Friday, March 13, 2009

What is watercolour?

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.
RWS website

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:
Watercolour or any water soluble colour. Any use of acrylic must be treated as watercolour, paintings must be glazed.
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.

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 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

The National Watercolour Society, in its current exhibition prospectus, takes the view that
Work must be water-based media on paper
National watercolour Society - exhibition prospectus
Alternatively if you go to the By Laws of the National Watercolour Society
Section 10.01.
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
Other reference sources

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
It's very apparent that any art society that got too picky about how it is applied could run the risk of becoming politically incorrect as to respect for other cultures. But since cultures are not static entities and evolve over time, how do (and should) definitions about watercolour need to develop to deal with this?
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.
Wikipedia - Watercolor
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'.
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.
Tate Glossary
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.
Tate Glossary - Gouache
Now for the Dictionaries!

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).
Yale Dictionary of Art and Artists page 731
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!
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 watercolours
Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms
Looking 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.
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
Late Update - I forgot to include the ArtLex online art dictionary! This is what ArtLex has to say. I personally find it one of the better explanations.
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.

When made opaque with white, watercolor is generally called gouache or bodycolor. Tempera is another exception.

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?
Note: That's my Schminke watercolour pan set at the top. I'm so very glad I bought this years ago so I don't even have to look at the cost of buying it now! Despite being a dedicated dry media person, I have been thinking of getting it out again!

Link: Reference Books for Artists


  1. I prefer the Amrican Watercolor Society definition over the other Societies ones, as it seems more specific to me. I am surprised by how loosely some talk about glazing, so that it is hard to know if they mean a glaze done with paint, or glass over the work.
    Reading through the whole post, I am taken aback by how little consensus there is. Which of course leaves room for people to say "I didn't realise what I did was wrong".
    I'll be interested to see what else you post on this subject.

  2. It is interesting but since I've had acrylics work in the Friedlander Watercolour exhibition (as has a friend who works in airbrush acrylic) I'm not going to complain. They did alter the rules this year as previously it simply excluded canvas, this past year it specified paper.

    It's all an interesting kettle of fish! Consider also that many oil societies also accept acrylic is used 'as oils'. I think part of the issue is the categorisation of the newer medium of acrylic (you know, less than 100 yrs old) that didn't grow up with it's own societies - so other societies are trying to give it space when it seems appropriate. Digital is growing up with similar problems, but the additional problem of being an output medium for both originals and reproductions. It'll be interesting to watch what happens.

    Art history is a great thing, but I think we need to acknowledge that art evolves, rather like language. That fact is reflected in the disagreement between societies, dictionaries, and even artists themselves! :) I applaud societies who at least try to embrace it rather than become protectionist.

  3. Cath - I like this one. I always think it pays to be specific and use NAMES!

  4. Tina - I'm torn between wanting art to get on with recognising how media evolves over time and not excluding new media and at the same time rather wanting new media to get on and start its own society so we don't have to have quite so many debates about what counts and what doesn't.

    I think the problems seem to arise when people start trying to adapt a definition which was working really well in its original form.

    I just find it really surprising that acrylics hasn't started its own heavyweight prestigious art society - especially given the number of very eminent artists who paint using acrylics!

    What I would like to see more of is a bit more confidence from the people who are creating great art from non-traditional media. I'm really puzzled as to why they don't want to become the founder members of a society which fosters an innovative way of working with new media.

  5. Good post today, Catherine. Perhaps the biggest discrepancies among the society definitions comes from the differences in their original purpose for organizing. The rules in the prospectus will then reflect their "reason for being" and set the standards for their particular exhibitions. With that in mind, it would seem a consensus must come from sources other than artists and their organizations.

    I'd like to see a strong acrylic group as well, but would they agree on whether it should be treated as an oil or a watercolor, on paper or board or canvas . . . ?

  6. Definitions of watercolour - or should that be watered colour? - seem to be widely diverse.

    A lot depends on whether you're a purist or not and how true to tradition you wish to remain. I'm with the Tate on the traditional meaning of watercolour- transparent, layered washes. However, the same can be achieved with many other mediums that use water as part of their application makeup.

    Acrylic, ink, even washed on charcoal or liquid graphite could be called 'watercolour'. The interpretation field is vast and the technicality of it really only comes into play when you apply to an exhibition and have to meet some of the organization's own particular interpretation of what watercolour means to them.

    Even then, the rules and interpretation could be challenged if one wanted to make a point.

    However, a poll in the street would likely give you a common answer of what watercolour is and may find that it is seen in the traditional sense and classic form.

  7. well you know I'm not one who likes rules!

    Personally I like work where the medium chosen is purely for its potential language rather than to meet a set of criteria.

    So I see no particular merit in doing 'pure' anything.

    My watercolours frequently involve oil pastel or cp because of the additional language of marks they give - which is allowable in English competitions/exhibitions. It's what I love about the show you mention in April (that I'm coming down to see) - that some people use only watercolour, others acrylic, others mix media - and a lot of of it is beautiful :>)

    I like to see work evolve too with freedom to be traditional or not as the artist decides.

  8. For me, watercolour is just that - watercolour paint (as labelled on the tube or pan), activated with water and painted on paper. Anything else should be labelled as watermedia or mixed media. If, once dried, paint cannot be re-activated with water it isn't watercolour.

    I think it would be a terrible shame if the traditional media of watercolour, used by so many of our great artists in the past, was lost in a sea of watered down acrylics!

  9. I have to agree with Ruth on this. Watercolor is WATERCOLOR...period. It says so on the tube. IMO, anything else should be considered watermedia. I'm extremely surprised that the AWS(or any other watercolor society)considers so many mediums 'watercolor'! I was under the impression they were so-called 'purists'.

  10. The term 'mixed media' should be mentioned here as well. But then where does mixed media ever stop? Motor car engine & pencil on paper?

    Definitions can be troublesome.

    Interesting that the paint manufacturers & merchants use another set of defintions to those of art societies etc.


    The debate between transparent & opaque watercolour has been going on for centuries.

    You can read about it in the nineteenth century, especially in England, where the use of new, improved binders & vechiles (increased soulbility) plus new artistic visions made one school of usage of watercolour go transparent because it could go WET. Really wet. Wet washes.

    For me, I think an important dividing line is transparent/opaque. It's precisely the transparency that appeals to me because it's the solubility & wetness made visible.

    It's also rather difficult. Transparency, as in the political sense of the word, means that you have nothing to hide. You can't cover over your mistakes.

    But then again, opaque pigments. For instance, bismuth yellow is a fabulous 21 century pigment, the bright yellow of pollen on stamens, & it is opaque. However for a real understanding about opaque/transparent, it is necessary to understand the point at which maximum saturation of colour is achieved in watercolour. For instance if you use it straight out of the tube, it dries really rather dull. It needs to be diluted to become alve, as it were. ie WET to be transparent to be colourful. Whilst acrylics & tempera are wonderful medii in their own right, they don't quiet share so much as watercolour this transformation upon dilution.

    You do occassionally see artists describing work as 'transparent watercolour'.

  11. I agree that it's the transparency which is particular to watercolour. Even when you see people glazing with transparent pigments in oil you very rarely see the whole painting done in transparent pigments.

    I guess the issue is that not all the pigments used in watercolour are naturally opaque.

    However I'd LOVE to see an art competition which was purely about transparent watercolour only and 'seeing' how people paint with it.

  12. Why don't you contact the president of the RWS & tell him so?

  13. One simple reason - competitions require sponsorship and sponsorship (in a generic sense) has just fallen off a cliff - see today's post

  14. Just a follow up on the question of why there isn't a good acrylic society (there is/was one, but it wasn't very impressive) - my answer I think would be because perhaps we don't need one? Even entering the other competitions is something very few working artists I know bother with. There's little reason: the societies kudos is worth little, the idea and activities of most societies doesn't appeal to younger generations, the sales are generally on the lower end. Just being honest, but I stopped entering most of them once I was past the CV-building stage. There are a couple exceptions, with shows where follow-on sales can be significant (ie. the Royal Academy).

    Many significant prize shows don't limit media anyway (Laing, Discerning Eye, RA, Jerwood, Walker, etc.)

  15. I think one of the problems inherent in the lack of one acceptable definition of what constitutes watercolor is the jurying of paintings that may simply be unalike. I have been accepted into watercolor society exhibitions with my traditional transparent-says-watercolor-on- the-tube paintings and have been shocked to see multi-watermedia collages (with things like twigs and strings and the like glued into the work.) How does one jury a watercolor show and try to compare apples to apples if the works are that far afield?

    There is only one watercolor society in the U.S. that I am aware of that states in the prospectus that the work must be done in transparent watercolor. Some simply say work must be done in an aqueous manner.

    It seems that there is a juried exhibition for almost every medium including mixed media (which is where that collage belongs!) To me, acrylics painted in a transparent manner are acceptable as watercolor; if done opaquely, they belong in a show for oils and acrylics. I believe gouache, casein and egg tempera belong in the categories of opaque mediums, even though water may be the flow medium.

    It seems that the organizations that call themselves watercolor societies could, and perhaps should, standardize the definition of the medium. Then, perhaps, the work accepted into their exhibitions will really be the best of the best in the medium and have more relevance than that mentioned by Tina above.


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