Techniques for Contemporary Watercolour


There are many preconceptions about watercolour; a paradoxical medium, seen by some as the perfect entry into painting but by many as technically challenging and difficult to master.

In the 19th century Turner and Constable introduced watercolour into fine art; however, the French Academy, copied throughout Europe, created a hierarchy of subjects suitable for the serious artist; history and myth being at the top, followed by ‘genre’ scenes, then landscape and still life. The only material they proposed for historical painting was oil colour; watercolour was considered suitable for sketches and associated with architectural painting and landscape.

Watercolour is not always top of mind when thinking about contemporary art, but this perception is being challenged; “As watercolour is a liquid I pour or drip it” says Alf Löhr, “or I throw it in the air to catch when it comes down!”

Löhr and other artists engaged in contemporary work discuss the use of watercolour in their art practice…  

On contemporary applications

Given the diverse nature of contemporary art, it is little surprise that artists use watercolour in a range of ways, sometimes unorthodox, that best suit their ideas and working methods.

Stephanie Tuckwell
works on a number of paintings at one time; this encourages her to work swiftly and directly, shifting between paintings, sometimes to linger and work intensely, other times to move on rapidly. For Stephanie the special material characteristics of watercolour are both an idea in her art as well as a practical application.   

“My work is a response to the edges of landscape, the meeting of land and sea, where mass meets fluids. My inspiration lies at the edges of the air, land and sea, my working methods lie in the area between the intentional and incidental; the fluidity and immediacy of watercolour which allow me to explore these concerns in an intuitive manner.”

 Stephanie Tuckwell

Winner of the 2005 Sunday Times Watercolour competition with her abstract paintings that embrace the transparent qualities of water colour, Carol Robertson loves the medium for its luminosity and the way it soaks into paper. She believes water colour brings a quality of light from the back to front and appears to reflect light.  Carol uses soft brushes to lay down washes of colour, then over-paints, using a more saturated mix. She sometimes removes areas of watercolour with water and absorbent tissue to leave a stain or vestige. She masks out areas of an image and uses flicking or spattering as a softer unstructured contrast to careful linear detail.

 Carol Robertson

Barbara Nicholls’ watercolour paintings made with Winsor & Newton professional water colour suggest the stratification built up over millions of years in geological formations.

“I start by creating puddles of water on large sheets of paper. I apply the watercolour to this water and wait for the pigment to find the edge of the water. This creates a line of colour. I am interested in this line; it has a quality that I could not otherwise achieve.”

   Barbara Nicholls

The historical association of water colour with sketching is part of the way London based artist Alf Löhr communicates his ideas about life and the creative process;

“Look at architecture and it is obvious that the highest level of creativity was at the stage of the original sketch or drawing. The rest is technical execution done by engineers. Art is not dissimilar.

For me, creativity is in the sketch, when the mind is still free to explore and is open for things to happen. That’s why watercolours are always nearer to life and more lively than cleverly executed artistic statements. Watercolours allow you to avoid big, heroic simplifications. You either look for life or you don’t.”

 Alf Löhr

On water colour properties

Water colour can have a particular, luminous quality achieved by applying transparent paint to white paper. Once applied, water colours are hard to move and artists respond in different ways to this challenge.

In a recent London exhibition Peter Haslam-Fox showcased a series of large-scale, highly detailed paintings:

“Water colour by its very nature is unforgiving. The kind of focus needed to be brave with your subject and get it right first time is exhilarating. I find this especially true of working on a larger scale.”

 Peter Haslam-Fox
Alf Löhr sees an almost moral benefit to this material challenge; he believes you have to live with your mistakes, there is no cover up or rubbing out. He likes the simplicity of watercolour:  “water + pigment +light; neither greasy nor plastic like acrylics.”

It is unlikely that a contemporary artist using watercolour will win this year’s Turner Prize, though it is quite possible that sometime in the future this will happen. Its strong traditions, rich history and special qualities make watercolour a valid medium for today’s contemporary artists.