Building on tradition: watercolour where you least expect it

More often than not the first set of paints we receive as a child will be a set of watercolours, giving us our first experience of mixing colour and experimenting with form.

It makes perfect sense, then, that watercolour would be a medium associated with experimentation and creative exploration. Looking back through the recent history of painting, we’ve focused on some unexpected uses of watercolour. Each of these artists is known for breaking the mould and pushing the boundaries of art and representation, and all these works were made using watercolour with a twist.

Carnival at Nice
Carnival at Nice, Paul Signac n.d, wiki art

Paul Signac

The Pointillists were a Neo-Impressionist group who took the Impressionist use of colour to create an atmosphere of emotion and movement that could be considered an extreme. Influenced by the advancement of photography, the pointillists were concerned with pigments and created almost pixel-like paintings made up of tiny dots of colour. Placing these dots next to each other, Paul Signac and his fellow pointillist Seurat created uniquely modern gradations of tone and began to explore what we might now call abstraction.

Signac also used watercolour to create a feeling of movement and vibrancy in his work; even here you can see the juxtaposition of colour creates a sum bigger than all of its parts.

The Mermaid Saved the Prince
The Mermaid Saved the Prince, Edmund Dulac, 1837, wiki commons

Edmund Dulac

Edmund Dulac is most famous for his inspiring and multi-faceted story book illustrations. Painted in watercolour, they are evocative of the deep layers in the fairy tales they accompany. Drawing influences from middle and far eastern traditions of illustration, Dulac was commissioned for editions of the works of the Brontë sisters, Edgar Allen Poe, Hans Christian Andersen and William Shakespeare. His use of watercolour allowed him to create a dreamlike atmosphere in his work, adding mystery and magic.

Bloomered in the Moon
Detail from Women’s Welfare Hoofing, Bloomered in the Moon, Peter Blake, 2013

Sir Peter Blake

The pop artists of the 1960s all played around with mixed media and experimented with materials, but it’s not often you associate  watercolour with the tradition-busting era.

From the iconic Babe Rainbow to the seminal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, Sir Peter Blake’s work is synonymous the swinging sixties. In 2013, he completed a series of works inspired by the Dylan Thomas play Under Milk Wood, using watercolour, ink and mixed media.

Berlin the Last Weekend in April 1998
Berlin the Last Weekend in April 1998, 1998, Lehman Maupin

Tracey Emin

One of the infamous Young British Artists (YBAs), Tracey Emin is probably most famous for her work My Bed. But recently she has gained critical acclaim for her exploration of watercolour and work with tapestry and embroidery.

Her collaboration with the legendary late sculptor Louise Bourgeois on a series of watercolours, for the gallery Hauser & Wirth in 2011, changed how she was perceived by both the viewing public and her many critics.

Chanel, Grayson Perry, 2005, Artificial Gallery

Grayson Perry

Known for his wonderful ceramic pots depicting slices of contemporary life and his tapestries exploring the similar themes, Grayson Perry and his alter ego, Claire, have been taken to the heart of the nation in the UK. Perry’s mixed media collages, combining watercolour illustrations and photography, blend the traditional with the contemporary to explore themes of modern Britishness.

*Lead image sourced from Wikimedia Commons