The Strange Existence of Watercolor.
Updated: May 7, 2021
Nothing hurts like a put down, especially when you least expect it. Let me explain. A few years ago (2013 to be precise), I very happily went to a large exhibition of the work of Edward Hopper at the Grand Palais in Paris. I walked through his lovely paintings of Paris from around 1906-07 and then into a room of beautiful watercolors, the pieces that had brought his first financial success in 1923. As a watercolorist, I was so proud to see these lovely pieces displayed beautifully as important works of art. However, as I walked into the next room, the first thing I saw was signage claiming Hopper's oils as his first "paintings," though they were all dated later than the watercolors. Whoa! Wait a minute. What were those watercolors that had sold so well if not paintings? Then it came to me. Classically (and these curators were obvious classicists) watercolors are not considered paintings, because they are works on paper and not oils on canvas or panels, like important works are. Oh, the pain of being thrown in the art world's dumpster as the medium used for coloring drawings, dabbling on Sundays, and amusing little old ladies (no disrespect, as I count my own gray hairs)!
Well, one can be kicked to the curb just one time too many. So in the interest of preserving my self-esteem and that of my favorite medium, I decided to look into why this most lovely of art forms is so denigrated in the art world. First, let me point out that the use of water to mix with pigments goes right back to prehistoric cave paintings, and no, that does not mean watercolorists are neanderthals. In terms of "civilization," the Chinese are credited with inventing watercolors around 4,000 B.C.E. Ancient Egyptians used fresco techniques to paint their tombs and temples, mixing color with egg yolk (tempera) made fluid by water and applying it to wet plaster. Old Roman murals were done with mixes of wheat paste and sometimes beeswax plus pigment and water. Now these opaque paints are more water media than watercolor since the latter is supposed to be transparent. Still, we are not talking oils here, but water soluble paint. (By the way, the Romans had the ultimate put down on painting, as pictorial representation was not considered important unless it was done in stone, i.e. mosaics. Ha!).
Moving forward in history, we come to see how watercolor took a backseat to the main purpose it was used for. For instance here in this medieval map, the figures are colored with watercolors, but the main thing here is the map. Similarly, there are drawings, illustrations, miniatures, and other items that used watercolors to color the work, but the works are not watercolor paintings. The watercolor takes a backseat to the main function of each piece, normally to show where things were located or to decorate a book, or illustrate an important scene in a biblical story, etc.
However, around 1500, along came Albrecht Durer, who made not just illustrations and drawings but things that come rather close to being watercolor painting (yes, I said it - painting). Look above at the picture of the grasses. It is sort of a botanical, yet it has a mood to it, as though you can feel a light summer breeze moving the stems of grass. It is not just one type of grass but a portrait of a great piece of turf, as it is called. The Young Hare certainly represents the species accurately, but the addition of the surrounding ground with twigs and different plants, and the contrast of that to the cream color of the paper and the reddish brown of the hare are not just ways to illustrate nature but something on its way to being a painting. His watercolors, however, are still categorized along with his drawings and separated from his oil paintings.
It seems to have taken the English, who live surrounded by water, to bring watercolor forward. Watercolors became a "thing" and were actually shown, though they were still thought to be the medium of "ladies" or the sign of a gentleman's fine education. (Prince Charles has followed in that tradition by painting watercolors himself.) However, many fine watercolors were produced, often as sketches for works to be finished in oils. The Lord God of Watercolor (at least for me) is J.M.W. Turner, who not only did magnificent watercolor paintings but translated watercolor techniques into thin fluid veils of color that float abstractly in many of his oil paintings. He was no purest either, using whatever was necessary to get his watercolor effects. Below in The Dark Rigi, he achieves that veil of morning mist with white gouache, an opaque watercolor not a transparent one. But then you gotta do what you gotta do to get the effect you want. This painting was just tagged with a temporary export ban in order to save the painting, valued at £10 million, for the British nation. Thank you, Master Turner. (See the link to the article below) https://www.artlyst.com/news/temporary-export-bar-placed-10m-jmw-turner-watercolour/
Of course, even a watercolor worth more than 10 million pounds sterling hasn't yet saved watercolor from being cast aside. In the article "In Art Schools, Watercolors Don't Get Any Respect" by Daniel Grant for the Chronicle of Higher Education, we still see them cast off as part of Illustration courses. It was in reading that article that I discovered why my own watercolor skills were largely self-taught. Art schools don't offer courses past Watercolor I. After that you are on your own.
Galleries, of course, are notorious for not wanting to show watercolors as they are works on paper, of lesser value (tell that to Turner), and have to be under glass. I presented a dealer in Santa Fe, twenty years in the business he, with some updated information. Watercolors can be painted on canvas or panels because of wonderful new products like watercolor ground, which coats the surface to be painted on, and even comes in textures to match that of 140 lb. Cold Press paper. Colors are lightfast and colorfast and can be sealed in with clear non-yellowing sprays. They can be hung just like oils and are quite durable, though Durer's 500-year-old works already show that even the older colors can be maintained. Still it is an uphill battle. However, since I am now two paragraphs away from Turner, I will dare to show a couple of my watercolors here, the first on a large canvas and the second on illustration board over acrylic medium. There are so many ways to go and so much one can do that watercolor should never be a neglected, disrespected form.
So I say, as always, Long Live Watercolor!
What watercolor paintings do your remember and why? Log in to tell us about them.
The link for the article by Daniel Grant is https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/arts/in-art-schools-watercolors-dont-get-any-respect/29613
For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at amazon.com/author/marjorievernelle
She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on ofartandwine.com
© Marjorie Vernelle 2019
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