Secret Recipes, Honey And ‘the World’s Pinkest’ Paint: A Brief History Of Watercolour

Today, an aspiring watercolourist might well be daunted, if not completely flummoxed, by the range of products available for purchase. The 21st century artist is spoiled for choice, but this was not always the case…

When watercolour first arrived in the West in the late 15th century, it was sold in unrefined clumps that had been cut from huge, clay-like slabs of the substance. Artists had to ‘rub up’ their colours by breaking up the clumps into useable bits and then grinding them in water.  The result was a myriad of methods and secret recipes that artists guarded jealously.

© Nicola Wiltshire

As the centuries passed, artistic entrepreneurs began making ready-made paints for artists. The 18th century saw the sale of the first water soluble dry cake watercolours and the addition of honey to the formula, this natural humectant attracting and retaining moisture. By the early 19thcentury, moist watercolours had been introduced to the general public, and in 1835 Winsor Newton unveiled a new form of the product, a moist watercolour cake that had been softened with glycerine to make it more pliable.

Larges Reeves & Sons Artist Watercolour Box, c. 1850, © Antiques Atlas

In the mid 19th century, the fashion shifted from watercolour cakes to a semi-liquid formula which was contained in metal tubes. With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, brighter and more permanent colours became available: the intense colours inspired the Pre-Raphaelites and the new tube paints allowed the Impressionists to develop the plein air technique.

‘Proserpine’ (1847) Dante Gabriel Rossetti, © Tate Britain

Following the Industrial Revolution, watercolour continued to develop, improving in quality, expanding into a more diverse medium with an extensive palette, and becoming both more affordable and readily available. Watercolour is still evolving and diversifying today: artist Stuart Semple recently created PINK, supposedly the ‘the world’s pinkest’ paint!

© Culture Hustle

Today, then, our aspiring watercolourist need not spend hours ‘rubbing up’ his colours before he can set to work; indeed, he is more likely to spend those hours examining the overwhelming range of products on display in an art shop! Should you find yourself in this position, take a look at the post titled ‘Which brand of watercolour should you choose?’ on the WonderStreet Blog. The piece, well-researched and well-written, explores the best brands of watercolour paint, evaluating each brand in detail and concluding with a succinct summary containing key findings and recommendations.

To read ‘Which brand of watercolour should you choose?’, by Olivier Jennes, visit  WonderStreet is a UK-based art platform which allows all  creatives, from emerging to established artists, to showcase their work.

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