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5 Interesting Facts About the History of Watercolors

5 Interesting Facts About the History of Watercolors

5 Interesting Facts About the History of Watercolors

july 20, 2016 • rhiann moore

 

It’s easy to think that watercolors have always been as easy to get and as popular as they are today. However, when investigated it becomes clear that watercolors didn’t always have the smoothest journey into popularity. Despite the mediums challenges, their history made for some interesting developments…

#1: Watercolors Didn’t Used to be an Acceptable Medium for High Art

Although watercolors had their purposes, it was a long time before any complete work of notable art was seen in the medium. Early on, the use of watercolor was largely restricted to instruction of art, cabinet portraits and topographical urban and country scenes. 

There was a shift in the later 18th century as prominent artists and critics such as John Ruskin, William Trost Richards and John La Farge, began to promote the use of watercolors to express the fidelity of nature. With their promotion of the technique in 1866 the American Society of Painters in Water Color was formed, now still in existence, though known now as the American Watercolor Society

The Rainbow  (1890) by William Trost Richards (source)

The Rainbow  (1890) by William Trost Richards (source)

#2: Painters Needed to Grind Their Own Watercolors

Long before watercolors gained notoriety as a respectable medium, it was difficult to even get watercolors to paint with. Up until the later 18th century, artists hoping to experiment with the medium would have to go to an apothecary shop and purchase clay-like chunks of color. They would take these home and grind them on a stone slab, eventually producing a powder to be mixed with water to produce paintable pigment.

Colormen came into play much earlier in the 17th century; however, because of watercolors’ lack of popularity they only sought to grind oil paints. In the 18th century it became increasingly more fashionable for young wealthy dandies to produce amateur sketches. As this group of well-to-do art enthusiasts expanded, so did the desire for watercolor paints. 

Natural Ultramarine Watercolor Pigment (source)

Natural Ultramarine Watercolor Pigment (source)

#3: The History of Watercolor Was Not a Steady Climb to Popularity

Although in some ways the use of watercolors was a slow and steady rise to notoriety eventually achieved in the late 18th century, it was much more like spurts of enthusiasm for the medium that died down, only to return decades later. Beginning as early as the 15th century the famed artist, Abrecht Dürer produced a number of watercolors, which he mysteriously abandoned. The next high point was not seen until the 17th century with the works of Anthony van Dyck.

House By A Pond (1497) by Albrecht Dürer (source)

House By A Pond (1497) by Albrecht Dürer (source)

Once again, watercolors fell out of popularity until the late 18th century Impressionism and amateur artists allowed for some popularity. Though they had become more available, watercolors disappeared again until Abstraction came to the foreground in the 20th century.

#4: Foreign Travel Reinvigorated Watercolor Creations

Although today it seems unthinkable, there was a huge time in history when foreign travel was not possible for most people. In the 18th century, this all changed. Those prior mentioned wealthy amateur artists packed up their brushes and watercolors to go wandering through the world. These visits allowed them to produce numerous landscapes of mysterious lands they visited. 

#5: In the 20th Century Watercolor Became the Go-To Medium for Abstraction

The first abstract picture made by Wassily Kandinsky in 1910 was done in watercolor. While experimenting with watercolor, he came to recognize that color and form were most able to set up a powerful resonance in the human soul. As watercolorists know well, the medium naturally produces some of the most poetic images and so it is no question why when seeking to express such deep emotions, abstract artists like Kandinsky turned to watercolors. 

Kandinsky's first watercolor abstract painting, done in 1910 (source)

Kandinsky's first watercolor abstract painting, done in 1910 (source)

Watercolors may not have always had the most prominence historically, however, it seems apparent that they were always destined to keep coming back. The unique appearance of the medium and the simplicity with which artists can use them has allowed them to become one of the most popular styles of our own century, doubtful to disappear again.


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