by Ann Trainor Dominingue
Watercolor has long been considered a very difficult medium to master. The freshness of brushstrokes as well as watery, seemingly uncontrolled effects are the hallmarks of this versatile medium. Curiously it still retains a lesser status among other painting mediums despite the difficulty factor. The affordability of watercolors can make it possible for a novice collector to step into the world of art collecting. Experienced and novice collectors will find real value in watercolors as they demonstrate an artist’s ability to draw, design, and work with color and texture as proficiently as in classic mediums such as oils. Watercolor painting styles vary greatly from delicate pastel color schemes to those that echo the masters such as Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth, to contemporary abstract styles.
Watercolor is composed of two key elements, first a gum arabic binder—a clear liquid that dissolves in water, and second, pigment—mineral-based or synthetic-based colors. Watercolor is available in a wide range of transparent or opaque paints. Paints come in tubes, cakes or pans, watercolor pencils or solid color sticks. Opaque watercolor or gouache (pronounced gwash) contains a chalk-like substance that will cover over transparent watercolors and are available in tubes or pans. Transparent and opaque watercolors can be combined to create a multitude of layered effects on paper or other synthetic surfaces such as Yupo paper—a polystyrene sheet. Improvements in paint quality have dramatically decreased the fading of watercolors due to ultraviolet light. New developments include an archival coating that offers UV protection from paint fading and allows watercolors to be displayed without glass or plexi.
Watercolor is primarily painted on paper prepared with sizing which gives the paper body and, depending on the brand, also provides a variety of distinctive absorption qualities. Paper qualities are a very personal decision for an artist. Paper is available in smooth (hot press—allows paintbrushes and watercolor to glide across the surface), cold-pressed (with texture—allows some of the pigment to settle into the crevices), and rough (with coarse texture—allows even more pigment to settle into the paper texture). High quality paper will stand various scraping and mark-making techniques.
Paintbrushes used for traditional watercolor techniques are primarily made of natural bristles—very soft so as not to scrape the paper surface. Combination bristles of synthetic and natural hairs are also a good choice. Sable brushes are historically a long-lasting choice although expensive.
Watercolor can be used to produce very detailed imagery as in the contemporary works of Andrew Wyeth, Charles Reid, Robert Wade and John Salminem, and historic artists such as Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, John Constable in England—an early adopter of watercolor, John James Audubon an American—used watercolor to enhance engravings of flora and fauna, and John Singer Sargeant used watercolor for beautiful figurative works. Abstract watercolor styles are also very popular because of the free-flowing nature of this versatile medium.