‘Watercolor painting is an extremely old art technique’ – now that would be an understatement. It is not just old, but one of the earliest art media used by humans. The first signs of watercolor were seen in paleolithic Europe in cave paintings. Egyptian manuscripts have several watercolor illustrations as well. It first became recognized as an art medium in the 14th century during the German Renaissance through the works of Albrecht Dürer. Since then several famous watercolor paintings have been created in different eras of art.
What is watercolor?
Watercolors are well known for their versitality. While thin layers are typically translucent, several layers of watercolor appear radiant on paper. As the name suggests, color pigments are combined with water to create a paint that can be applied on canvas.
The color gets lighter the more water there is. On the other hand, the color is more pigmented when there is less water. Landscapes, seascapes, and urban paintings are the most popular subjects for watercolor paintings.
Since watercolors tend to be very thin and watery, it is important that the medium can hold color well. These watercolor papers are usually made with cotton. This gives watercolor art its characteristic texture and minimizes color distortion. These papers are cold-pressed and have a thickness ranging from 200 to 300 GSM.
If you’re a watercolor enthusiast, here’s a list of the Top 10 Best Watercolor paintings you must see!
1. Before the Snowfall (2016) – Bob Ross
Bob Ross is considered to be the father of modern watercolor art. The American artist was a beloved teacher and television presenter. Ross is famous for his TV program “Joy of Painting” where he showed how to paint breathtaking imagery step-by-step.
You can find the videos of him panting even today on Youtube. While it is quite difficult to choose just one painting from his endless series of beautiful works, one of his most famous paintings is “Before The Snowfall”
Bob Ross wants you to feel the excitement of the impending white blanket of winter in this painting. Ross expertly captures the peaceful moment just before snow falls and covers the landscape.
You get the impression from the picture that snow is ready to fall, enveloping the landscape of the cottage in a gentle, delicate way. His exquisite brushwork makes it evident that he was anticipating something.
2. Young Hare (1502) – Albrecht Dürer
Young Hare is a 1502 watercolor painting by German artist Albrecht Dürer. It is acknowledged as a masterpiece of observational art alongside his Great Piece of Turf from the following year. The work is considered one of the masterpieces of Dürer’s realistic nature studies.
The painting is about 500 years old and looks like an actual photograph of a brown hare. It seems as if you can count the strands of fur and feel just how fuzzy the little creature is. Dürer paid great attention to detail as can be seen in the thin whiskers and the distorted shadow which gives it a three-dimensional appearance.
3. Cathedral of Llandaff (1778) – Paul Sandby
Paul Sandby is known for his fine and realistic watercolor art. Sandby is most famous for his series of detailed castles and caricatures published in the 18th century. The Cathedral of Llandaff is part of his series on 18th-century architecture.
The perspective from which the Cathedral has been drawn enhances its grandeur so that its importance can be felt completely. The painter has used a grayscale palette for this painting however the realism makes up for its dull colors.
It seems as if the tree is tinged slightly green and the sky a bluish-gray. However, it’s impossible to know if the painter actually used colors due to a lack of information on the subject.
4. In the Bighorn Mountains (1889) – Thomas Muran
Muran is well known for his breathtaking landscape paintings. This 1889 painting shows a beautiful view of the Bighorn Mountains situated in Wyoming, USA. The layering of rugged landscapes has been softened by the softness of watercolor. Muran creates an experience through his paintings.
The temperature of the scene is palpable through the distant snow-covered mountain tops and one can even smell the freshness of pine trees that cover the landscape. The crystal clear pond looks inviting and comforting in the middle of thick vegetation.
5. Brun (2020)- Tatiana Ivchenkova
When speaking of great art, we automatically think of those artists who have already made a name for themselves. Moreover, these paintings have been created over a hundred years ago. As it turns out, the present generation is as talented as the master artists of the past centuries.
Tatiana Ivchenkova is a Russian painter, who created a series of portraits featuring a rough structure of the female human head. One of these paintings is titled ‘Brun’ meaning brown in Russian. The painting uses a monochrome brown palette, where the colors have been beautifully layered to create a stunning finished piece.
6. Lake Geneva (1840) – JMW Turner
JMW Turner is one of the most famous watercolor artists of all time. In his 1840 painting ‘Lake Geneva’, Turner uses two very similar art media, watercolor, and gouache. The difference is that gouache is much more pigmented than watercolor and thus appears more vibrant and requires less layering.
Even though gouache is not as delicate as watercolor, it helps artists produce clear and vibrant details in their work.
From the painting, the separate areas where Turner used gouache and watercolor can be understood. For example, the distant mountains look soft and have been painted in layers using watercolor. The details of livestock and people bathing in the lake have been drawn using gouache.
7. Gloucester Harbor (1873) – Winslow Homer
Gloucester Harbor by Winslow Homer is undoubtedly the most vibrant watercolor painting of its time. The self-taught artist exclusively drew inspiration for his art from real-life scenes. Through this piece, Homer shows how watercolor can be manipulated to show its versatility.
His mastery in the understanding of light is visible in the glistening reflections in the water. He ties the painting with majestic pink clouds on a cobalt blue sky.
8. Koi 98, No.1 (1998) – Cheng Khee Chee
A series of watercolor paintings by artist Chen Khee Chee features beautiful scenes of koi fish in their natural habitat. Koi fish are considered to be auspicious in Japan and are popular domestic pets in the country.
For this series, Chee uses a specific watercolor technique, popularly known as the ‘wet-on-wet’ method. In this, the canvas is wet first and then watercolors are used on top. As is visible in the painting, this allows the colors to fuse and drip in a unique way giving it a beautiful abstract touch.
9. Piazza San Marco (1920) – Antonio Guidotti
Most of Guidotti’s work consists of Venetian landscapes. The Piazza San Marco, a famous market square in Venice is Guidotti’s subject for this 1920 painting. The painting portrays a sunny day at the plaza and features the beautiful architectural details of the building. The brightness of the sun has been beautifully captured through glistening highlights and the accurate usage of shadows.
10. Trees and Barns: Bermuda (1917) – Charles Demuth
Demuth is a pioneer of the Precisionist movement, and therefore his work characteristically consists of geometric structures. In his painting “Trees and Barns: Bermuda”, the artist has taken advantage of the paper texture by using very thin layers of paint.
The most striking aspect of the painting is how effortlessly structure has been combined with chaos. The painting holds subjective meaning for each viewer. The usage of sharp lines for contours is very unique to Demuth’s work.
While it refreshing to have newer painters to be included in a list of famous paintings, I feel they are still underrepresented. Master artists such as Chen Khee Chee and Tatiana Ivchenkova deserve more praise and attention than they presently receive.
As we look at these famous paintings from different periods of time, it is interesting to notice how smoothly art styles have transitioned. These differences in art style occur even though the art medium is the same. This makes us aware of how versatile watercolors are and also that each artist is unique in their own way.
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