Sunday, August 27, 2017

What does "watercolour" mean to you?

This is about the meaning of "watercolour" - the word. What does it mean to you?

Back in 2009 I did a very long blog post about the topic of What is watercolour? 

It's worth a read for anybody who is interested in this topic and a re-read for anybody who read it when it was first published.

Note in particular the Tate Glossary definition and what it means....

I'm reminded of it today having seen the painting that has won the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition which, we should all note, is NOT called the Sunday Times Water-Based Media Competition.

Below I've added in a few more definitions of watercolour - and paintings by artists who are truly skilled in the use of watercolours.

Corfu - lights and shadows by John Singer Sargent

Definitions of "watercolour"

Below you can find a number of definitions of 'watercolour'. The link to the source of the definition is in the name of the source

Oxford Dictionary

Artists' paint made with a water-soluble binder such as gum arabic, and thinned with water rather than oil, giving a transparent colour.
A picture painted with watercolours.
The art of painting with watercolours, especially using a technique of producing paler colours by diluting rather than by adding white.

Collins Dictionary

noun (usually plural)Also called : pure watercolour
  • water-soluble pigment, applied in transparent washes and without the admixture of white pigment in the lighter tones
  • any water-soluble pigment, including opaque kinds such as gouache and tempera
a painting done in watercolours
  • (as modifier) a watercolour masterpiece
the art or technique of painting with such pigments
The Hare (1502) by Albrecht DurerWatercolor and body color, heightened with white body color
Google (search query - definition of "watercolour")
nounartists' paint made with a water-soluble binder such as gum arabic, and thinned with water rather than oil, giving a transparent colour.
"a self-portrait in watercolour"
a picture painted with watercolours.the art of painting with watercolours, especially using a technique of producing paler colours by diluting rather than by adding white.


Watercolor (American English) or watercolour (British English; see spelling differences), also aquarelle (French loanword), a diminutive of the Latin for water, is a painting method in which the paints are made of pigments suspended in a water-based solution. Watercolor refers to both the medium and the resulting artwork.
Note that at no point does anybody mention the word "polymer" .  
(Yes, you are right I am very definitely NOT a fan of acrylic masquerading as watercolour - or oil for that matter!)
Watercolour sketch of the Burning of the Houses of Parliament by JMW Turner

Discussion of Watercolour

Plus do have a read of this article Watercolour - Review by Laura Cumming in The Observer back in 2011.

What do you think?

What does "watercolour" mean to you?


  1. Absolutely agree with you - that used to be the definition. But a few years ago when I visited the Mall Galleries to see the Royal Society of Watercolour Painters Open Exhibition, I noticed a number which were obviously painted in acrylics. When I asked a member I was told the criteria is that if it has been painted in a watercolour manner and is framed, matted and glazed it can be accepted.

    NB. So glad you are still writing!....Podi Lawrence

  2. What a pity there isn't a Royal Society of Painters in Acrylics; then we could define watercolour as "water-based, liftable media" (to include transparent watercolour and gouache) and the acrylic painters would have a proper forum of their own.
    Does HRH paint in acrylics, by any chance?

  3. No - he's a PROPER watercolour man through and through - taught by Edward Seago I believe

    Maybe we need to get his endorsement of the need for a PROPER (i.e.liftable) watercolour competition?

  4. The alchemy that occurs when traditional transparent, gum based , soluble watercolour combines and reacts to the variable characteristics of watercolour paper is unique and requires a skill set that is different to those utilised when using any other medium , including acrylic used as watercolour in transparent washes. To compare and lump together traditional watercolour and acrylic paint is a mistake, but it is not a mistake of the artist but of the organisations that organise exhibitions or competitions of 'watercolours' . However, much watercolour has passed beneath the bridge, precedence have been firmly set by The Sunday Times competition , the RWS and the RI. Indeed this is of concern to the RI who have recently gone to great lengths to re-write the rules regarding the admission of acrylic paintings to their shows. They should be on paper or board, mounted and under glass. Of course we should move with the times and embrace new materials, what artist worth his name would not, but an acrylic on canvas winning the Sunday times watercolour competition simply muddies already opaque waters. Good luck to Richard for winning but surely the time is right to make some kind of distinction.

  5. Many thanks Ian for taking the time to comment - and providing us with an update on what the RI is doing to improve and clarify what is and is not OK. Sounds as if it's a move in the right direction even if it's not gone quite as far as I'd like to see.

    Personally, rather than two watercolour societies - BOTH of which accept acrylic - I'd rather see one that remains "as is" and another that takes a stand and opts for "pure traditional watercolour" as is understood by most people in this country i.e. excluding acrylic.

    After all if there are existing watercolour artists who have achieved signature status with an art society specialising in watercolour, they will presumably have no problem switching to painting with "proper watercolours".

    In the meantime, I shall continue my campaign for clarity and simplicity - and for the acrylic painters to stop muddying the waters in what were the previously pure pools of oil and watercolour paints. I rather suspect a lot of the people who come to exhibitions might well be on my side.....

  6. There IS a National Society of Painters in Acrylic, (NAPA) of which I'm a member. It has yet to achieve Royal Society status - perhaps we should persuade Prince Charles to join....

    This competition had nothing to do with watercolour if it included acrylics, which obviously it did; what next? Will they accept water-miscible oils? There is very little in common between acrylic and watercolour painting, or between acrylic and oil painting, other than that they all tend to employ brushes. I paint in all three media - though not with water miscible oil, which I entirely dislike; the real thing, thank you: the disciplines are entirely separate and should be kept that way.

  7. Thank you Robert

    The "undoing" of the Sunday Times Times Watercolour Competition was when the rules were changed with no announcement to omit a stipulation that the work should be on paper.

    The winning work this year is Acrylic on Canvas Board

    Now somebody tell me whether this makes it eligible for the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters (ROI) - because I'm pretty sure it does!

    I propose a new rule.

    Anything eligible to be hung in the ROI Annual Exhibition is not eligible for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition!

    I also predict a future post about the nonsensical explanations of what is and is not eligible for a competition or annual exhibition described in a certain way - with a reference to the principle stipulations of the Advertising Standards Authority as to compliance i.e. that it is "The central principle for all marketing communications is that they should be "legal, decent, honest and truthful. "

  8. It seems obvious to me. I define it the same as does one of your readers with a couple changes.
    I refer to Ruth S Harris' definition from your 2009 post which is plain and simple and one which I'm sure the general public would call or think of as watercolor.
    Maybe its the "experts" that muddy the waters!

    "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. "
    Ruth S Harris

    Everything else should be called what it is. Gouache, acrylic, casein, etc.
    Watercolor paintings with additional media should be labeled as such, as do most but not all museums. Watercolor with body color, watercolor with ______, watercolor heightened with _____ etc.

    For societies accepting additional mediums their exhibitions should be advertised as a water media exhibition.
    I generally don't mind some water media in watercolor society/organizations exhibitions BUT often I think the limits are being pushed too far. I say that with one caveat though. I would like to see some of their exhibitions purely watercolor only as my definition below.
    It then comes down to the societies own definition in their prospectus as to what they define as water media, mixed media and finally watercolor only. Or at least what they ACCEPT in their show/competition but necessarily their definition of a "watercolor".
    In addition it often comes down to a %. Example "must be at least __% watercolor." is sometimes used for a prospectus.

    The broader question you asked "What does "watercolour" mean to you?".
    Again I refer to the above definition BUT that excludes the relative transparency/opaqueness of the application, only referring to the paint and surface.

    I am reluctant to insist it must always be completely transparent in it's finished state if transparent means the white of the paper must show through everywhere (a purists view). If we accept that then we must dismiss many "watercolors" from history.

    Why? I have painted many where I used only watercolor paint (below definition) but layered so many washes some area's finished opaque (no white paper showing through), even though each wash was transparent in its application. I was intentional in that objective since areas of transparency next to areas of opaqueness often makes for a better painting.
    Again I used ONLY watercolor paint on paper and did not apply the paint in a thick impasto opaque manner.

    I am also reluctant to insist it MUST be painted on paper only to be considered a "watercolor painting". With surfaces like Yupo for instance, as long as watercolor paint is used it should be considered watercolor.

    On that note I have no problem with any watercolor society insisting their own rules for their shows.
    The Transparent Watercolor Society of America does not allow Yupo, opaque paint, gouche... in their shows.

    I may not totally agree with their definition of what is a watercolor but I understand what they are preserving by exclusion.
    Not everything needs to be all inclusive all the time and that is what too many societies wrestle with.
    C'mon, at least have some of your exhibitions watercolor only (now, below definition).

    So my definition of what IS a watercolor (some copy/paste and editing from Ruth S Harris' def.)
    Watercolour paint (as labelled on the tube or pan), activated with water. If, once dried, paint cannot be re-activated with water it isn't watercolour. Transparent and opaque passages as long as watercolor paint is used.
    If addition of other materials/paint should be labeled as such. Should be primarily watercolor or it is mixed media.

    I know, "...primarily watercolor..." is not exact and is open to interpretation but, I am not perfect.
    I do however know what a watercolor IS. At least I think I do... the debate will continue. ; )


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