Mixed-up Media

Watercolor doesn’t get the respect it deserves in the United States.

Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo at sunset, c. 1777, watercolor, by John Robert Cozens
This Spring has given rise to a standing joke among my students. It’s been wet all spring, but it seems like Mother Nature cries especially hard every Tuesday. Because of this, I’m loath to go too far afield, even though there are delectable painting sites all around us. When the water starts spattering from the sky, it’s hard on everyone, but most particularly the watercolorists.
I noticed more watercolor painters at the Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival than at similar shows in the US. That might be because the admissions juror, Bill Rogers, is a watercolorist himself, or it might be an extension of the British love of watercolor.
Jennifer had her watercolor sketches out to show me when the wind picked up…
Although watercolor goes back to antiquity, the English developed the western tradition of watercolor plein air painting in the eighteenth century. This was driven by the desire of the upper-class to document the Grand Tour, which was a kind of intellectual finishing school for the uber-wealthy. The sons and daughters of the nobility and wealthiest self-made men were trundled off to Italy and Greece in the company of chaperones. There, they looked at and bought beautiful art, practiced their language skills, and mingled with other people exactly like themselves.
The only major difference between then and now was that they didn’t have cell phones with which to take selfies holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This sad lack created a market for travel books to be sold as souvenirs. Artists were dispatched to created what were then called ‘topographical drawings.’
…and flipped Roger’s palette into her paintings.
Tourists also enjoyed sketching the landscape. A drawing master was a status symbol for families wanting to master the fashionable skill of watercolor painting.
Among those eighteenth century watercolor artists are names unknown to most Americans: Paul Sandby, Alexander Cozens, his son John Robert Cozens, Thomas Girtin, and John Sell Cotman. Anyone who thinks of watercolor as anemic and pale should study their work. Of course, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner also belong in this pantheon.
In America, John James Audubon used watercolor for his meticulous, colorful illustrations. Watercolor as an independent medium peaked here in the nineteenth century, with Winslow HomerThomas MoranThomas EakinsJohn LaFargeJohn Singer SargentChilde Hassam, and others.
Watercolor paintings have an undeserved reputation for being fragile. From a gallerist’s standpoint, however, they don’t show as well under hot lights as oil paintings do, because of the glass. There are ways to work around this problem, but they have limitations.
I use watercolor exclusively as a sketch medium, It’s faster and more convenient than oils in many situations, including hiking or family vacations.
I always have a variety of media in my class, including oils, watercolor, acrylic and occasionally pastel. That isn’t a big deal conceptually, but it does lead to practical issues. The biggest of these is that oil in any form instantly ruins watercolor or pastel paper.
When I have a class made up of oil and watercolor painters, I must be meticulous in cleaning my hands between students. This was a lesson learned the hard way.
Yesterday was less rainy than predicted. By 1 PM, as we started to pack up, Clam Cove was wrapped in subtle shades of blue and green. My little band had done great work. We stood happily mesmerized by the rapid changes in the light, and the froth kicked up by the surf crossing a hidden ledge.
And then a gust of wind rose and blew an oil painter’s palette into a watercolorist’s finished work. It was a day’s work undone in an instant. Luckily, she’s a very easygoing person.