by A Kladov
15 influential watercolorists of our time
15 influential watercolorists of our time

Watercolor is one of the easiest forms of art to learn. Most people have tried watercolor painting, either in school as a kid or as an adult. Many people are familiar with watercolors, but they don't really know their rich history or the famous artists that have helped make it what it is.

Watercolor painting resembles textile art. It has roots in Paleolithic Europe but gained popularity as a manuscript illumination technique in the Middle Ages.

Artists used vibrantly colored pigments to illustrate small scenes and decorative patterns in the handwritten books’ margins. The elaborate texts were not for every person. Making one illuminated book took the efforts of four people. Most monasteries had access to these religious works.

Watercolor painting was brought to the forefront by the Renaissance. The use of watercolors went beyond decorative manuscripts to include the work of artists such as Albrecht Durer. Like other easel artist painters at that time, he used watercolor to make copies, sketches, or even informal drawings.

On top of that, elite people picked up watercolor painting as part of their education. Eventually, it was popularized as a way to chronicle one's travels. It was trendy in England. While watercolor painting was widely known, it wasn't taken as seriously by the public as oil painting or printing.

The popularity of watercolors rose dramatically in the 19th century. In the 19th century, there was an excitement for worldwide exploration. Wildlife and nature illustrations were also used to illustrate scientific journals.

John James Audubon, an artist and ornithologist, represents the heights of this movement. He used watercolor painting to bring his realistic bird drawings to life. In his famous book Birds of America, he identified 25 new species. He began a tradition of field guides illustrated in watercolors that continues today.

Audubon's work was technically precise, but other famous watercolorists weren't. For example, Georgia O'Keeffe used watercolor's fluidity and intensity to create beautiful paintings. She was also inspired by nature, but she interpreted it in a completely different way. Together, these two artists show a truly amazing range of watercolors.

Learn more about the history of some of the greatest watercolor artists to understand why they are so popular today.

Albrecht Durer (1471 - 1528)

Left Wing of a Blue Roller, Albrecht Durer
Albrecht Durer, Left Wing of a Blue Roller, 1500 - 1512
Mary among a Multitude of Animals, Albrecht Durer
Albrecht Durer, Mary among a Multitude of Animals, 1503

Albrecht Durer had many talents. He was well-known for his woodcuts and engravings. He also created some of the first watercolor paintings in Europe. They were sketches of nature and landscapes, which are still visible today because of his obsessive collection.

William Blake (1757 - 1827)

The Good and Evil Angels, William Blake
William Blake, The Good and Evil Angels, 1795
Elohim Creating Adam, William Blake
William Blake, Elohim Creating Adam, 1795

William Blake's poetry is renowned, but so is his art. He studied engraving as a young child before attempting watercolor painting. He eventually perfected the technique of "fresco," or monotype printing.

First, he painted a design onto flat surfaces, such as a copperplate, and then transferred it to paper. Then William finished each design individually in ink and watercolor. He made every piece unique.

J.M.W. Turner (1775 - 1851)

Clare Hall and King's College Chapel, Cambridge, from the Banks of the River Cam, J.M.W. Turner
J.M.W. Turner, Clare Hall and King's College Chapel, Cambridge, from the Banks of the River Cam, 1793
Margate, J.M.W. Turner
J.M.W. Turner, Margate, 1822

J.M.W. Turner painted a lot of different pictures. Watercolor paintings were just a part of his creations. He nurtured his unique general artistic talent at a young age. He was good at poetry and teaching. Turner had a great passion for watercolors. It had never diminished. He used watercolors to document his trips. He exhibited a lot of his work in various exhibitions. In the last decade of his life, Turner created a huge amount of watercolor paintings.

John James Audubon (1885 - 1851)

The Birds of America, John James Audubon
John James Audubon, The Birds of America, 1822
Northern Bobwhite and Red-shouldered Hawk watercolor study, John James Audubon
John James Audubon, Northern Bobwhite and Red-shouldered Hawk watercolor study, 1825

Mr. Audubon was famous for The Birds of America. He published it in 1828. It's considered one of the greatest ornithological works ever written. Audubon’s mission to capture our feathered companions also started the tradition of naturalists painting with watercolor.

Elizabeth Murray (1815 - 1882)

Vista de la Orotava y del Pico Teide, Elizabeth Murray
Elizabeth Murray, Vista de la Orotava y del Pico Teide, 1851
Church Patronage, Elizabeth Murray
Elizabeth Murray, Church Patronage, 1860

Thomas Heaphy was a fellow watercolorist and taught his daughter, Elizabeth Murray, watercolor painting. Murray and Heaphy traveled extensively together and spent time in Rome and Morocco. She painted landscapes and portraits of her travels to North Africa over 10 years. Her palette is known for its brown, violets, blues, blacks, reds, and golds, along with olive and tan pigments that give her works a warm tone.

James McNeill Whistler (1842 - 1903)

Green and Silver-Beaulieu, Touraine, James McNeill Whistler
James McNeill Whistler, Green and Silver-Beaulieu, Touraine, 1888
Amsterdam Nocturne, James McNeill Whistler
James McNeill Whistler, Amsterdam Nocturne, 1883 – 1884

James McNeill Whistler, an American artist, completed one of the most popular paintings today in 1871. Whistler’s Mother is a painting admired for its simplicity and simple composition by viewers for over 150 years. He also painted in watercolor. His expressive style allowed him to create atmospheric landscapes and seascapes that were sometimes punctuated with tiny human figures.

Thomas Moran (1837 - 1926)

Yellowstone, Hot Spring, Thomas Moran
Thomas Moran, Yellowstone, Hot Spring, 1892
Above Tower Falls, Yellowstone, Thomas Moran
Thomas Moran, Above Tower Falls, Yellowstone, 1872

Thomas Moran's landscape watercolors are famous, especially those of Yellowstone National Park. It was his ethereal depictions of the park's geysers, hot springs, and other features that convinced Congress to officially designate Yellowstone National Park as a national park in 1892. 

Moran's work was influenced by the Hudson River School and Rocky Mountain Schools, two artistic movements and schools that helped shape the American landscape paintings of the 19th century.

Winslow Homer (1836 - 1910)

Gloucester Harbor, Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer, Gloucester Harbor, 1873
Three Fisher Girls, Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer, Three Fisher Girls, 1881

Winslow Homer, a self-taught artist, based his art on the present moment. Homer was a private man, but one of his contemporaries, Eugene Benson, wrote that Homer thought artists should not look at images but rather "stutter" in their own language and be inspired by real-life scenes. Homer painted idyllic scenes of quiet everyday life at home in Massachusetts and on trips abroad.

John Sargent (1856-1925)

Gondoliers’ Siesta, John Sargent
John Sargent, Gondoliers’ Siesta, 1904
Muddy Alligators, John Sargent
John Sargent, Muddy Alligators, 1917

John S. Sargent gained recognition for his portrait art, yet his watercolor pieces marked a shift. These watercolor creations often showcased sceneries from his journeys, echoing the practices of many of his contemporaries. In these pieces, Sargent modified his approach to capture the spontaneity and charm of the medium. Contrasting his detailed oil portraits, his watercolor depictions of marine scenes, coastlines, and varied terrains exhibit a light, free-flowing touch.

Paul Kee (1879 - 1940)

Untitled, Watercolor, Paul Kee
Paul Kee, Untitled, Watercolor, ca 1940
Black Columns in Landscape, Paul Kee
Paul Kee, Black Columns in Landscape, 1919

In 1911, Paul K. became a member of an artist collective named Blue Revival, who were enthusiasts of abstract and primitive art forms. Hue played a pivotal role in their artistic vision. Klee's ventures into watercolor were driven by his quest to delve deeper into his bond with the "spectrum domain". These artworks also stand as a testament to his Expressionist sensibilities.

Edward Hopper (1882 - 1967)

Saint Michael's College, Santa Fe, Edward Hopper
Edward Hopper, Saint Michael's College, Santa Fe, 1925
Hill and House, Edward Hopper
Edward Hopper, Hill and House, 1927

Edward Hopper was a master of watercolors as well. Hopper was equally at home in both mediums, focusing on the American landscape as seen by the artist. He is quoted as saying that "my aim in painting" was to "transcribe my most intimate impressions about nature."

Charles Demuth (1983 - 1935)

Trees and Barns: Bermuda, Charles Demuth
Charles Demuth, Trees and Barns: Bermuda, 1917
Bermuda No. 2, The Schooner, Charles Demuth
Charles Demuth, Bermuda No. 2, The Schooner, 1917

Charles Demuth was born during the modernist period. His encounters with Cubism had a major influence on his watercolors. His love for sharp lines and geometric forms made him a founder of the so-called Precisionist Movement. His unusually structured elements were combined with a diffused wash, fusing chaos and order.

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 - 1986)

Evening Star, Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O'Keeffe, Evening Star, 1917
Sunrise, Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O'Keeffe, Sunrise, 1916

Georgia O'Keeffe experimented with watercolors when she was in her late twenties as a means to experiment with color and composition. It was before she painted her famous flower oil paintings. The abstracted watercolors are a record of her journey as an artist to become comfortable with a less-representational style.

Reginald Marsh (1898 - 1954)

The Locomotive, Reginald Marsh
Reginald Marsh, The Locomotive, 1935
Human Volcano Smoko, Reginald Marsh
Reginald Marsh, Human Volcano Smoko, 1933

Reginald Marsh's works have become associated with New York City. In the 1930s & 40s, he documented the daily life of New York City. This included fringe areas like Coney Island and burlesque parlors.

His work, with its keen observational skills, was perfect for journalism. He worked for The Daily News. He said, "Watercolor was something I picked up quickly and got on with well.

Andrew Wyeth (1917 - 2009)

Watercolor, Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth, Watercolor Smoko
Watercolor ?2, Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth, Watercolor 2, 1974

Andrew Wyeth, an American artist, is the son of N.C. Wyeth. Andrew Wyeth learned to paint with watercolors at a young age, thanks to the guidance of his father. At the age of 20, he held his first solo show, which featured only watercolors.

The show was sold out. Andrew's career grew, and he began to use egg tempera. He continued to paint watercolors, inspired by the solitary walks he took in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Cushing Maine.