What is watercolour (UK) / watercolor (US) or aquarelle (French)? We don't have one word for this paint or even spell it the same. It also seems to me that the definition of "watercolour" is also getting a little bit blurry.
The reason I started to think about this question (along with "What is original art?" and "What is a print?") was an article I read recently where it was assumed that all professional artists know what the answers are - and presumably have the same answer.
But do we know? Do we share the same understanding? I'm going be doing a mini series of posts and have a go at the other two questions later. This one is dedicated to.......
What is watercolour?
Here are a few definitions. I'm sitting here wondering if all the watercolour artists are racing for their bookshelves at this point! ;)
The definitions of the Watercolour Societies
First, the Royal Watercolour Society takes a stance which is based purely on the paint being soluble in water and that it is applied to paper. It says nothing about any precise type of binder or the way in which the paint is applied or the precise nature of the paper.
The RWS has defined 'a watercolour' to mean 'a painting in a water-based medium on a paper-based support'. This definition allows a vast range of work of an indeed infinite variety.
21st Century Watercolour is an annual open painting competition organised by the Royal Watercolour Society. The aim of the competition is to encourage innovation in the use of water-based media on paper and to stimulate fresh approaches to what are considered to be watercolour’s traditional strengths. Artists are invited to submit up to three framed, glazed water-based paintings on paper.
Note the "glazed" in this definition refers to the need to use glass not the technique you need to use to apply the watercolour!
Now for the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour. This is what they say (on the Mall Galleries website/information for artists) about the media which is admissable to their Annual Open Exhibition. They take the view that paint must be soluble in water. They also have a view about how it should be applied. However the definition for me is unsatisfactory as in defining what watercolour is it manages to identify acrylic as somehow being something different. I 'sort of' know what they mean but I think their wording could be improved. Plus I'm confused as to whether they means needs glass or needs a specific technique - the comma suggests the latter.
Acceptable Media:Next the American Watercolour Society which has presumably taken a great interest in definitions and how they are spelt out following the Gold Medal Debacle of 2008.
Watercolour or any water soluble colour. Any use of acrylic must be treated as watercolour, paintings must be glazed.
Their definition is very useful in that it spells out precisely all the media which they consider are soluble in water. However it would appear that the binder is of no consequence although the support used must be paper (although it doesn't say whether that can be treated in any way).
It says nothing about how watersoluble paint can be applied - but does exclude specific outputs eg digital prints. For example, it left me wondering what they saw as the difference between a water soluble paint delivered using the technology required for (a) air-brushing and (b) a giclee printer.
The National Watercolour Society, in its current exhibition prospectus, takes the view that
The Annual Exhibition is open to all artists working in water soluble media: watercolor, acrylic, casein, gouache and egg tempera on paper. Canvas is not accepted.
Original work only is accepted. No collage, pastels, class work, copies, digital images or prints; original work only.
American Watercolour Society / entry information / Exhibition Prospectus
Work must be water-based media on paperAlternatively if you go to the By Laws of the National Watercolour Society
National watercolour Society - exhibition prospectus
ARTICLE X. DEFINITION OF WATERCOLOROther reference sources
A watercolor is aquamedia on paper which is unvarnished. The term "watercolor" shall be deemed to exclude work in encaustic or oil.
By Laws of the National Watercolour Society / Section 10.0.01
Interestingly, Wikipedia's perspective is the only interpretation which attempts to get to grips with the cultural differences which exist as to
- HOW you paint with watercolour
- WHAT SUPPORT you use to paint with watercolour
- WHICH CULTURE you belong to
watercolor is the medium or the resulting artwork, in which the paints are made of pigments suspended in a water soluble vehicle. The traditional and most common support for watercolor paintings is paper; other supports include papyrus, bark papers, plastics, vellum or leather, fabric, wood, and canvas. In East Asia, watercolor painting with inks is referred to as brush painting or scroll painting. In Chinese, Korean, and Japanese painting it has been the dominant medium, often in monochrome black or browns. India, Ethiopia and other countries also have long traditions. Fingerpainting with watercolor paints originated in China.The Tate Museum Glossary often gets quoted when people are stumped and are looking for an authoritative statement. This is what it says. It's the first one which starts to get to grips with the nature of binders and wetting agents and the first one to be accurate in representing the binder as being aqueous rather than the pigment or 'paint'.
Wikipedia - Watercolor
Watercolour is a medium or work of art made with paint consisting of fine pigment particles suspended in an aqueous binder which usually consists of gum, glucose, glycerine and wetting agents, applied to paper. As watercolour is semi-transparent, the white of the paper give a natural luminosity to the washes of colour. White areas of the image often are merely left unpainted to expose the paper. Watercolours are sold as cakes of dry paint or as liquid in tubes, to which water is added. The paint can be applied in various techniques such as wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry to obtain different effects.It opts for an approach which focuses on:
- the fact that the word means both paint and painting
- that it is the binder which must be soluble (ie pigment is never soluble as it is always a particle and is always suspended in the binder/solvent medium)
- highlighting how the colour of paper makes a difference
- differentiates between transparent watercolour and those which are opaque (gouache, body colour)
Gouache - A term first used in France in the eighteenth century to describe a type of paint made from pigments bound in water-soluble gum, like watercolour, but with the addition of a white pigment in order to make it opaque. Larger percentages of binder are used than with watercolour, and various amounts of inert pigments such as chalk are added to enhance the opacity. Gouache forms a thicker layer of paint on the paper surface and does not allow the paper to show through. It is often used to create highlights in watercolours. Today the term 'gouache' is often used loosely to describe any drawing made in body colour. Bodycolour is any type of opaque water-soluble pigment; used by artists from the late fifteenth century. Lead white was used until the introduction of zinc oxide, known as Chinese White, in the nineteenth century.Now for the Dictionaries!
Tate Glossary - Gouache
The Yale Dictionary of Art and Artists says that
Watercolour - a type of paint in which the pigment is bound in a water-soluble medium such as gum, and that retains transparency, letting the white support - usually paper - show through (compare with body colour or gouache).The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms by Edward Lucie Smith seems to be of the Tate Museum school of thought. He takes the view that pigments are soluble and that paints which are not transparent are not watercolour!
Yale Dictionary of Art and Artists page 731
watercolour - watercolour pigments, combined with watercolour gum as a BINDER and water as a MEDIUM used to make transparent paint. Non-transparent watersoluble paints - eg distemper, gouache - are strictly speaking not watercoloursLooking at Prints, Drawings and Watercolours - a Guide to Technical Terms by Paul Goldman (a former curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum) also sides with the view that watercolour is transparent.
Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms
Strictly a pigment for which water and not oil is used as a medium, and GUM ARABIC is added as a binder.
A watercolour wash is a liquid composed of water in which particles of colour brushed from cakes of pigment are suspended. It must remain in a liquid state long enough for the tiny fragments of colour to distrubte themselves evenly across the paper.
The brilliance of watercolour occurs because its translucent nature allows the white surface of the paper to be used as a lighting agent. Most watercolour papers have a granular surface and the little hollows and projections provide an alternation of light and half light. Watercolour is sometimes mixed wth white pigments to make it opaque.
Looking at Prints, Drawings and Watercolours - a Guide to Technical Terms
Watercolour - Any paint that uses water as a solvent. Paintings done with this medium are known as watercolors. What carries the pigment in watercolor (called its medium, vehicle, or base) is gum arabic. An exception to this rule is water miscible oil paints, which employ water as their solvent, but are actually oil paints.
Colors are usually applied and spread with brushes, but other tools can also used. The most common techniques for applying watercolor are called wet-on-dry and wet-on-wet, along with the dry brush techniques dry-on-dry and dry-on-wet. Colors can be removed while still wet, to various degrees by blotting.
Most watercolor painting is done on paper, but other absorbent grounds can also be employed. The papers most favored by those who paint with watercolor is white, very thick, with high rag content, and has some tooth.
"Watercolor" is the American spelling. "Watercolour" is the British spelling
What I found absolutely fascinating was that the various watercolour societies did NOT agree on a common definition of watercolour - and that the technical authors were apparently much more purist than the art societies.
So if the "authorities" can't agree what hope is there for artists all understanding what is meant by watercolour?
It makes me question whether in fact it is reasonable for any of the art societies to take for granted that we understand what they mean if they don't agree between themselves.
It also makes me realise, even more than before, that there are various ways we can group the pigments that we use in out art. All media uses pigments in particles, can be used on a variety of surfaces and can be dispersed using a variety of solvents. However, it seems to me that one of the key difference in the effects achieved depends on the media used to bind pigments together.
Plus it struck me that there appears to be no competition anywhere in the world which requires an interpretation of watercolour in the original sense of the word as opposed to what is now a generic term covering a vast range of different types of paint effects that it has become. I think that's a real pity. We can already see its impact on the nature of paintings which can be seen in watercolour competitions.
How about a painting competition in the traditional manner for people using finely ground pigments which are only bound together with the use of gum arabic, mobilise tthought the use of glycerine and water and only use ox gall as a wetting agent? Don't get me wrong - I'm not damning acrylics and the like - they very definitely have their place in our contemporary art world. I just love to see really good traditional painting with watercolours - in the original sense of the word - and I'd like to see more of them.
So - what you THINK?
- what is watercolour?
- can there be one common and consistent definition?
- should there be one common and consistent definition?
- what's the impact on painting of a generic definition for watercolor?
Link: Reference Books for Artists