Art Term Tuesday: Watercolor

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

July was World Watercolor Month, and FWMoA Director of Children’s Education Alyssa Dumire celebrated by sharing two tutorials in “Saturday Studio” on how to paint and experiment with this delicate and translucent medium. She created wonderful paintings based on real life and from her mind, and that led me to ask what kind of medium is watercolor and how long has it been around? Let’s find out in this delayed, but still timely, Art Term Tuesday!

Watercolor as a term is evident in the word itself – color pigment is applied and moved around a surface using water as a mixing media. Water is the medium where, once activated, color pigments can be applied in layers to create depth and many different techniques can be utilized to create texture. Watercolor, like its namesake, is transparent, meaning the paper shows through as well as any other marks beneath a wash (you can see this in Alyssa’s work on the right). Time and patience are important when painting with watercolor, as moving too quickly can muddy colors and too slowly can leave distinct edges where water has dried. Since there is so much water used in the creation of these paintings, the final artwork is also called a watercolor.

A watercolor painting of a sailboat and skiff on a lake. In the background are mountains and a cloudy, yellow sky. A long figure stands on the boat, which is reflected on the lake.
Louis Bonsib, American, 1892-1979. Untitled (Sailboat and Skiff on a Lake). Watercolor on artist’s board. Gift of John and Patricia Bonsib, 2009.36. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

This type of medium is old, as old as cave paintings, but was classically a sketching medium for a full-fledged finished artwork until the 19th century, for European artists. Outside a Eurocentric view, there is a rich history of watercolor painting in Asia and Africa, with some Chinese paintings dating to 4,000BC. The invention and innovation of paper is tied to the development of watercolor as a form of art. Before paper, the drying and absorption of the water into the material limited the vibrancy and finesse on the medium. The rarity of paper also limited who experimented with watercolor until production was increased and access became more widespread. The first European schools for watercolor came about in the 18th century, and famous artists like John James Audubon made the media on par with oil paintings. 

A male hunter leans against a tree with a gun in his hand with his dog. They stand in a clearing, with a tree-line in the background. Dressed in dark clothes and a hat.
James McBride, American, 1923-1980. Untitled (Hunter & Dog). Watercolor, 1971. Gift of Betty Fishman, SC24.2013. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

While watercolor took some time to reach the same level of prestige as other painting forms, it was adopted early by those who liked to paint outdoors (en plein air) or travel with their supplies. Painting en plein air is easy with watercolor, as all you need are the pigments, water, and some sunshine to dry the paper. In the time before photographs, watercolor was a favored media for recording the sights a tourist or adventurer would see during their travels. Follow Alyssa’s tutorial and paint a scene en plein air!

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