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History of English Watercolour Painting


Introduction

Watercolour painting can be defined as a painting technique using various pigments soluble in water with the addition of gum to bond the pigment to the paper. The earliest known use of this technique was by the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael who painted some full-scale cartoons as precursors for some tapestry designs using not only the watercolour technique but also the addition of a white pigment to the colour tones to create a body colour which could be considered as an early form of gouache.

The Early Days of Watercolour Painting in England

 

Many people believe that watercolour painting evolved in 18th century England. Although the English watercolour painters of this period reached heights of brilliance which had previously been unknown, the origins of this form of art were actually German through what is thought to be the innovator of watercolour painting—Albrecht Durer(1471-1528) who was developing the watercolour and gouache technique in his own characteristic manner probably in the same decade as Raphael . Later in 18th century England Paul Sandby (1725-1809) was called the ‘father of English watercolour and his success in the medium was reflected by the fact that he created half of the watercolours of his time. He became a public figure and a foundation member of the Royal Academy.

Many other artists became renowned for their work in this medium including -  John Crome (1768-1821)who was a member of the Norwich School of artists, John Varley (1778-1842) who was renowned for the quality of his work as he was a true exponent of landscape using his qualities of the use of colour and shape. John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) came from Norwich to make his mark in London. He became distinguished for his remarkable control of flat washes to give a remarkable effect. Thomas Girtin (1755-1851) used watercolours with a very limited palette and very thin washes which would be built up into a strong tonal composition. J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) was also a great innovator surpassing Girtin’s method  to achieve new expressions  of dramatic landscape and marine paintings. Peter de Wint (1784-1849) was an eminent landscape watercolourist—his work is well represented in galleries throughout the United Kingdom.

Prior to and during this period other famous artists have used watercolour painting to supplement their skills with oil paint including Van Dyke (1599-1641), Gainsborough (1727-1788) and John Constable (1776-1837). Constable used watercolour to capture a moment of time  - an atmospheric moment—a rainbow, cloud, reflection on water and any other information he could use to paint his larger oil paintings.  

19th Century

Since the 18th century many eminent artists have used the medium—including Richard Parkes Bonnington(1802-1828) who had a brief career. He bridged the gap between English and French painting by learning his art from Louis Francia, who was an    Anglo-French artist, who taught him how to paint in the traditions of Girtin and Varley, Influenced by Blake, Samuel Palmer (1805-1881), developed a new technique to express his ideas- using thick opaque colour. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) used watercolours as a relief from portraiture. His work was mainly done on holiday in Italy and Spain. Philip Wilson Steer(1860-1942) used  a delicate technique while Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) worked mainly on location with much of the finer detail done in the studio. He had the remarkable technique of lifting paint from the paper to create either characters or other elements of detail. These latter artists were influenced by the advent of Impressionist painting in the late 18th century.

20th Century

During the 20th century  watercolour has been used widely as not only as an exclusive medium but also an auxiliary mode of expression as primary sketches for other works. Changes in the way the medium is expressed is also evident, not only with the advent of the use of mixed media but also wide variation in the use  of subject matter, reflecting the changing  way art was  progressing. There were many prominent painters however who used the medium in the traditional style, too many to mention here.

Watercolour has come a long way since the time of Raphael and Durer. Today there are thousands of individuals globally who love to paint using watercolour medium. Many societies, art clubs and classes have evolved to give people the opportunity to express themselves both as individuals and in groups to promote a competitive element in the use of watercolour medium.

The text displayed on this page remains Copyright of English Watercolours 2001

 

Paul Sandby - View of Eton College from the River c1790

 

John Varley - Harlech Castle and Tygwyn Ferry 1804
 

John Sell Cotman - Greta Bridge c1807

 

Thomas Girtin - Storiths Heights, Wharfdale, Yorkshire c1802

 

JMW Turner - Venice looking East from the Giudecca 1819

 

Peter de Wint - Lincoln Cathedral from the River c1825

 

John Constable - Stonehenge, Wiltshire 1836