Term that can, in its broadest sense, be applied to any paint bound with a medium (generally gum arabic) soluble in water. Its use has been widespread and varied over a long period, embracing ancient Egyptian papyruses, Chinese paintings on silk, the decoration of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and Elizabethan portrait miniatures. In normal parlance, however, the term ‘watercolour’ usually refers specifically to a type of painting in which the lighter tones are not obtained by mixing white pigment with the colours (see gouache) but by diluting them with water so that the light is given by the paper or other support showing more strongly through the thinner layers of paint. Watercolour in this more restricted sense was sometimes used in the 16th and 17th centuries (memorably by Dürer and van Dyck, for example), but it was not until the 18th century, in England, that it became a major medium, particularly for landscape painting, in which it lent itself to rendering subtle atmospheric effects. By the 1780s watercolours were being manufactured in small cakes of the type still used today, making them very easily portable for outdoor work. At first the medium was used mainly for topographical scenes, and the technique consisted essentially of tinting an underlying drawing. Around 1800 a transition was made to a bolder approach in which the colour was used freely and directly. Girtin and Turner (both born in 1775) brought watercolour to its greatest heights, Girtin being the consummate master of the classic broad technique and Turner achieving unequalled variety of effect and intensity of expression. In the wake of Impressionism, the capacity of watercolour to achieve spontaneous expression was more widely appreciated and it ceased to be so much of an English speciality. Among the modern artists who have been great exponents of the technique (in their very different ways) are Cézanne, Dufy, Grosz, Klee, Nolde, and Sargent.
Subjects: Art & Architecture