Every art has its heritage, a heritage that can nurture innovation and pass on the secrets of craft. But for watercolor painters, this heritage is very hard to come by.
Painting tutorials crowd the bookstore shelves, but these ignore tradition to make watercolors easy and accessible. Winning watercolors in ten easy minutes!
Books about individual artists slight works on paper, or reproduce watercolors in tiny black and white images. Over and over, the same excuses turn up: these works are only studies ... not serious ... incidental to the major works (read: not done in oils).
Few museums support permanent watercolor exhibits. The works are considered too fragile, not trendy enough. Watercolors are often excluded from the academic painting curriculum. Ever since the 18th century, they have been associated with amateur painting female amateur painting.
The result? You're kept ignorant of the breadth and depth of the watercolor painting tradition.
This exhibit of watercolor painters, from the 18th century to today, is offered as a remedy: simply to open your eyes and curiosity to the tremendous diversity, skill and beauty of watercolors painted over the past three hundred years.
You see me covered with the dust and mud of long academic toil. The story of watercolors is scattered across dozens of out of print books and very specific studies. I cannot claim complete accuracy and clearness across the extent of materials I present here, but I hope the ardor of the effort redeems it.
I focus where possible on the painting methods or design merits of an artist's work: his or her use of paints, brushwork, paper or imagery to achieve specific artistic ends. I have also tried to exemplify the important genres in watercolors landscape, botanical illustration, figure study, still life though the coverage is far from complete.
My notes are written in the belief that the mental and spiritual state you attain when contemplating a painting you admire is exactly the same as when you paint something that is genuine and strong of your own. For artists, admiring a painting means inquiring intensely how and why it was made. Good critical commentary should always enhance that gut connection.
I usually present three reduced images of paintings by each artist (aware of the trouble it takes to acquire the sources) to stimulate your awareness of different watercolor techniques, your curiosity about artists who used them, and your desire to emulate their achievements in your own work.
I hope some of the artists here fire your imagination. If so, learn more through art monographs.
Watercolors are not exactly the high road to fame and influence in art criticism, so books on the medium are usually free of the postmodern, protofeminist, neofreudian, technophilic bullshit vended by the careerist wing of contemporary art talk. Happily, nearly all who have written about watercolors did so from love of the medium and the artists who used it, and love kept their eye on the works.
Each page ends with some recommended references, but a few deserve mention here. The most comprehensive overview is the three volume series by Christopher Finch, published by Abbeville Press: Nineteenth-Century Watercolors (1990), American Watercolors (1991), and Twentieth Century Watercolors (1992). There is some overlap across these three books, but as a group they give the best reckoning of the watercolor heritage. All are currently out of print, but most good art libraries will have them.
The unrivalled highpoint of the tradition is the British watercolor in the period 1750 to 1900. Every major material, technical and stylistic innovation in watercolor painting derives from this period, and the magnificent paintings alone will repay your study. The best visual overview is probably The Great Age of British Watercolours: 1750-1880 by Andrew Wilton and Anne Lyles (Prestel, 1993).
The events and personalities of the era are splendidly narrated in Martin Hardie's three volume Water-Colour Painting in Britain (Batsford, 1966-68). Although nearly all the reproductions in Hardie's work are in black and white, he writes with unequalled clarity, knowledge and intelligence.
Always pursue detailed study of artists or paintings that intrigue you; a complete book or monograph is available on almost every watercolor painter. You can find (and order) any book in print from amazon.com (just do a search for the painter's name). Unfortunately, many of these will be catalogs to accompany museum exhibitions, which quickly go out of print. For out of print books you can try a search on amazon or at alibris.com ... and you may need to repeat your searches over several months to find a copy of rare works.
Reproductions online or in books can only convey a crude idea of an artist's painting skill. Nothing matches seeing the original works.
When you travel, check the watercolor collections in local museums. A few cities in particular San Francisco, New York, New Haven, Boston, London offer extraordinary resources in their galleries, museums and libraries.
Watercolors are usually held in special collections ask for the department of drawings or graphic arts. Most are available to the public only during certain hours or days, typically by appointment with a curator who will supervise your viewing of the works. Try to schedule at least two weeks ahead of your visit.
Many commercial galleries specialize in watercolors or works on paper. Once you find them, they will keep you abreast of new works and new artists in the medium.
I hope this online gallery starts you exploring and investigating for yourself this fascinating and inexhaustible artistic heritage.