The watercolor – a graphic or painting medium?

Selma Todorova

The art of watercolor is the fastest developing fine art medium nowadays. Some call this phenomena  “Silver Age”, others – “Golden Age”, and this is increasingly confirmed by the rising popularity and recognition that watercolor is gaining worldwide.

The industry of art materials is also contributing to this development. Due to the tight connection between artists and manufacturers of world brands, demonstrations, sponsorships and awards at major watercolor forums on behalf of these brands, brush series, paints and other supplies with the names of world-renowned watercolor artists, watercolor materials are constantly being refined. Modern watercolor materials today are as durable as those of any other painting mediums. Famous brands of products that we can trust are:

Paper: Arches, Fabriano, Zanders, Lana, Canson , Hahnemuhle , Cotman, Montval, Reeves, Lanaquarelle, Sanders Waterford, Strathmore etc.,

Brushes: Escoda, Winsor & Newton, Tintoretto, Langnickel, Princeton, Isabey, Rafaël, Richeson, Herend, Silver Brush, Yasutomo, Da Vinci, etc. 

Paints: Daniel Smith, Winsor & Newton, Schmincke, M.Graham, Holbein, Nevskaya Palitra , Royal Talents, Mission, Paul Rubens, Rosa, Da Vinci and others.

In order to answer the question whether watercolor art is a graphic or a painting medium, or at least which one of the two prevails, we need to clarify the terms “Painting” and “Graphics”. 

In painting the color is defining with the alternation of color temperature. Watercolor suggests applying paint in such a manner that the whiteness of the paper can remain visible, which contributes to a more nuanced color tonality. Painting seeks more color play and complex color combinations rather than accurate outline . 

The definition “Graphics” derives from the Greek : γραφω “write, scribble”). Its main means of expression include lines, touches and spots. Graphics are based on the balance between black and white. One or more additional colors may be present, but the focus is not to be colorful, unlike painting. There are many colors in the color graphics and illustration, as in the poster art and the applied graphics, but they are graphically laid out with outlined contours and no alternation of warm and cool tones.   

In some countries, and especially in Russia, the art of watercolor is studied and considered to be part of graphic mediums.

An interesting and significant case in this connection is the case with Karl Brulov and his landscape oil painting “View of Ford Picula at Madeira island, 1850 g.” Since only Brulov’s watercolors were known in the landscape genre, and experts at the Tretyakov Gallery did not consider them to be paintings but graphics, they thought that the chances of the newly discovered landscape of Madeira Island to be a work of the great artist are only 1%. After a thorough and detailed examination the controversial landscape was included into Brulov’s masterpieces, and it was the exact placement of colors and tones that was the decisive proof of this.

If we have to determine whether the watercolors of the English artist William Turner are a graphic or a painting, we will undoubtedly have to agree with the latter. His mystical watercolor landscapes possess no less complicated color and alternation of warm and cool than his works with oil.

American artist John Singer Sargent, who had been commissioned to produce impressive classic portraits and oil painting compositions, has painted for himself incredible free-flowing watercolors in various genres that have entered the world’s art treasury of paintings.

Today in many countries the watercolor medium is assigned to painting, it covers a number of genres and is not limited in size. A striking example of this are the works of a number of masters of watercolors, who make multi-figural compositions, some in particularly large size : Rick Huang (China), Hong Shan (China), Liu Yi (China), Richard Chao (China / Australia), Prafull Sawant (India), Ali Abbas (Pakistan), Anna Ivanova (Russia) and many more.

In watercolors, the styles are the same as in oil painting and acrylic: realism, impressionism, expressionism, hyperrealism, surrealism, symbolism, contemporaries, abstracts and more.
In addition, certain techniques unique to watercolor (the way watercolor is applied) are: wet on wet, wet on dry and dry on dry. The passionate plein-air impressionists will argue that this medium should be painted “Ala Prima”. Yet, there are many variations of the techniques which makes the watercolor art so diverse.

Watercolors can be painted both spontaneously, by guiding the water flow, keeping accidental spots and effects and in a strictly disciplined way. The great Bulgarian classic painter Dechko Uzunov, who gave the world brilliant impressionistic watercolor paintings, said in support of spontaneity: “Watercolor is like a love letter – when you write it you shouldn’t think of grammatical mistakes – either you have something to say, or if you don’t you better throw the sheet away!

I will give a brief, summarized overview of schools in a number of countries around the world, which I have observed for several years, and will also trace the differences in approach: predominantly picturesque or graphic.

In Latin American countries, particularly in Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina, watercolor is a passion, the approach is more picturesque, even when painting in grisaille. The compositions are contemporary and unexpected, with strong spiritual presence: Anna Laura Salasar (Mexico) , Patricia Guzman (Mexico) , Nicolas Lopes (Peru), Alvaro Castagnet(Uruguay). Alvaro is the most renowned and imitated watercolor artist worldwide.

In China, color is mostly intense, in most cases with perfectly conveyed materiality , and constructiveness is not leading . There are numerous schools and masters from all over the world are often invited to share their knowledge. Chinese painters use the technique of wet-on-wet with prominent pictorial approach (eg. Liu Yi, Liu XiDe, Yan Hong), so as painting wet on dry sheet, with virtuously applied strokes (living legends Liu Yinsheng and Guan Weixing; the younger Hong Shan, Rick Huang, Zhou Tianya, etc.), rarely hyper-realistic (eg Jangang Sun).

In India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal watercolor is a popular medium. Indians are not only recognizable for their choice of subject, but also for some distinctive bright colors and combinations, such as the alternation of cobalt or ultramarine with orange, which, in addition to being cool and warm, are also primary versus additional color. Amit Kapoor, Milind Mulick, Kantraj, Atul Panase ( India / UAE), Rajesh Sawant who works in painting with graphic elements and his brother, Prafull Sawant, who to me is a great example of a watercolor painter with complex color combinations and alternation of warm and cool. In Bangladesh, schools are ethnonaïve through realism, hyper-realism (Mong Mong Sho) and contemporary (Md. Kauser Hossain). Ali Abbas from Pakistan is a unique author who combines graphics, illustration and painting in his original paintings, often in large sizes. NB Gurung from Nepal works in a very painterly style and in various genres.

In Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mongolia, watercolor is very popular, namely the picturesque watercolor. It is mostly realistic and not so constructive, but with enviable materiality and virtuosic brushstroke. Thailand: LaFe, Suchart Tangsilpaolarn, Supawan Srinaphar, Boonkwang, Taiwan: Chien Chung Wei, Hung Tung – Piao. Hong Kong: Ze Ze Lai, Rainbow Tze, etc. Munkhbaatar Surentsetseg from Mongolia is a great example of a young artist who carries the picturesque feeling and works watercolor masterly, constructively, and painterly.

In Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma), watercolor is a major painting medium. The schools include modern and abstract art, where both graphic and picturesque approaches exist as well as classic, where painting is dominant. Malaysia: Jansen Chow, Tham Siew Inn, Lok Kerk Hwang. Indonesia: Agus Budianto, Ngurah Darma. Japan: Yuko Nagayama, Hisako Ohkochi. Korea: Miran Kim, You Mee Park , Myanmar: Min Wae Aung.

There are many countries in Europe with traditions in watercolor art.

In Spain, artists paint very freely by experimenting, with artistry and with a scenic approach: Cesc Farre, Isabel Moreno Alosete, Teresa Jorda Vito, Pablo Ruben Lopez Sanz .

Italy: The watercolor art development has been a major one throughout the last 10 years, due to the fabulous Fabriano in Acquarello festival that takes place every spring and which also inspired many more international watercolor festivals in Italy: in Urbino, Sperlonga, Venice, and since 2020 – in Milan. The Italian school is innovative, free-ranging, with a wide variety of explorations and approaches. Angelo Gorlini, Roberto Andreoli, Massimiliano Iocco, Pasqualino Fracasso, Armand Xhomo (Albania / Italy), Igli Arapi (Albania / Italy), Igor Sava (Moldova / Italy) all work in different genres, but with a colorful approach .

The Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and France have strong traditions in watercolors, mainly in landscape and cityscape, many of which are purely scenic: Sweden: Ann Larson and Stanislaw Zoladz (Poland / Sweden), a phenomena in contemporary watercolor with brilliant materiality and a colorful suggestion of their paintings. Belgium: Xavier Swolfs , Lilian Goossens, Tejo Van den Broeck. Netherlands: Hannie Rieuwerts, Jan Min. From France I should mention the masters of urban landscape and hyperrealist Thierry Duval and realist Franck Heret; Marc Folly, as well as young talented author Alexis Leborgne, who work in a liberated and predominantly picturesque style.

In the USА and Canada elite watercolor societies date back over 150 years ago and this is a prerequisite for the serious development of this medium there. These societies often organize major national and international exhibitions, and regular membership is difficult to achieve. In the United States many schools exist, and in addition to specialized colleges and universities, watercolors can be taught professionally at workshops that are organized very often. Realistic, impressionistic, hyper realistic and abstract watercolors are to be found. There is also a separate society for pure transparent watercolors. After the bright example of the watercolor classic painters from the US, which include Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent (who has already been mentioned), Milford Zornes, Millard Sheets, Edgar Whitney, and living legend Serge Hollerbach, there are many contemporary masters – painters in watercolors : Mary Whyte , John Salmunen, Linda Doll, Stephen Scott Young (USA / The Bahamas),  Steve Hanks (he is not already among us), Keiko Tenabe (Japan / USA), Carla O’Connor, Barbara Tapp, Mario Robinson, Barbara Nechis, Deanne Lamley, Judi Betts, Andy Evansen and Stella Canfield (Bulgaria / USA), two artists with define impressionistic style . Contemporary Canadian painters that I would like to mention are: Jean Pederson, Peter March, Mike Svob, Mark Ruchlewicz, Anne MacCartney , Atanur Dogan (Canada / Turkey), who works very painterly, Ona Kingdon, who works almost in a hyper realistic style, between graphics and painting and many more.

The Watercolor English School is widely known and has long traditions which is explainable due to the tradition created by William Turner. Well known watercolor societies in Britain include  Royal Watercolor Society, which has more than 200 years of history and Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, founded in 1831 . There are both classic and avant-garde watercolors. In most cases, the approach is picturesque: Joe Dowden, Ann Blockly, David Poxon, John Yardley, Robin Richmond, Naomi Tiderman, and the works of Sue Howels, who have a strikingly graphically illustrative approach.
Scottish hyperrealist Angus McEwan creates modern painting with extremely interesting color combinations that can be attributed to both graphics and painting. There are exceptional watercolor masters in Australia, where traditions come from the English school: Robert Wade is a living legend, working mainly in landscape and figure composition with a definitely picturesque approach. He and David Taylor are phenomena thanks to their unexpectedly harmonic picturesque combinations in their landscapes, with alternating warm and cool tones. Joseph Zbukvic (Croatia/Australia) is a master of the cityscape. 

Russian artists, even those who live and work in other countries, such as Israel (Ilya Kabov, Lilia Pavlova), Germany (Victoria Prischedko, Sava Prischedko), Luxembourg, Iceland, Poland, Czech Republic, etc., carry their identity and taste. They all belong to the school of Russian artists, both in terms of color sensation and themes, so with their technical approach – more picturesque than a constructive search for portraits and figures. Many of the good masters of watercolor in Russia either do not work or work sporadically with oil and do not reach the same success as with watercolors. It’s no secret that with watercolor, one usually works from light to dark, while with oil and acrylic is the opposite – from dark to light. The richness of colors of the watercolor medium is softer, and if done in a similar way with oil or acrylic, the colors sometimes become disharmonious, sweet, too bright . This feature makes it difficult to work with watercolors and oils in the same way, therefore begging for a different approach.

An interesting phenomena is the Sergey Andriyaki School in Moscow. Many recognizable watercolor artists have been trained there, who are working in a representative style. They are good watercolor masters, working more graphically without seriously alternating warm and cool. Andriyaki himself went deep into watercolors,starting with the wet-in-wet Alla Prima technique, but later switching to the technique wet on dry, in layers, without pencil outlines before. I visited the school several years ago and saw the impressive sea waves of Sergei Andriyaki, especially large in size, which have all the qualities of a painting masterpiece.

Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova have close, not to say identical, watercolor schools, but of course there are authors who, although related to the mother school, work with an individual approach and are clearly recognizable: Olga Litvinenko (Russia), Ilya Ibryaev (Russia), Konstantin Sterkhov (Russia) , Sergey Temerev (Russia), Igor Sava (Moldova / Italy), Ekaterina Sava (Belarus / Italy), Igor Mosaychuk (Moldova), Eugen Chisnicean (Moldova), Ihor Yurchenko (Ukraine) .

In Albania, a distinctive artist who works with various painting mediums but is also active in watercolor is Helidon Haliti and his approach is extremely picturesque.

In Serbia, Gallery A and its owner Pedja Acimovich , holds a number of international events of watercolor art, one of which is a biennial “Large Format ” (100/150 cm.) which is also presented in Switzerland and it is an example of the unlimited possibilities of watercolor. Serbian watercolorist Endre Penovac works “Ala prima” graphically and masterfully.

North Macedonian artist  Simonida Filipova works very freely with a colorful approach.

Watercolor traditions have existed in Bulgaria since the beginning of the 20th century with artists such as Nikola Marinov, Yordan Geshev, Konstantin Sturkelov, Vladimir Dimitrov – the Master, Alexander Poplilov and others. Nowadays almost all of our famous painters and sculptors also work with watercolors and organize exhibitions of this medium: Milko Bozhkov, Stanislav Pamukchiev, Zahari Kamenov, Gredi Assa, Svilen Blazhev, Ivaylo Mirchev and others. There are very few professional artists who work only with watercolors, such as Atanas Matsurev, whose work is recognized worldwide. What characterizes Bulgarian watercolors is their striking individuality and recognition, as well as their lack of subordination to schools and fashion. In Bulgaria, watercolor has never been considered as a graphic art, but painting, even by the specialized schools and academies, where it is taught in painting classes. The artists who turn back to watercolors are mainly painters with formal academic education, but there are also many good watercolor artists in Bulgaria who are self-taught or refined with the help of lessons and master classes. With the help of the IWS – Bulgaria Foundation, a branch of the IWS Globe, an organization with more than 110 Member States, Bulgarian watercolor painters have a worldwide platform for expression and many of our artists have gained notoriety far beyond our country and received awards: (Professor Kiril Bozhkov, whose name is already widely recognized, Krasi Todorov, Ivan Miloushev, Selma Todorova, Harry Atanasov, Andrey Yanev, Veneta Docheva, Nelly Dimitrova , Tsvetan Kazandjiev, Plamen Monev, Tsvyatko Ostoich). A number of international events took place in Bulgaria with demonstrations from world masters of watercolor. Last year took place the the II International Triennial “WATERcolor & SPIRIT” – Varna, 2019, which was attended by more than 400 artists from 63 countries and the exhibition is still traveling to 8 galleries  countrywide. Also in the European capital of Culture for 2019, in Plovdiv was organized the First International Youth Festival of watercolor where representatives of 20 countries participated.

In conclusion, I would like to point out that watercolor painting is a unique work of art that cannot be perfectly reproduced, compared to the printing of graphics or the copying of classic oil, due to the complicated nuances created by the mixture of the watercolor pigment with the water. Watercolor art lives a life on its own, unlike illustration or applied graphics. In most contemporary works of watercolor, the color combinations are complex, virtuously made, purely picturesque, by alternating warm and cool color spots, with a variety of unlimited genres, styles and formats. Watercolor, despite the different approaches of the authors, is a trademark of spontaneity, sensuality, and the sealed energy of the artist that flows as water. Then what is watercolor if not a true art of painting!

Selma Todorova is actively working and exhibiting watercolors for 25 years,
Leader for Bulgaria at IWS, Fabriano in Acquarello and Urbino in Acquerello
(World Watercolor Organizations) since 2014,
Curator and organizer of: International Triennale,
WATERcolor & SPIRIT- Varna 2016, 2019,
International Watercolor Youth Festival, Plovdiv 2019,
International Watercolor Symposium,
Belogradchik – 2016, 2017,
Himalaya Watercolor Symposium “India Ala Prima” 2015, 2019,
Ambassador of Nevskаya Palittra,
Member of UBA and AIAP

A report from the International Scientific Conference “Spiritual Sense of the National Culture of Russia”, which was held at at the Russian Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture “Ilya Glazunov” (Moscow) and the Institute of Cultural Heritage “D. S. Lihachov” (Moscow).

11 thoughts on “The watercolor – a graphic or painting medium?”

  1. Kashif Shahzad

    Well written and compiled. A good comprehensive knowledge about Watercolor around the Globe. Sure its a remarkable effort to have a thorough discussion on Watercolor technique a superb medium practiced overall the world. Well done Selma.

  2. Namiram statijata za izkljuchitelno zadalbochena I prostranna, a sashto taka mnogo izchepatelna za tezi ,koito se interesuvat ot akvarela-profesionalisti hudojnici I ljubiteli na akvarelnoto izkustvo. Nauchih mnogo neshta ot tazi statija,blagodarja!
    Prof.d-r Virginia Atanassova

  3. Great text, Selma. Just abour the terms of ‘Graphic’…in all kind of paintigs hera are also some elements of’ ‘graphism’ like poin, line, raster, coeksisting with color (my opinion).
    You forget ( ? ) to mention Australian Artists, like Herman Pekel, poet of lihgt… Of cours, here are a lot of artists…Wery interesting is your position about Russian watercolor painters, but what about of German Austrians?
    Any way, thank you …
    Franc Golob

    1. Thank you a lot Franc for your comment! Yes, I am agree about “‘graphism”. ..For shure I missed a lot.

  4. Наталия Съртонева

    Принципите на живописта са идентични, както при акварела. Цветните съотношения на рисуване с петна, топлина и студина в контраста- всичко това е от живописта- да, но има и много графични възможности за постигане на повече драматизъм.

  5. Interesting compilation.
    The descriptions each regional styles you described us is wonderful. I recognize your effort and professionalism. Because of that.. I couldn’t criticize you.
    Just… A little proposal if…
    Well. You showed us mainly artists in nowadays time.. I would like you could investigate about old masters like for example Durer’ watercolour…or. In my country. (United States of Mexico) Diego Rivera’s watercolour are expressive and keeps the style as a mural colours. Other watercolour mexican painter too: Nishikawa. So.. Dear Celma. You could take this search branch as a second part of tjis current article.
    Regards.

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