Watercolor: Science and History…dun dun dunnn!

“Watercolor” refers to both the medium (mineral pigments suspended in a water-based solution) and the resulting artwork.  Though watercolor (the material) is most commonly applied to paper, it may be applied to other surfaces as well, such as fabric/canvas/textiles, wood, and more.  One of the unique characteristics of this art form (and material) is its translucence, lending a light and almost ethereal quality to the subject being painted.  Watercolor (material) comes in both a paste and a solid form.  The paste, which is purchased commercially in tubes, is roughly the same consistency of toothpaste and contains pigments (which may be either natural or synthetic), gum arabic (which acts as a binder, keeping the pigments in solution and helping them to bind to the painted surface), additives (to affect the viscosity and other properties of the paint), and water.  Solid watercolors (referred to as half or full pans) contain many of the same ingredients, and can also contain more preservatives.  For this reason, some artists prefer the longer shelf life and resistance to fungal growth as well as easier portability of solid watercolors.  Honey is a common preservative used in both half/full pans and tube paints (like Sennelier and M. Graham)…it not only allows more ease of rewetting for both the tube and half/full pan paints, but honey’s inherent antimicrobial properties allow for restricted microbial and fungal growth with these paints.  Science.


I will resist going into great detail about pigments, the origins of color, and color chemistry, but despite the common use of certain color names across different manufacturers, there is actually no standard “recipe” for a particular color.  Windsor & Newton’s Ultramarine Blue may appear different from Van Gogh’s, etc.  In the past, this lead to confusion and inconsistency of colors, so in 1990, the art materials industry began accommodatingly including a list of pigment ingredients on paint packaging (now also available on many companies’ websites or printed on inserts, which come with the paints.  All that knowledge right at your fingertips!), using common pigment names (like “yellow ochre”) and/or a standard pigment identification code assigned by the American Association of Textile Chemists and the Society of Dyers and Colorists.  These organizations maintain a reference database of colors and their names.  Fun fact: in college I interned at the Color Association of the United States, which maintains an exhaustive reference library of colors and the Standard Color Reference of America, as well as provides color forecasting and consulting services to numerous industries.  It was non-stop fun with color magic!


There are many characteristics of watercolor paints, which vary across manufacturers besides actual hue; those mostly have to do with the fineness of the pigment particles, different formulations of minerals used, and other added ingredients.  Due to a lack of knowledge (and spectrophotometry equipment), many of the pigments used to prepare early watercolors had poor lightfastness, however, modern watercolor paints are now considered quite durable (with a few exceptions) and may be used to create colors as highly saturated and bright as oil or acrylic paints.


Now, how did watercolor paint and painting actually come to be?


Watercolor painting is old.  Like, Neolithic cave paintings old.  It has been observed in manuscript illustration throughout ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Asian history, as well (decorative watercolor painting has been an art form in China since 4000 B.C.).  I suspect that is because the basic ingredients to create watercolor are, well, basic…take pigment, add water.  No mucking about with oils and stabilizers.  In these ancient times, it would have been quite easy to grind up some natural substances you have in your environment, like minerals, plantstuffs, even some animals (or parts of animals, rather), mix them with some water and get to work. The use of watercolor (and therefore the accounting of its history) wasn’t really seen consistently until the Renaissance, much to the credit of Albrecht Dürer (you all know the rabbit, right?).  Before this era, some artists used watercolor for sketches and copies, but not much else.   Botanical and wild life illustrations soon became popular subjects for this medium, I suspect that is because the properties of watercolor painting lend themselves so well to natural subjects.  Some of the earliest adopters of this medium were Van Dyck, Claude Lorrain, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione as well as many Flemish and Dutch artists.  An important feature of the watercolor painters of this time was their skill in creating incredibly realistic portrayals of their subjects.  Even today, some of their work is still used as illustrations in scientific publications!  During the naturalist movement of the 19th century, the popularity of wildlife and botanical illustration continued to grow.  Watercolor also gained popularity in other regions of Europe and Asia.  In England, watercolor painting was seen as a pursuit of the elite, but the art form was recognized as a useful and practical means for portraying natural subjects with astonishing detail and accuracy.  For this reason, watercolor was often used in mapmaking, among military officers and engineers, and in geologic and archaeologic expeditions.  As the demand for printed books boomed throughout the late 18th and into the 19th century, the popularity of the medium also grew alongside it.  This also inspired many parallel innovations in paper and brushmaking and, in addition, advances in chemistry opened the doors to access and use many pigments, which were new to the artists’ palette.  Meanwhile, in the United States, watercolor painting was seeing similar trends in growth and popularity.  Many of the prominent watercolor painters chose natural subjects, such as landscapes, wildlife, and botanical objects, as well as architectural and nautical subjects.  Some of the most important 20th century artists working in watercolor were Paul Klee, Raoul Dufy, Wassily Kandinsky, Georgia O’Keefe, Charles Demuth, and John Marin.  During this time, several different regional styles and schools began to pop up in America.


Of course artists today employ numerous different media, including both the modern (digital design) and the not so modern (mostly everything else).  With the growing popularity of modern calligraphy and hand lettering, with their loose and imperfect styles, many calligraphic artists are using watercolor for a number of different aspects of their design (including as an ink for traditional calligraphy dip pens).


Ok, so maybe the history of watercolor isn’t “edge of your seat” exciting (at least if you’re not into chemistry), but it’s important to note that there are many amazing properties/qualities of this art medium, which has drawn me to it:


  • It’s portable and (can be) compact. When I realized I would be spending many months recovering from my hip injury, I needed something to help me feel productive and creative.  Half pan watercolors were the obvious choice- they don’t take up much room (and mixing colors creates an infinite palette) and setting them up/breaking them down each time I work will be quick and painless.  They can easily be taken out into the world for plein air painting.
  • Depending on how you use them, you can get light, ethereal, airy wisps, or beautifully bright, vibrant, saturated colors. Who doesn’t like variety?
  • Because of their ability to layer well, I can build up a painting, adding small layer by small layer until I’m happy with it. It feels like it’s hard to make mistakes or overwork a piece….
  • ….but at the same time, I am somewhat at the mercy of the physics of water. I think in order to be a successful and expressive watercolor artist, one must learn when to be in control of the water flowing on the page, and when to surrender control to its whims.  Watercolor is meant to have some expressive imperfection…each piece doesn’t have to be a flawless copy of your subject.  Let loose, lose some control, and see where the paint takes you!



Getting Started/ New Paints


So, how do you get started? Obviously, you’ll need supplies.  This isn’t going to be a buying guide, but I can tell you how I did it once I’d gathered all of my supplies…I am not a trained artist, or an art instructor…so, find your own path!  But, here’s what has helped me greatly: Practice!  Learn about basic color theory and make a color wheel.  Practice blending colors to get intermediate shades, practice color value charts.  Practice, practice, practice!


Here’s a printable color wheel that you can use.  Just print, copy or trace onto watercolor paper (making sure to use a non-water soluble ink), fill in the spaces in the outer ring marked with 1 paint splotch with your primary colors (red, yellow, blue).  In the spaces marked with 2 paint splotches, place orange (in between red and yellow), green (in between yellow and blue), and purple (in between red and blue).  In the spaces marked with 3 paint splotches, place your tertiary colors.  See what I did there?  Use the primaries and secondaries you’ve already painted to tell you what colors to mix and place in each area.  I have made 4 concentric circles for hue (pure color), tint (hue plus water), tone (hue plus grey), and shade (hue plus black).  Go nuts!  The original size of this color wheel is 12” by 12” square—you should be able to resize it on your computer to fit whatever paper you’d like to use.

Link to download printable color-wheel-template



You can also play with blending colors.  What happens when you blend complementary colors (colors opposite each other on the wheel)?  You get some of the most beautiful, dimensional greys and browns.  I most often use these for shading, because I think they make the prettiest shadows.


Also, know what you’re working with!  Every time you purchase new paints, you should paint a swatch or color card.  You may paint this in any style you want, but I’ve included a template for how I like to paint mine (again, you can print, copy, or trace it onto watercolor paper).  This way, you know what your colors look like and how they behave.  At the top, write the name of the paint (manufacturer and/or collection) and the date (this way you can track colorfastness!), then in each box with lines, either write in the color’s name (and pigment makeup if you want) or simply place the label from the color (if that’s available to you).  In each color’s corresponding box, you may paint it however you’d like!  Paint a solid wash, a gradient, layer washes….it’s totally up to you!  Once it’s dry, you can either slide it in your portfolio, or hole punch it and store it in a binder.  As you try different paints from different manufacturers, you can refer back to previous color cards to compare hue, opacity, granulation, etc.  The original size of this color card is 11” by 14”….feel free to size it down if you’d like!

Link to download printable color-card-template

color-card-template-copyHappy Painting!


2 thoughts on “Watercolor: Science and History…dun dun dunnn!

    1. Yay! Thank you!!! Let me know if there are any issues you encounter with printing; this is my first experiment with creating printables! Aaand I’d love to see them all finished and colored in, if you’re willing to share! 😀


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