There are many preconceptions about watercolour; it's a paradoxical medium, seen by some as the perfect entry into painting and others as technically challenging. And because of its early beginnings, watercolour doesn't necessarily come to mind when we think about contemporary art, but this perception is being challenged.
Where once watercolour was only considered suitable for sketches, architectural painting and landscape, today it is flourishing in any subject the painter chooses. We speak to contemporary artists to discover how they are using the age-old art of watercolour in striking new ways.
Depicting fluid states
Artist Stephanie Tuckwell works on a number of paintings at one time. This encourages her to work swiftly and directly, shifting between works, sometimes to linger and work intensely, and at other times moving rapidly. For Tuckwell the material characteristics of watercolour are both an idea in her art and a practical application.
“My work is a response to the edges of landscape, the meeting of land and sea, where mass meets fluids,” she says. “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.”
Barbara Nicholls' watercolour paintings, made with Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour, portray the stratification built up over millions of years in geological formations. “I start by creating puddles of water on large sheets of paper," she explains. "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.”
Unapologetic and playful methods
Alf Löhr believes in the incautious properties of watercolour; that you have to live with your mistakes and there is no cover up or rubbing out. He also likes the simplicity and rigidity of watercolour: "Water plus pigment plus light: neither greasy nor plastic like acrylics… As watercolour is a liquid I pour or drip it. Or I throw it in the air to catch when it comes down!"
A daring and unforgiving medium
Watercolour can have a particular luminous quality achieved by applying transparent paint to white paper. Once applied, watercolours are hard to move, and artists respond in different ways to this challenge.
In a London exhibition Peter Haslam-Fox showcased a series of large-scale, highly detailed paintings. “Watercolour by its very nature is unforgiving," he says. "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.”
Though it’s an established medium, contemporary artists have given watercolour a new lease of life. The diverse nature of modern art allows watercolour to be used in a range of ways – some of those unorthodox – that best suit the artists’ ideas and working methods.