Art History

7 Wonders of the Watercolor World

7 Wonders of the Watercolor World

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To celebrate the vibrancy of watercolor and its impact in the art world, we went to seven American and British museums and asked curators to select a single significant watercolor from their collections.

Although their choices represent only a small sample of the watercolor masterpieces in existence, these paintings encapsulate the evolution of the medium through the 19th and 20th centuries.

The following artists embraced what initially was exclusively an illustrative and topographic medium and took it to increasingly experimental and expressive heights.

Wonder of the Watercolor World#1

The first of the wonders of the watercolor world, seven vivid birds perch with outstretched wings, bobbing heads and chattering beaks. The only parrot species native to the U.S., the Carolina parakeet became extinct less than 100 years after John James Audubon portrayed it.

Roberta J.M. Olson, curator of Drawings at The New-York Historical Society, says, “Audubon’s brilliant depiction best preserves the vivacity of the species.” Audubon made this dynamic watercolor for The Birds of America, a book that revolutionized ornithological illustration.

No one before him had portrayed birds at life-size, in action, surrounded by their natural habitat. Working over a period of 19 years to depict every avian species in America, Audubon created 435 watercolors, all of which are held in the collection of The New-York Historical Society.

The watercolors were printed as hand-colored lithographs. In the process, the artist developed innovative watercolor methods. According to Olson, “Audubon experimented with novel techniques in modeling, collaging and mixing media — including metallic pigments — and is considered America’s first great watercolorist.”

The Carolina parakeets exemplify his bold and skillful use of multiple media. “With a deft stratigraphy of layers of watercolor, gouache and pastel … and thousands of parallel strokes, Audubon suggested the textures of their plumage.”

Olson continues, “In a tour de force of draftsmanship, he drew in graphite over the watercolor every shaft and barb. These graphite lines now represent the shimmering iridescence once seen in nature, when the extinct species moved in the light.” Because of Audubon’s dedication to scientific observation and the experimental use of watercolor, his birds practically fly off the page.

Wonder of the Watercolor World#2

Richard Parkes Bonington portrayed the austere interior of the medieval Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan with earthy colors. He carefully depicted the soaring architecture in perspective, delineating the arches and pillars, while still allowing the watercolor to flow more freely, portraying the aging stone surfaces.

“Bonington combined watercolor with bodycolor [opaque paint] and gum varnish in the darker areas to create subtle transitions between light and dark,” describes Dr. Lelia Packer, The Wallace Collection’s acting curator, paintings, watercolours, miniatures and manuscripts.

“Bursts of light animate the picture, as in the grill in the center and through the distant choir.” Although the work is a mostly accurate portrayal of the cathedral, Packer says, “Bonington took some liberties by exaggerating the Gothic features, which must have especially appealed to him.”

Bonington frequently sketched on location in oil and reworked his subjects into finished watercolors later in his studio. According to Packer, Milan: Interior of Sant’ Ambrogio was instrumental in the recent discovery and reattribution of an oil sketch in the collection of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Careful comparison between the Wallace’s watercolor and the Kimbell’s oil sketch determined their close association,” says Packer. “Bonington remained relatively faithful to his [oil sketch], aside from altering the position of some of the figures from the left to the right side of the basilica.”

Wonder of the Watercolor World#3

This turbulent watercolor represents J.M.W. Turner’s fascination with the sublime — nature at its most ferocious, frightening and awe-inspiring. Near the lower right, a tiny wagon formed by a few strokes of reddish pigment provides a scale for the overwhelming scene. Steep mountains tower over the traveler as water crashes through the narrow pass.

Turner spent every summer between 1840 and 1845 in Switzerland. According to John Marciari, the Morgan Library Museum’s Charles W. Engelhard curator and department head, drawings and prints, “In 1842, Turner climbed the pass above St. Gotthard and witnessed the Ticino River in its spring torrent, when melting snow swelled the river.”

When Turner returned to England with a sketch of the scene, he showed it to the critic John Ruskin, one of Turner’s greatest champions. “Ruskin promptly commissioned this finished watercolor from Turner, arguing that it was ‘the greatest work he produced in the last period of his art,’ ” says Marciari.

In The Pass at St. Gotthard, Near Faido, Turner employed the brilliant techniques that made him the most renowned British watercolorist of the 19th century. Describing the watercolor, Marciari says, “Turner’s technique is as extraordinary as his vision, delineating the mountains with layers of watercolor, scraping away layers of paint and paper, and then adding further layers of color and gouache as he conveys the light, mist and rushing water of the mountain pass.”

Turner even left behind fingerprints as he blended and blotted wet blue paint in the foreground.

Wonder of the Watercolor World#4

Barefoot and wearing rolled-up trousers and a straw hat, a boy sits on a large anchor, facing away from the viewer. The sandy beach is dotted with smooth, round stones and clouds build on the horizon.

Earlier in his career, Winslow Homer had used watercolor washes in drawings for engravings and in preparatory sketches for oil paintings, but it wasn’t until 1873 that he made his first watercolors for exhibition.

That year, he spent the summer in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he was inspired to draw and paint children playing on the beaches and around the wharf.

“This early watercolor by Winslow Homer is notable for its dramatic clarity of design and concise, forceful application of pigment,” says Emily J. Peters, curator of prints and drawings at The Cleveland Museum of Art. “Remarkably economical in technique, it was drawn first in pencil and then executed with just a few colors.”

In post-Civil War art, children were not only seen as harbingers of a new era, but also as symbols of the nation’s lost innocence. Homer’s Gloucester watercolors share this undercurrent.

“In this watercolor, the anchor on which a boy sits is a symbol of safety and stability,” remarks Peters. “It’s also configured as a pointer, like an arrow directing the viewer’s eye out to sea, where someday the boy will be forced to make a dangerous livelihood.”

Wonder of the Watercolor World#5

A disheveled African-American man sits in a chair in a dark room. Light filters through a window, accentuating his facial features and wrinkled knuckles. His shirt peeks out from underneath a torn jacket, injecting a bit of blue into the otherwise earthy palette. The man is Willard Snowden, who did odd jobs around Andrew Wyeth’s studio and became a frequent model for the artist.

According to Audrey Lewis, curator at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Wyeth’s hometown, the title of the watercolor refers to Snowden’s talkative nature while posing. Lewis says, “Surrounded by emptiness in the large, barren room just outside Wyeth’s studio, he seems to be delivering a great speech to an unseen audience.”

Wyeth created this portrait using drybrush, a technique that allowed him a deliberate approach. “I work in drybrush when my emotion gets deep enough into a subject,” he once said. “I paint with a smaller brush, dip it into color, splay out the brush and bristles, squeeze out a good deal of the moisture, and color with my fingers so that there is only a very small amount of paint left.”

He drybrushed to create a shadowy atmosphere with texture and details throughout. “Texture, light and shadow play key roles in this painting,” notes Lewis, “with the light focused on Snowden — particularly his expressive face and hands — against the darkness of the room.” Such contrasts often gave Wyeth’s works, including Monologue, an intense, psychological mood.

Wonder of the Watercolor World#6

In September 1916, 25-year-old Georgia O’Keeffe stepped off a train in Canyon, Texas, to head the art department at West Texas Normal State College.

The stark landscape and big sky that enveloped the small Texas town inspired the young art teacher. “O’Keeffe painted Evening Star No. VII toward the end of a sequence of eight abstract landscapes, each one distinctly responding to but not replicating the composition that came before,” says Carolyn Kastner, curator at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

“It’s one of 51 watercolors created by the artist while she was teaching in Canyon. It’s significant because it expresses her early passion for abstraction.”

Evening Star No. VII expresses O’Keeffe’s experiences walking at twilight, when she admired the intensity of Venus rising. She created the watercolor with washes of primary colors. A swath of deep blue suggests either the darkening sky or the shadowy land at dusk, which O’Keeffe compared to the sea.

In her autobiography, she wrote, “We often walked away from the town in the late afternoon sun. … It was like the ocean but it was wide, wide land. The evening star would be high in the sunset sky when it was still broad daylight. That evening star fascinated me. … I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star.”

Wonder of the Watercolor World#7

A leading British landscape painter of the Romantic period, Samuel Palmer was commissioned late in life to create a series of large watercolors inspired by John Milton’s poetry.

In The Lonely Tower, Palmer depicted a luminous and moody nocturnal landscape. Two shepherds rest as the rising crescent moon illuminates the woolly backs of their sheep. A white owl flies out of the darkness above a deep chasm. Nearby, an ox-drawn wagon traverses a lane atop a stone wall.

On a rocky precipice in the distance, against the twilight sky, stands the “lonely tower,” with a single window lit by a presumably equally lonely inhabitant. The imaginative scene evokes just a few lines from Milton’s “Il Penseroso.” The watercolor captures the poem’s melancholic atmosphere, a hallmark of Romanticism.

“Palmer uses a combination of opaque gouache and transparent watercolor to convey a mood of peaceful contemplation through rich, velvety darks and warm highlights,” says Melinda McCurdy, associate curator of British art at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. “With fine, controlled brushstrokes, the artist contrasts the cool white light of the stars against the yellow glow of the moon and the red and orange fires burning in the tower’s window and the wagon’s lantern.”

Palmer worked on this series of watercolors, which he also produced as etchings, until his death in 1881.

More Wonders from the Watercolor World

Delve into more stories of the watercolor world, past and present, and discover the techniques and experimental ways of using the medium that will make it come alive for you. The 25th Edition of Watercolor Artist is just where to start and is available now.

What do you think of these wonders of the watercolor world? What painting resonates most with you? Whose work would you have included in the list? Paintings that inspire you, whether with their subject matter, narrative power, or sheer skill with watercolor?

Article written by Tamera Lenz Muente first appeared in Watercolor Artist magazine.

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