Watercolour through the eyes of the artist: stories behind the sets

Watercolour is often the first foray into painting for anyone who picks up a brush. It is transportable, something you can gift to a very young budding artist, and it never requires more than the basics of a brush, paper and paint. It is little wonder then that so many artists have a story about their set and such an attachment to it; the portable boxes of pan cake colours hold so much more meaning than the object itself. 

Take, for example, British artist Rachel Whiteread. An icon who first came to fame for her Turner prize-winning temporary sculpture, House (1993), which was a cast of the interior of a home in Mile End, London, that was condemned and set for demolition.  Such a monumental sculptor is not the first person that comes to mind when you think of watercolour, yet she posted on social media a few months ago about how much her watercolour set means to her, “This is the Winsor & Newton travel watercolour box that I have used since I was 18 years old. It has accompanied me around the world, I lovingly replace the squares of dense colour – it is one of my favourite pieces of art equipment.”

Another artist who treasures her watercolour box is Ann-Marie James; she has the set her aunt gave her for sixth birthday and says it is, “...one of my most treasured possessions…I still have it, although I lost the brush years ago and all the paints have been replaced many times! I bought the same set for my daughter a couple of years ago.” This is a lovely multigenerational tale of women passing down a box of colour that lasts a lifetime.

French artist Camielle Chastang, who we met in Paris on a Winsor & Newton supported residency at The Drawing Factory, has had her set for almost half her life now.  When we met, she shared, “I love drawing outdoors. I use small papers and small sketchbooks. I love small boxes of watercolour. I think I’ve had this watercolour set for, like, 15 years.”

For these artists, their sets of watercolours are just as much filled with memories as they are filled with the potential for future paintings.



Speaking of memory, Sutapa Biswas, whose practice is imbued with memory, recalls loaning her much-beloved set to someone who asked if they could borrow it.  With a generosity of spirit, she loaned the set gifted to her by her sister when she was a child, never to see it again.

One artist who managed to keep her set for her entire life was Georgia O’Keeffe. While O’Keeffe may be famous for her work in oils, her husband Alfred Stieglitz gifted her a deluxe set of watercolours in a tin travel box; she kept the box through all the years of her career and it can be seen at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe today, where her studio materials are preserved.  There is even a beautiful photo of her as a young woman, working outdoors with her set at her side.



Then there is the story that hits quite close to home, that of Joe Davis; Joe is an artist and illustrator who still has the Cotman set he was given as a child – he now works for Winsor & Newton as the Global Brand Content Manager. Though today he primarily works digitally, he still has his watercolour set.

For every artist, materials are central to the excitement of making art. That is why JMW Turner and John Constable, though rivals professionally, would both run into the shop on 38 Rathbone Place regularly to see the latest pigments that had just arrived from around the world, looking for a new colour to add to their landscapes. While their grand museum pieces are oil paintings, both painted directly from nature in dynamic watercolours which were the cornerstone of their studio practice.

Do you have a watercolour set with a story?  Tell us the story of your watercolours, who gave it to you, what does it mean to you and why? We would love to hear from you about your sets and see what you are making with them.