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16 424 artworks, 2 371 artists
If we analyze the word “watercolour” in different languages (French aquarelle, Italian acquarello, Hungarian vízfestmény), we’ll easily notice each of them to contain a part denoting water. Indeed, watercolours are a solution of finest colour pigments in water. Their structure and consistency make it possible to obtain translucent, airy images with subtle colour transitions. The base of a watercolour painting is also an expressive artistic medium, which is no less important than paint itself. Watercolour paintings are most often made on textured paper, cardboard, silk. The “watercolour” term refers to both the painting technique and the result itself, as well as the type of paint it was created with.
Watercolours were invented in China around the same time paper was invented, in the 2nd century AD. The softness of the paper base did not allow the brush to touch the paper repeatedly, so the artists worked out the technique of applying colour spots and lines with precise movements that became canonical. This did not affect the creative aspect: the skill of Chinese artists, who depicted landscapes, animals and plants with short, precise, translucent strokes, is still admirable. Calligraphy is another type of traditional Chinese art — skillful drawing of hieroglyphs with watercolour ink. In the 7th century, calligraphy became popular in Japan as well.
In European countries, watercolour became known in the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance marked the beginning of its heyday. Albrecht Dürer is considered one of the first recognized watercolourists: his famous Young Hare was painted in 1502. A great master of watercolours was the Flemish painter Hans Bol. Van Dyck, Claude Lorrain, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione also worked in this technique. The subtlety of watercolour painting was very useful when creating botanical illustrations; engravings were painted with watercolours. Nevertheless, watercolour was considered a “frivolous” technique; it was used mainly for quick sketches, as well as within the educational process, although the already mentioned Dürer had a number of wonderful watercolour landscapes.
The peak of watercolour painting popularity fell on the 18th century; it began in England, and travels contributed its popularisation. One of the great admirers of landscape watercolour painting was the English priest, writer and draftsman William Gilpin. He wrote several essays, in which he combined the guidebook genre with the painting principles, using expressions such as “green moss velvet”. Gilpin’s works were very popular with amateur artists. In addition, painting was a very frequent form of leisure among the English of the middle and upper classes, including women. The relatively simple technique and wide possibilities of watercolours contributed to its rapid popularity among portrait and landscape painters.
In 1746, an employee of the British Artillery Committee’s Survey Department, the artist Paul Sandby, was tasked with mapping the north and northwest of Scotland. At the same time, he began to paint watercolour landscapes, which interested art connoisseurs. Paul Sandby’s paintings became the beginning of the national English fashion for “everything British”. They were distinguished by great accuracy and high painting skill. After the artist death in 1809, he was proclaimed “the father of modern watercolour landscape painting”. A few years earlier, in 1804, the British Watercolour Society was founded in London.
Another Englishman, Thomas Girtin, developed the watercolour trend and used this technique for the first time to create full-size landscapes. William Turner took watercolour painting to an even higher professional level. He developed new techniques for working with water-based paints on wet paper, which allowed him to create not only very beautiful, expressive work, but also to do it quickly enough. Turner became a millionaire during his lifetime, which is a reliable indicator of the watercolour painting relevance, if one has talent and skill.
Interestingly, the largest watercolour painting, Building 6, was created by contemporary American artist Barbara Prey for the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art in 2017. In this unusual way, the Museum decided to capture the interior of the building’s second floor before its renovation, after which the old workshops became an exhibition space. The dimensions of this watercolour painting are 243 x 457 cm (8 x 15 feet).
Famous watercolours:
A Young Hare, Albrecht Dürer, 1502
The North Terrace of Windsor Castle, Paul Sandby, 1760
Jedburgh Abbey, Thomas Gertin, 1799
The River Thames with Isleworth Ferry, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1805
Coronation of Nicholas II, Illuminations In Moscow, Albert Benois, 1896
Famous artists who worked in watercolour: Albrecht Dürer, Van Dyck, Claude Lorrain, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, Paul Sandby, William Turner, Thomas Girtin, John Varley, John Sell Cotman, Anthony Copley Fielding, Samuel Palmer, William Henry Hunt, Lucy Madox Brown, Thomas Moran, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Paul Delaroche, Eugène Delacroix, Henri Joseph Harpignies, Honoré Daumier, John Singer Sargent, Wassily Kandinsky, Emil Nolde, Egon Schiele, Paul Klee, Raoul Dufy.
Famous Russian watercolorists: Pyotr Sokolov, Karl Bryullov, Vasily Sadovnikov, Ludwig Permazzi, Alexander Benois, Léon Bakst, Ivan Bilibin, Konstantin Somov, Albert Benois, Sergey Gerasimov, Alexander Deineka, Sergey Zakharov, Semyon Pustovoitov, Artur Fonvizin, Sergey Andriyaka.