Friday, June 11, 2010

A bit of history about watercolor

Did you know that watercolor painting goes back to the caveman?  He mixed blackened charcoal with water to draw on the cave walls.    I’m headed up to Petoskey, Michigan, actually to Bay View which is a Methodist Chautauqua.  I’m one of two Artists in Residence at the Terrace Inn there and on Wednesday I have to give a talk and demonstration.  I’m going to talk about the history of watercolor and thanks to a bit of my own research and that of a good friend, Sandy Meyer, I think I can pull it off.  I’ll also do a demonstration of the watercolor monoprint process I use because it’s something anyone can do.

But more on the history;  modern use of watercolor began in England in the late 1700s.  Until 1766 watercolors were basically pigments mixed with water-soluble gum and had been sold as dry lumps which had to be grated, then mixed with water.  William Reeves found that honey mixed with gum arabic would stop cakes from crumbling apart and allow them to be molded into regular shapes.  His brother, a metalworker, made molds and in 1766 Reeves and Son opened a company supplying the army and East India Trade Company with the first watercolor paint boxes.

In 1832 Henry Newton and chemist William Winsor added glycerin to the pigment which kept it moist.  Now watercolor no longer needed to be rubbed with water to loosen the pigment but could be used straight from the pan.  Then in 1841 the first collapsible tube was made.  By 1846 Winsor and Newton took off with the idea and started selling all their artists paints (oils included) in tubes.

Interest in watercolor grew rapidly here in the United States and in England.  Many American artists were influenced the the British artists who came to the United States to record its natural wonders and beauty.  By the late 1800s American had inherited from the British a mature technique with unique properties but what they did with it was pure Yankee Ingenuity.  American watercolors exploded in all directions.  Between 1870 and the 1920s some of the most important American artists were using watercolors:  Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer, James Abbott McNeil Whistler and John Singer Sargent.

Today there are more artists using watercolor than any other medium, even though it is believed to be the most challenging medium.  It’s advantages:  it’s instantly ready to be used, easily cleaned up with water when done and there are no chemical hazards involved with it… an ideal medium.

Here’s another of my watercolor monoprints and if you’re interested, I’ve posted several on my website that are available and affordable.  Here’s a link,

Blue Bottle Club


Diahn said...

How interesting, Helen! Thanks for educating us a bit - I love that kind of thing!

Hope your lecture goes super well on Wednesday...wish I could be there!

Joan said...

Have fun in Michigan!!! Thanks for the history lesson...I learned a lot. I like this monoprint of the bottles...good color and composition!!!

bed frame said...

Very interesting topic Helen. I am a fun of water colored paintings. After reading your article about the history of water color. I am now a diehard fun of water colored paintings. I love it more.

Carrie H. said...

Hi Helen. I really was liking those watercolor mono prints. What have you been working on in July, other than grand babies?!