What is it about Watercolour?

By guest blogger Sarah Edmonds from Pegasus Art, suppliers of fine art materials since 2005 and one of the Competition's generous sponsors.

Image courtesy of Pegasus Art

Watercolour is by far our best-selling product at Pegasus Art.

What is it about this medium and why do people love it so much? In my search to answer this question, I asked a few of our worthy watercolourist customers for their view. The response is immediate and conclusive; it’s the transparency and beautiful pigments that really get people hooked. The fact that minimal equipment is required is another key factor.

Watercolour is often the entry point for people who are new to painting, and yet it is one of the most demanding mediums to master, neatly illustrated by artist Claudia Araceli: “My students tell me that they chose watercolour because they see it as the least complicated and messy – add water and paper and you’re done. The reality is, it’s the most challenging of all the mediums. Learning watercolour is a long apprenticeship: it can be frustrating, but once hooked you will love it forever. Personally, I feel watercolour is at its best when you allow it some freedom to do what it wants to do naturally; by contrast it’s at its very worst when forced to behave. I have found that harnessing watercolour is a matter of learning and understanding how to walk a fine line between both.”

Claudia Araceli, A Wet Evening in Ryde

Watercolour painting is as old as the hills, dating back to ancient times and present in cultures from every corner of the globe. In the West, European artists illuminated manuscripts and maps, then studies of nature, botanical illustration and Renaissance portrait miniatures before Fine Art exploded onto the amateur hobbyist scene and spawned the ‘Golden Age of Watercolour’ from the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century. By the mid-eighteenth century artists were regularly painting outdoors and watercolours provided the ideal medium, able to capture the changing seasons, light and weather and only requiring limited, easily-portable equipment. Among the aristocratic classes, watercolour painting was considered an important adornment of a ‘proper’ education and in more practical arenas it was used as a descriptive tool – engineers, military men and architects used it to render depictions of their lofty ambitions.

The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, Queen of France, ca. 1324–28

En plein air carrying cases, or pochades, are described as early as 1731 as ‘constructed of mahogany, and fitted with brass hardware and embossed-leather linings, providing porcelain mixing pans, wash bowls, storage tins for chalks or charcoal, trays for brushes and porte-crayons, scrapers, blocks of ink and colours'. This description doesn’t sound all that portable, and a less expensive alternative was required to meet the demands of the increasing number of amateur painters.

William Reeves, an 18th century colourman, was awarded the Silver Palette of the Society of Arts for his invention of the ‘paint cake’ in 1781. These small, hard cakes of soluble watercolour were revolutionary. By the 1830’s artists could buy watercolours in porcelain pans, before further advancements in 1842 produced the first watercolours in collapsible metal tubes, thanks to Winsor & Newton. Their machine-ground pigments produced consistently high quality pigments which set an international standard and they were granted a Royal Warrant in 1841. Before long, artists could liberally wash their paper with vivid colours never used before in this way – early critics were proved very wrong indeed!

William Winsor and Henry Newton were already working alongside some of London’s well-known colourmen who procured rare pigments from across the globe and congregated in the artists' quarter around Rathbone Place, central London. Indeed, Constable, a neighbour, was one of their early customers. Not all colourmen were as scrupulous as Winsor & Newton, however, and would sell unstable mixes that would discolour or react unfavourably with other pigments.  New compounds that were suddenly affordable, such as cerulean, chrome orange and cadmium yellow minimised time spent grinding and mixing with a pestle and mortar in the studio. The pocket-sized ‘Shilling Colour Box’ - a lightweight japanned tin with pan colours and mixing palettes became a Victorian bestseller, selling more than eleven million units between 1853 and 1870. The dye was cast and watercolour has remained fashionable ever since.

These days, you can expect to buy high-quality watercolours in pans, tubes and sets from any decent art shop. One of our most highly respected suppliers is German manufacturer, Schmincke Finest Artist Paints, who have been producing highly-pigmented watercolours in Dusseldorf since 1881. Capitalising on the 'Golden Age of Watercolour', Hermann Schmincke and Josef Horadam, two colourmen-chemists, took eleven years to research, develop and improve their watercolour range to rival that of their English counterparts. In 1892 they received a Prussian patent for their Horadam Patent-Aquarellfarben. Their Horadam Aquarell range is their flagship product, selling to fifty-three countries worldwide, with pans outselling tubes. Pans are poured, then dried in a specially-designed ‘sauna for paints’ at thirty-seven degrees celsius, and then filled again another three times. This slow and complex process takes four months to ensure that all the water has evaporated, leaving the purest colour possible.


In 2017, prompted by a change in the raw material market and the new potential of the latest pigments, Schmincke increased their range to one hundred and forty colours, with thirty-two of these being one-pigment colours. The use of highly lightfast pigments, such as quinacridone and perylene offers new possibilities for the artist, with colours being constantly optimised and a few omitted due to the lack of raw materials.  You will notice product names changing too; ‘deep red’ is now ‘perylene maroon’ and ‘charcoal grey’ is renamed ‘anthracite’; ‘transparent’ replaces ‘translucent’ and so product ranges evolve. Watercolours that contained pigment granulations were once considered low grade, until a more recent desire for natural effects blossomed. Now, Schmincke have introduced wonderfully granulating colours such as French Ultramarine, Potters Pink and Green Umber whilst other evocative new names include ‘Brilliant Opera Rose,’ ‘Mars Black’ and ‘Geranium Red’.  

Schmincke answer my question 'What is it about watercolour?' with a modern take on the medium: “We believe the popularity of our watercolours has endured because artists like to combine traditional techniques with new mediums, allowing for various experiments and mixed media techniques. In addition, Urban Sketching has become very popular around the world and sketchers prefer to use a combination of pens and watercolours with a wide range of applications and colour variety. The worldwide lettering and journaling trend favours watercolour.” And so watercolour moves with the times and the new generation of artists on a modern-day Grand Tour.

© Marc Taro Holmes

Mention must be made of non-toxic paint manufacture which is not only good practice but demanded in increasing numbers by discerning customers. Owing to the many scientific developments in the industry, artists' colours are now available in the form of environmentally-friendly, synthetic alternatives.

One such manufacturer is Daniel Smith, who has been producing highly-pigmented, granulated paints from his Seattle store since 1993. The brand is built on the premise of pure, non-toxic materials and even today, they employ a modern-day colourman who travels the globe in search of the finest pigments and minerals available. They produce an astonishing two hundred and fifty watercolours, many of which are unique to Daniel Smith and include lightfast and durable quinacridone pigments. These pigments, originally developed for the automotive industry are loved for their brilliance and transparency.

To use semi-precious minerals in their PrimaTek range is inspired - the first colour was made from Lapis Lazuli Genuine in 1998 and was so popular that they added Amethyst Genuine, Piemontite Genuine and Serpentine Genuine. The uniqueness of their product lies in the miniscule granules of pigment which move and separate randomly and work a special kind of magic on the paper. The fun doesn’t end there - other ranges include luminescent watercolours which shine and shimmer ‘like hummingbird feathers’ and a range of cadmium hues to emulate the richness and density of the original cadmiums.

Artist Barry Herniman has used watercolours throughout his career and tries to explain why: “Watercolour has always been my first love. I am captivated by its tremendous fluidity, transparency and vibrancy. I have never tired of watching pure pigments mixing and mingling producing those wonderful 'happy accidents' that glow on the paper. It is also my preferred medium when sketching en plein air because of its versatility and ease of transportation. Equipment can be kept to the bare minimum but the results can be quite striking. Watercolour has rather bad press for being a difficult medium to handle and is somewhat unforgiving in its practice. To quote Philip Jamison, a terrific American watercolourist, 'watercolour can be worked over but must not be overworked' and I think that just about says it all.”

© Barry Herniman

Watercolour shows no signs of fading into obscurity. It is a fascinating, ever-evolving medium that deserves to be celebrated, something that The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition has been committed to doing for the past 32 years. This year's competition is currently calling for entries: the deadline is Monday 17 June, so make sure to get your entry in now!

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