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ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Materials and Techniques >

Watercolor is a method of painting using a combination of colored paints and water. The term watercolor can also refer to a picture painted in watercolor or to the paints themselves.

Most watercolors are painted on paper. The artist dips a wet brush into the paint and applies it to the paper. The amount of water on the brush determines the lightness or darkness of the color. If more water is used, the color will be lighter. If less water is used, the color will be darker. Watercolors dry very quickly. So an artist's brushstrokes cannot be changed easily once they are placed on the paper. For this reason, watercolor artists try to work with speed and a sure hand.

Watercolors are equally suitable for making a quick sketch with a few strokes or a detailed, highly finished painting. Because they are easy to pack and carry, watercolors are often used for painting outdoors.


Watercolor paints are made by mixing powdered pigments (coloring substances) with a special glue called gum arabic. The gum arabic holds the paint together and keeps it from flaking off the paper when dry. Paints are made into dry cakes or packaged moist in tubes.

Watercolorists also use special paper. It comes in a variety of thicknesses and textures. The artist chooses paper according to his or her needs. For example, thick, heavy paper takes longer to dry. It allows the artist more time to work. Lighter-weight paper with a smooth surface is suitable for work that has fine detail.

The best paper is made from linen rag. This paper is stronger and longer-lasting than paper made from wood pulp. During the manufacturing process, watercolor paper is coated with a substance called size. Size is made of glue or gelatin. The amount of size on the paper determines the amount of water the paper will absorb. Paper buckles, or warps, as it absorbs water. This can interfere with the artist's work. One solution is to stretch damp paper onto a board before beginning to paint.

The best brushes are made from the hair of the sable, an animal similar to a weasel. A good brush should hold the right amount of water and release it gradually as the brush is applied to the paper. A large brush is used to cover big areas--for example, when tinting all or part of the paper with a wash. (A wash is a little paint mixed with a lot of water.) A small brush that comes to a fine point is used for painting small details.


Some of the earliest examples of watercolor painting are hunting scenes painted on cave walls by Stone Age people. The ancient Egyptians also used watercolors to paint scenes of daily life on the walls of tombs and on papyrus (an early form of paper). For centuries watercolor was used to color in line drawings and prints, much as children today color the pages in a coloring book. But in Europe, for the most part, watercolor was not appreciated as an art form until the 1800's. The earliest development of watercolor as a major means of artistic expression occurred in the Far East, first in China and later in Japan.

The Far East


Paper was invented in China in A.D. 105. This was about 1,000 years before it was first produced in Europe. Chinese artists, therefore, were creating artwork on paper much earlier than artists in Europe. For the Chinese and the Japanese, calligraphy--the art of beautiful writing--and painting were closely related arts. The same materials were used for both: brushes, water-based inks and paints, and paper. Silk was also often used as a painting and writing surface.

The traditions of Far Eastern painting are very different from those of Western painting. Chinese and Japanese artists tried to express their feelings and to capture the inner spirit of their subject, rather than describe its outward appearance. In doing this, they closely followed rules and methods established by previous artists. Great importance was placed on the control and handling of the brush. Each stroke was placed quickly and precisely.

Watercolor in the West


During the Middle Ages (476-1500), artists in Europe used watercolor to decorate Bibles and prayer books. These illuminated manuscripts were an important stepping-stone in the development of painting in Europe before the introduction of oil paint.

Most artists during the Renaissance (1300-1600) and baroque (1600-1750) periods used watercolor washes to add color to their drawings. One Renaissance artist, Albrecht Dürer of Germany, used watercolor in a different way. With the point of the brush, he defined shapes with color rather than with lines. He produced highly finished studies of animals, plants, and landscapes.

Beginning in the 1500's, watercolor artists accompanied explorers on expeditions to the New World. These artists recorded the scenes, people, plants, and animals of the newly discovered lands. They served a role similar to that of today's news photographers.

The flowering of watercolor in the West began in England in the 1700's. At that time, views of cities and the countryside in England and continental Europe were popular subjects. Artists made line drawings of these views and tinted them with watercolor washes. Gradually artists developed a bolder style. They relied less on line and more on color to portray a scene.

The 1800's. Two English artists of the 1800's, J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, were masters of watercolor. Turner's dramatic landscapes show his ability to portray light and water. Constable's studies of clouds are fresh and full of movement.

The work of the English watercolorists inspired French artists of the 1800's, such as Eugène Delacroix. In 1832, Delacroix made a series of watercolor studies during a trip to Tunisia and Morocco. His use of flowing lines and brilliant colors look forward to the impressionists.

The impressionist movement occurred in France in the late 1800's. Its followers studied the effects of changing light on color and form. Shapes were no longer painted in clear outlines, but as masses of vibrating color. Although they worked mainly in oils, many impressionists and postimpressionists, including Paul Signac, Édouard Manet, and Paul Cézanne, produced fine watercolor paintings that capture the light and color of a scene with amazing freshness. In contrast, watercolors by German expressionist artists working at the turn of the century "express" a feeling or mood, rather than record what the eye sees.

In the United States, watercolor began to develop as an art form in the early 1800's. The tradition of painting plant and animal life begun by the explorer artists reached its peak at this time with the work of John James Audubon. He made detailed watercolors of the birds of America.

At first, American painters followed the example of English artists. But after 1850 a new generation of American watercolorists emerged. One of the best and most influential was Winslow Homer. Like the impressionists, he was highly skilled at capturing the effects of light. The watercolors of John Singer Sargent and Maurice Prendergast also recall the impressionists in their use of bright, transparent color to convey light.

The 20th Century. In the 20th century the watercolor medium remained popular among artists working in a wide variety of styles. In the first part of the century, the Swiss artist Paul Klee often combined watercolor with pen and ink to create pictures of fantastic or imaginary subjects.

About the same time, John Marin, an American, was painting outdoor scenes. In one series of watercolors, Marin painted the rugged landscape of Maine in an expressionist style. Other artists, such as the American painter Andrew Wyeth, developed their art along traditional lines, producing very realistic watercolor paintings. Still another group of modern artists did not attempt to paint objects realistically. These abstract painters used watercolor to achieve bold new effects. They included Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis, and Mark Tobey,

Helen B. Mules
Associate Curator of Drawings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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