berries, anyone?). Watercolors are usually semi-translucent. Gouache is a type of paint that is almost the same as watercolors, except it is made with more opaque pigments (and is therefore less see-through on paper).
Watercolor set-ups often include paper, brushes, a palette, and of course watercolor paint (tube or pan form).
Typically, watercolor is used with brushes on paper. Many artists use paper designed to handle the amount of water used with these paints. These papers come in two choices: hot press and cold press.
Hot press paper is smooth and therefore does not absorb water as fast. That allows the artist to blend colors more easily. Supposedly, colors will also appear more vivid on hot press paper. Cold press paper is rougher, giving the finished painting texture. It absorbs water faster, though, giving the artist less time to ‘play’ with and blend the paint before it soaks in. Choosing between hot and cold pressed watercolor paper really comes down to personal preference.
Historically, watercolor is one of the oldest paints. Around 15,000 to 10,000 BC, prehistoric artists focused on images of the natural world around them. Original cave paintings were made by mixing pigments with animal fat or spit. Eventually regular water was used to replace those, well, slightly gross substances.
Prehistoric art often depicted basic people and animals, in this case a bull.
Watercolor paints were used throughout ancient Egypt, for both the walls of tombs and papyrus scrolls. The Egyptians are credited with creating the first man-made pigment around the year 4,500 BC. Famously, and aptly, named ‘Egyptian Blue’, this bright paint was made “by heating a mixture of a calcium compound (typically calcium carbonate), a copper-containing compound (metal filings or malachite), silica sand and soda or potash as a flux” (Ancient Origins, 2014).
Essentially, they intentionally used chemistry to make the beautiful blue, rather than simply use a pigment as it naturally was. 5,000 years after its first creation, the knowledge of this pigment was lost. So how do we know the technical (and kind of complicated) definition above? In the 19th century, Egyptian Blue was rediscovered in Pompeii. Scientists felt fascinated by the artificial color, and figured out how to reproduce it.
The bright blue seen here is iconic in much of ancient Egyptian art.
Northward, in ancient Italy, watercolor was largely used on non-paper surfaces. In Pompeii and Herculaneum, the frescoes were made by using water to apply pigment to wet plaster.
I had the great opportunity to visit Pompeii a couple years ago, and it was amazing. It’s really surreal to be standing in a 2,000 year old home that has spent most of its life buried in volcanic ash. In AP Art History, I studied these frescoes, making it extra special to finally see some, including the one below, in person.
Because they were buried in ash, the frescoes were miraculously well preserved, when you consider they were subjected to a volcanic eruption.
Watercolor techniques in the east, both near and far, had a slightly different form. In fact, Chinese watercolorists have used the medium since as early as 4,000BC. In a culture where calligraphy traditionally holds the same weight as poetry, they used the paint as a refined method to enhance their graceful writing. Watercolor became the standard paint for all of their artworks for millennia. Japan adopted it as well, and both countries’ artists painted primarily on silk and paper surfaces.
Many Chinese and Japanese watercolorists painted elegant natural subjects, like this flower.
Through the Middle Ages, illuminated manuscripts were highly respected, and typically Christian, works of art. These were books where the words were important, but like the Chinese and Japanese, the visual style in which they were written is a major focus. Their ornate, gilded pages of gospels and various symbols were painted with watercolors, whose pigments came from across Europe.
The Book of Kells is perhaps the most famous of these manuscripts. (I couldn’t figure out which manuscript the image below is from, but it’s not the Book of Kells.) Interestingly, paper was still mostly restricted to the Middle East and Asia. The painters of European books used vellum, which was made from calfskin. Thankfully, modern day vellum is simply another type of paper- no animals involved!
Illuminated manuscripts were created for a variety of reasons, from royal commissions to church decorations.
Albrecht Dürer, a German artist at the turn of the 16th century, is credited with modernizing watercolors towards what we have today. In his many studies of flora and fauna, he used the medium with gouache to make detailed images. However, in the larger art culture, a movement of using watercolor for finished fine art never took off. Instead, it continued through the Renaissance to be mainly used as a preparatory tool for rough sketches and color tests for creating oil paintings or other works.
Dürer was also an accomplished engraver.
His work here of Adam and Eve features accurate and detailed nature elements, likely first studied by painting watercolor images.
Over the next few centuries, watercolor slowly made its way into use for loose images of landscapes. While oil paintings remained the most accepted art medium (by critical snobs, anyway) through the early 20th century, watercolor works gained respect in the west as fine art. Rembrandt van Rijn, although famous for his oil portraits, extensively used watercolors. His dramatic use of light and shadow, also known as chiaroscuro (literal Italian for ‘light dark’), was evident in these loose paintings.
This particular painting is Chinese, but many western watercolorists during this time sought a similar aesthetic of nature.
Watercolor paint, refusing to stay in the background, started to become fully embraced in 19th century England. Enthusiasts started societies, and in 1831 the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours was formed (they actually came to be in competition to those first societies). Queen Victoria’s granddaughter even became a member of the institute. Similar societies spread across Ireland and over to America throughout the next century.
Watercolor paints are an age-old medium. From our Paleolithic ancestors to modern street painters, it has proved itself a popular medium. It does have some downsides, though. Compared to oil paints, it has very low lightfastness- basically the rate at which the paint fades from light damage. Because it is often painted on paper, time can lead to decay and other destructive forces faster than works on canvases. It also has a reputation as a tricky material to learn how to use. Despite all that, artists around the world continue to favor this versatile (and enjoyable, in my opinion) art medium.
If you are interested in learning more, check out these resources:
- Watercolor Paper Differences: letspaintnature.com
- Cave Painting: webexhibits.org
- Egyptian Blue: Ancient Origins
- Watercolor History:
Do you use watercolor paints? Was there anything you found particular interesting about their history? I’d love to hear in the comments!
Or want more fun facts? Here’s some things you probably don’t know about Copic markers.