Over the centuries, watercolour art has been popular with artists, map makers, designers, and more. Its popularity with artists and creators from different industries may come down to the ease of using the material. There are a couple of setbacks watercolours have, like fading faster than oil colours.
Watercolour emerged in the Paleolithic age, and people used natural pigments such as ochre and charcoal to create pictures. Fast forward to 4,000 B.C., watercolour started being used as decorative art in China. In the first century A.D., watercolour was used to paint religious murals. Artists like William Blake, Albrecht Durer, Paul Sandby, and JMW Turner utilised the material and began depicting images in ways oil could not. Let’s take a look at a list of famous watercolour paintings.
- Young Hare (1502) Albert Durer
- Dante’s Divine Comedy (1826) William Blake
- A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth (1789) JMW Turner
- Still Life with Blue Pot (1900-1906) Paul Cezanne
- Stonehenge (1835) John Constable
- Gondoliers’ Siesta (1904) John Singer Sargent
- Sunrise (1916) Georgia O’Keeffe
- Peach Tree in Blossom (1888) Vincent van Gogh
1. Young Hare (1502) - Albert Durer
Albert Durer is known for his intricate etchings of religious ideas and themes, printmaking, and paintings depicting animals, small and big. From the German Renaissance, Albert Durer painted Young Hare with such intricacy and realness that it’s hard to believe it isn’t going to leap off the canvas. Durer probably relied on a taxidermist hare with careful observation of a living hare.
Durer used watercolour and gouache to famously paint Young Hare. He created it after his first trip to Italy when he was back in Nuremberg. Young Hare, and other Durer animal paintings, are revered for their naturalism.
2. Dante’s Divine Comedy (1826) - William Blake
William Blake is widely known as a poet, but he was also a spectacular printmaker and watercolour painter. A year before his death, Blake began working on a series of watercolour paintings for the epic story the Divine Comedy by Dante. The series of illustrations were commissioned by Blake’s friend John Linnell, also an artist. Remarkably, Blake was sick in bed for two weeks when he designed the series that would be 100 watercolours depicting Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. What’s more, Blake taught himself Italian so he could read Dante’s original text rather than a translated version.
Not only was Blake sick when he took on the project, but he was sixty-five. He agreed with and felt moved by Dante’s displeasure with materialism and his contempt for the way power taints morality. Blake had been an intensely spiritual man, as Linnell seems to have been too. Blake died months after commencing this series and before the project could be finished. The work exists today in different levels of completion.
3. A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth (1789) - JMW Turner
JMW turner left behind over 2000 works on watercolour. Turner was a skilled artist from a young age, and at age fifteen, he would paint in watercolours A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth. It went on to be accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1790. Turner had an interest in architecture, and the Archbishop’s Palace acts as the perfect study.
4. Still Life with Blue Pot (1900-1906) - Paul Cezanne
Paul Cezanne used watercolours alongside oils in the 1880s, painting landscapes, portraits, and his famous still lifes. Cezanne had kept notebooks filled with sketches and watercolour illustrations since the start of his career. When he neared the end of his life, he began to focus more and more on solely creating watercolour paintings, and not as pages in a sketchbook. He went on to create many watercolour depictions of his birthplace in the south of France, of towns such as Mont Sainte-Victoire. Cezanne would paint more still lifes than oil paintings, and Still Like with Blue Pot is just one of many, showcasing food around several pots and pourers.
5. Stonehenge (1835) - John Constable
John Constable was on the top of his game when he made a switch to watercolour. It was 1829, and up until then, he was painting great artworks with oil paints. The artworks that he ended up painting were soft, beautiful and naturalist landscapes. One is the iconic Stonehenge, painted in 1835, which he painted during an especially sad time in his life. At this point, his wife and close friend John Fisher had died, his two eldest sons left home, leaving him more or less alone.
6. Gondoliers’ Siesta (1904) - John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent is best known for his portraits of high society in London. But he also created stunning paintings in watercolour. The artist often travelled, notably through Europe, and made stops in scenic places, like Venice, Italy. Gondola rides and men lounging across them can often make for the best paintings. In Sargent’s Gondoliers’ Siesta, he paints just this and the effect the watercolour paints has on the water, and the scene overall is this very pleasant fluidity. It’s as though you’re taking a pleasant siesta with the gondola drivers.
7. Sunrise (1916) - Georgia O’Keeffe
In her late twenties, Georgia O’Keeffe began experimenting with watercolours. Sunrise is one example. Before she began creating her famous floral paintings, these watercolours were small exercises to play with colour and composition. This took place over two years between 1916 and 1918, when she worked at West Texas State Colleague as the head of the art department. In her spare time, she painted watercolours. This period in her life is now thought of as a vital time of development as these watercolours show the early experimentation with abstract shapes and gradient shades of colour.
8. Peach Trees in Blossom (1888) - Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh’s second cousin introduced him to watercolours, and, by the end of his life, he amassed about 150 watercolour paintings. These watercolours are unique thanks to their bold, vibrant colour, much like his oil paintings. Van Gogh, however, didn’t think much of them. At twenty-eight, van Gogh said, “They are not masterpieces, of course, yet I really believe that there is some soundness and truth in them, more at any rate than what I've done up to now.”
Peach Tree in Blossom is a study of a larger painting of the name by Vincent van Gogh. This took place in the spring, where trees were in bloom in Arles, the south of France. To show his brother Theo a larger version of the peach blossom painting he created, van Gogh painted a watercolour version. That same year, van Gogh painted several versions of the peach blossom tree. The first work would be dedicated to his uncle by marriage Anton Mauve, who had died that year.