Saturday, September 8, 2018

Should a watercolor be purely transparent?

Mariano Fortuny (1838-1874), The Rare Vase, 13 x 11 inches
watercolor and opaque watercolor with selectively applied glaze
over traces of charcoal on paper
Walters Art Gallery

Blog reader "Unknown" asks: "I've recently read some horribly-rigid definitions for "watercolor" at some recent shows and competitions. Some go as far as to say if even just the signature is in ink it's not "watercolor" ... but "mixed-media" and excluded. This strikes me as pompous and ridiculous. Many of the past masters of watercolor intermixed transparent watercolor and gouache-like opaque watercolors. Personally I find the initial use of broad transparent washes and then gouache or casein for the details appealing, especially for plein-air painting. But I'm now concerned about compromising my work for future presentation, display, or, God forfend, eventual sale.
As an established artist, where do you stand?"

Well, if you want to succeed in competitive exhibitions, you should follow their rules. I don't enter many such exhibitions because a lot of them are money-making schemes and there are more effective ways to get my work seen.

I also don't spend much time worrying about how other people define watercolor. It's true that many  watercolorists of the past and present are strict about not using opaque white, and that's OK. There is an undeniable beauty to paintings made with purely transparent watercolor.

But you're right that many previous masters, such as Anders Zorn, Adolph Menzel, Edwin Austin Abbey, Thomas Moran, Mariano (or MariĆ ) Fortuny, and John Singer Sargent experimented with mixing media. The Pre-Raphaelites also experimented with using white gouache as a ground. Trying out new ways to combine water-based media is a healthy idea in my opinion, as long as it achieves the results you want and is valid from the point of view of archival conservation.
Wikipedia on MariĆ  Fortuny
Read the List of Unacceptable Materials from the Transparent Watercolor Society of America
Met Museum website: Watercolor Painting in Britain, 1750–1850


Charley Parker said...

I'm always somewhat put off by organizations or competitions that insist on "pure transparent watercolor". I can understand the idea of limiting a genre to "watercolor" as opposed to mixed or other water based media, but gouache is watercolor.

As far as I know a painting medium is defined by its binder. The binder and pigments in transparent watercolor and gouache are the same, just formulated differently (though some gouache paints use opacifiers and other additives; — as your excellent post on gouache ingredients points out; but "pure" transparent watercolor often uses additives like preservatives, glycerine, etc.).

The transparent watercolor purists would limit their company not just by excluding the artists you mention, but other lightweights like Homer, Turner and Durer.

To my mind. watercolor and gouache are most advantageously used together, giving a range of transparency similar to that in oil painting, allowing for transparent darks and opaque lights as is often considered ideal.

Peace said...

James, would you mind doing a post on the pre-raphaelite technique you described? I’ve never heard of it. I’ve heard they painted into a liquid white base like Bob Ross did, but never white gouache. Thank you

Sheridan said...

The problem for me in working in "pure" watercolor has always been in knowing exactly where you will want pure white in the finished piece, and being sure to leave it there before you even start to paint. This seems more like an exercise in engineering than making art. The building up from light to dark always annoyed me also. I always like to see the value range established early.

I do recognize though, that working with the materials in any medium requires much practice to master. I also think that the artist should be the master or the materials, not vise-versa. Often there are examples of transparent watercolor in magazine articles, and prize winners in exhibitions, that for my eyes could only have been chosen because of the mastery of the medium, not their artistic statement. An example of this is the one you have all seen somewhere, a silver tea service with a silver bowl of remarkable red apples, placed on a white lace runner on a mahogany table. You look at one of these for the first 30 or 40 times, and you're astonished that "this is a watercolor?", and then you say to yourself, "Wait a minute; I'm really impressed with the technical aspect, but the actual painting, not so much"

The big takeaway here for me anyhow is , do you want to paint work that most folks will enjoy for its content, or be a true virtuoso at transparent watercolor that some folks will still like, but some aspiring artists will really drool over ;-)

James! Why don't we start a new art society? We could call it: American Gouache Artists & Painters Extraordinaire or AGAPE for short. The initials spell out what all patrons will be when they view our fabulous work. l

Wil Freeborn said...

I really agree with this open minded approach - I'm fascinated by the early watercolorists experimenting with the medium.

As you were saying about the Pre-Raphaelites and using white ground. I was reading about James Melville soaking his paper with diluted Chinese White so he could get the intensity of colours - especially blue skies. The working methods I felt seemed to mirror early photography developing.

scottT said...

You will often see the term "body color" (opaque color)along with transparent watercolor describing the media in 17th and 18th century works. I think of this focus on the purity of transparent watercolor as a fairly recent one. Before the English elevated it to an art form I believe watercolor was used mainly for studies. It has taken a long time to earn respect as a valid medium in its own right. Even today the most beautiful watercolor will still be inferior to an oil painting in the eyes of collectors. So a big attraction is in the performance and cleverness of the wash and reserved white parts. The addition of gouache (mixing white with the colors) contaminates the true transparency. The signature is one one me, though. That is really getting extreme.

Pyracantha said...

Watercolor or not, both media (oil too) were used in these 19th century humorous "story" paintings. You've posted a number of them in the past. This one shows a pompous nouveau riche dandy admiring his latest status symbol, a "priceless" Asian porcelain vase. It is shown teetering on a narrow pedestal just waiting for someone - most likely the guy himself with his walking stick - to knock it over by accident and smash it into a thousand pieces.

DeadSpiderEye said...

I do think that watercolour is a precious term but it depends on your interpretation. For me it's a direct reference or comparison to Turner, Girtin et al, so yeah it has to be transparent because that sense is implicit to the term. I'm not fussy about purity though, if it's dappled with china white here and there, that's okay with me. Opaque blacks, greys though -- then it's not a watercolour anymore.

james holland said...

As Ruskin observed there are some effects which can only be obtained with added white. He was thinking of delicate pearl colours in cloudscapes. And he was quite right!

Pierre Fontaine said...

Personally, I've always thought of watercolor and gouache as separate mediums despite their close relationship. In my mind, watercolor would always be defined as transparent colors with white coming from the untouched paper. Since Gouache allows you to work both transparently and opaquely, it falls into a different category even if both mediums use water.

Having said this, I think the idea of using a pen to sign your name suddenly makes your painting "mixed media" kind of silly. The painting is one thing, the signature is another. If the signature is an integral part of the composition then using ink certainly makes the painting "mixed media" but simply signing your painting in ink does not make the painting itself "mixed media".