The evolution of watercolor painting began in antiquity when prehistoric humans painted cave walls with mixtures of ochre, charcoal and other pigments found in nature to create visual representations of the wild beasts encountered in the world around them. From this primitive beginning, innovations, such as the development of paper, the improvements in pigments and the awareness of aesthetic techniques, contributed to the growth of watercolor as a fine art medium.
By the 12th century, advancements in Chinese papermaking and the decorative use of watercolor spread to Europe, and a century later, European artists were preparing their own watercolor mixtures by grinding pigment and chalk for fresco wall paintings. The Sistine Chapel is the most famous example of the early use of watercolors as a fine art. Once used only for fresco painting on wet plaster, watercolor evolved into a medium used to convey powerful, striking images when applied to paper.
The advent of ready-made paints and synthetic pigments influenced watercolor’s growth as a medium. During the 15th century, printmaker Albrecht Durer developed methods that improved the paints’ appearance. Once artists realized its potential, they explored techniques that enhanced the luminous, transparent effects of the colors. English painter, J. M. W. Turner experimented with both the expressive nature and technical aspects of the medium. His work influenced the separation of watercolor into transparent and opaque colors, which today are referred to as watercolor and gouache, respectively. By the 1800s, watercolor was viewed as a serious and expressive artistic medium.
Artists have used watercolor painting to crafts works reflecting their gifts and passions. John James Audubon used watercolors to document the wildlife to which he was so devoted. Winslow Homer recorded the scenic beauty of the natural world, as evidenced in his seascapes of Maine, the soft colors of the Bahamas and the splendor of the Adirondacks. French master, Paul Cézanne’s technique of overlapping watercolor washes provided his distinctive use of color and tone, as shown in his piece “Still Life with Watermelon and Pomegranates.” Vincent Van Gogh, best known for his oil paintings, developed his watercolor techniques to create over 100 pieces, such as “Boats on the Beach of Saintes-Maries” and “Scheveningen Women and Other People Under Umbrellas.”
Other artists of the past, like Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Burchfiueld and Andrew Wyeth, have used this medium to create striking works of art, while contemporary artists continue to use watercolors to convey their visions. Whether possessing rich, vivid tones or offering soft, soothing compositions, artists’ work with watercolor demonstrates the power, development and versatility of this celebrated medium.