The Art of Watercolor
Posted on May 5, 2017
A colleague recently noted that an architectural professor had once told him that his watercolors were not art, but illustration- a subtle but barbed comment. It is true that, in the past, watercolors have been used as professional tools to illustrate, not only architecture, but science, products, even news stories–but what of watercolor as art?
New England School
Up to the mid-nineteenth Century, despite the fact that watercolors were a favored populist medium in America, only oil painting was considered a fine art. It was about this time that the rising popularity of English art critic, John Ruskin, that watercolor was beginning to be noticed. In 1855 The New York Watercolor Society was formed after a popular exhibit of works in New York.
After realizing that watercolors could be recognized in their own right as an art, watercolorists encouraged both friends who had used watercolor professionally, as well as friends who were well known oil painters to submit for the Society’s first exhibition in 1867. American Pre-Ralphealites, steeped in English Victorian tradition of painting were the most coherent “school” of painting in the show. But the show’s success highlighted the medium’s potential. The Ruskin style had produced works in watercolor uniquely suited for expressing clarity and luminosity.
Soon, artists were painting in the Ruskin style, en plein-air and in great painstaking detail of their subjects. However, as Ruskin’s popularity began to fade and the difficulty of the demanding style wore on artists, watercolors became more expressive, looking to English artist such as J.M.W. Turner for provoking soulful and mysterious expressions.
By the 1870’s American painters were using watercolors to document their travels. In the exhibits of 1872, 1873 & 1874 Thomas Moran created a sensation with his views of the American West and Winslow Homer had raised watercolor to a new level of artful expression with his paintings of the Bahamas and the Adirondacks. American artists were growing in popularity and their watercolors were at the center of the art world’s interest.
In the 1870’s the Italian artist Fortuny was finding a new level of fluid expression with watercolors that began to influence a new wave of American artists abroad. As impressionism broke the rigid bonds of British expression, Americans John Singer Sargent and Childe Hassam began to take the stage Museums fought to acquire their bold and suggestive paintings for their collections. Watercolor was now the American art.
Around the same time, Architectural drawings were also influenced by the shift to more impressionistic style. Architects such as Charles Mackintosh, Edwin Lutyens and Leon Preiss whose work and drawing styles lent themselves to translation to more artistic endeavors.
In subsequent years, many followed; George Bellows, Edward Hopper, three generation of the Wyeth’s, and Georgia O’keefe among many who carried watercolor forward into the modern era of American art.
As architects today, we can use the lessons from Ruskin to impress upon our minds the detail of nature’s beauty, or use Homer and Moran’s ability to tell a story of a place, Sargent’s bravado to be express the sensations of light and shadow, or Hopper’s ability to evoke an unseen feeling from deep within. Watercolors can do much more than illustrate architecture; it can impart both the nostalgia of our dreams, as well as the emotion of expectation.