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Watercolor is often called the most capricious and unpredictable technique. This is due to many nuances of the behavior of water-based paints. An inexperienced artist in watercolor painting, even if he follows all the rules, can get a completely different result than he expected. But at the same time, watercolor is a very grateful technique, because it allows you to get the finest nuances of halftones that are not available to any other technique.

Watercolors came to Europe during the Renaissance. All lovers of vintage painting of the famous “Hare” by Albrecht Durer. But only in the XVIII century, the masters of English painting were the first to actively use watercolors and developed the basic principles of this technique.


When exactly the watercolor got to England is unknown. Perhaps it was brought by the great Dutchman Antonis van Dyck (1599-1641), who was a court painter of James I and Charles I. His work aroused the intense interest of English artists of the era, and the desire to adopt his techniques was quite natural.

For a long time, watercolors were used for strictly utilitarian purposes – by geologists, topographers, architects when designing castles, and even military scouts. One of these topographers was Paul Sandby, who is considered the founder of the genre of watercolor landscape.

Paul Sandby (1725-1809) was the first to think that the technique of watercolor can be used when creating large paintings. The artist traveled widely in the UK and created many watercolors depicting the most beautiful castles and estates of the country. Thanks to him, a real fad arose in England, the “fashion for Britain”. Sandby’s watercolors were translated into engravings and printed in mass editions, his subjects were reproduced in the interiors of houses and estates, and applied to porcelain products.

English painting, painting by P. Sandby Windsor castle.One thousand seven hundred sixty

P. Sandby. Windsor castle.One thousand seven hundred sixty

Sandby’s brushes are the first paintings that can be considered serious watercolors. These are mostly landscapes that he painted while traveling around the country.

Paul Sandby became one of the founders of the Royal Academy of arts, and was later awarded the unofficial title of “father of English watercolors”. But the real rise of watercolor painting in England is associated with the names of other masters.

Before going on to describe the further evolution of watercolor painting in England, it is necessary to say two words about the era that began in the art of Europe – the onset of the period of romanticism.

Classicism has been the dominant trend in European art for almost a century. At the end of the Georgian period, classicism with its adherence to the canons begins to become a burden on the development of art, and the ideology of romanticism with its desire to rebel, destroy stereotypes, and freedom of creativity is becoming more widespread.

The emergence of romanticism had quite material foundations. The second half of the XVIII century – a time of rapid development of industry, involving significant masses of the population in active life, unprecedented expansion of the national Outlook. The apotheosis was the events of the great French revolution of 1789, which shocked the whole of Europe.

It is not by chance that in the era of the spread of romanticism, the real full-blooded history of watercolors begins, a technique that gave considerable freedom of pictorial means, freedom of expression, allowed to destroy old dogmas and create their own, new rules.

One of the founders of the English watercolor school was Thomas Gertin (1775-1802). Like many watercolorists, Gertin mastered the technique while working on topographical and architectural drawings. However, he quickly moved away from the monochrome topographical style and was almost the first to use all the richness of watercolors in creating halftones. An interesting finding of Gertin was the use of grayish paper instead of white, which gave his paintings a special flavor.

English painting, painting by T. Gertin. Findlater Castle.1792t. Gertin. Findlater Castle.One thousand seven hundred ninety two

Gertin also abandoned the compositional canons of topographical and architectural drawing. He could easily have left an empty space in the foreground of the picture, placing the main object of his interest to the side or in the distance. His compositional solutions were an important step in the transition of watercolors to the rank of an independent type of fine art.

English painting, painting by T. Gertin. In Scotland, at Dryburgh.1801t. Gertin. In Scotland, at Dryburgh.One thousand eight hundred one

Gertin died of tuberculosis in his Studio while working on another painting. The scale of the artist’s talent was best described by his long-time friend, one of the greatest painters of the era, William Turner. “If Gertin were alive, I would starve to death,” he said.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was a great master of watercolors, in many ways a pioneer and a true virtuoso of technology. It was his friendship with gertin, with Whom he used to copy drawings, engravings, and later paintings by old masters, that prompted Turner to take up serious painting.

English painting, a painting by D. W. Turner. Glacier.1803D. W. Turner. Glacier.One thousand eight hundred three

Turner worked with equal perfection with both watercolors and oils. In his works, he brilliantly used the advantages of both techniques in transmitting light, color, and the state of the elements-water and air. In General, Turner played the light source very subtly, masterfully conveying the nuances of the sea, sky, and ice. In his works, he created a mood, even by simply changing the position of the light source on the canvas and thereby changing the illumination of buildings, trees and other objects depicted in the paintings.

English painting, a painting by D. W. Turner. Abergavenny bridge. 1815d.W. Turner. Abergavenny bridge. One thousand eight hundred fifteen

Contemporaries called Turner’s paintings “a scattering of precious colors”. The inexpressible color and emotionality of Turner’s paintings subsequently made a strong impression on future Impressionists, and the master’s work undoubtedly influenced the folding of the creative manner of representatives of this direction in painting. The famous critic John Ruskin, the” godfather ” of pre-raphaelitism, called Turner the greatest artist of his time.

An outstanding watercolorist was the great landscape painter John constable (1776-1837). The artist’s passion for landscapes caused his interest in watercolors, which opens up completely new opportunities in this genre. His landscapes are very lyrical and filled with a magnificent play of light and shadow. Constable’s main works are painted in oil, but the famous name of the artist has contributed a lot to the promotion of watercolor techniques. The new techniques used by Constable were later developed in the works of later masters. With his works, he clearly proved that watercolors can not be inferior to oil, and in some ways superior to traditional techniques.

English painting, Artist D. constable. Netley Abbey by moonlight.1833d. constable. Netley Abbey by moonlight.One thousand eight hundred thirty three

A special place in the history of watercolors belongs to the work of the outstanding artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827). Blake came to painting by copying illustrations for medieval books in Westminster Abbey. Perhaps this is where the artist’s passion for mysticism came from. The subjects of his paintings are mysterious, demonic, irrational, and emotional.

English painting, by W. Blake.The great red dragon and the woman clothed in the sun.One thousand eight hundred five

W. Blake.The great red dragon and the woman clothed in the sun.One thousand eight hundred five

Blake’s watercolors are sometimes contrasting, sometimes on the contrary built on halftones, but always very bright, catchy and romantic. The power of color in his works is at the level of oil paintings, while the smooth transitions from color to shadow, necessary for the plot, required a watercolor solution.

We should also note the contribution to the development of English watercolors by John Varley (1778-1842), a watercolorist, art theorist, astrologer, and close friend of William Blake. A fine artist, Varley became famous not so much for his works as for his work as a teacher. He taught masters who are the pride of the” Golden age ” of English watercolors-David Cox, Copley Fielding, Peter de Vint and a number of other famous artists of the Victorian era.

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