Watercolor has been around since painting began, but didn’t really take off until the Renaissance. The German printmaker Albrecht Durer was an early practitioner and found the medium ideal for small, detailed studies.

Watercolor Study of a Brown Hare, Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Durer, Hare, 1502


Watercolor remained a minor discipline within the painting world for some time to come, until English printmaker and poet William Blake rediscovered its illustrative power as he used it to hand-color etchings.

Ancient Days Watercolor, William Blake

William Blake, The Ancient of Days, 1794


A slightly younger contemporary of Blake’s, J. M. W. Turner had also discovered watercolor as an ideal medium for plein air painting. Turner’s startlingly atmospheric and expressive paintings of the European countryside and seascapes anticipated the Impressionist movement by over 50 years and turned landscape painting into a vital discipline where it had previously been the domain of amateur naturalists and hobbyists.

Turner: Dolbadarn Castle - Great Watercolor Artists on Bluprint

J. M. W. Turner, Dolbadarn Castle, 1799

Turner: Venice Looking East from the Guidecca

J. M. W. Turner, Venice Looking East from the Guidecca, Sunrise, 1819


At the same time in the United States, British-born Thomas Moran was painting landscapes of the as-yet little seen Rocky Mountain west. He was even included in one of the first expeditions to what would become Yellowstone National Park. Watercolors were among the many tools of his trade.

Moran: Castle Geyser - Famous Watercolor Artists,

Thomas Moran, Castle Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin, 1871


Though you might know his work from a famous painting he did of his mother, James McNeill Whistler was another Brit who was quite skilled with watercolors. The extreme portability of the medium made it useful for quick sketches wherever Whistler might find himself. His energetic, abbreviated brushstrokes and economical dabs of color are in contrast to the much more somber palette and reserved mark-making in his oil paintings.

flower market watercolor

James McNeill Whistler, Flower Market, 1885


Perhaps the most important watercolorist of the 19th century was Winslow Homer. Homer was a largely self-taught painter who embraced watercolor so thoroughly for his many landscapes, seascapes and scenes of everyday life in 19th century America. Homer’s respect for the possibilities of watercolor encouraged many of his contemporaries to try it as well.

blue boat

Winslow Homer, The Blue Boat, 1892


John Singer Sargent was born in America but worked primarily in England. He was known for his oil portraiture, but in his numerous travels he documented much of his surroundings with watercolor, painting subjects he never attempted in oils, such as this church in Venice, Italy.

Sargent: Santa Maria Della Salute

John Singer Sargent, Santa Maria Della Salute, 1904


At the same time, painting had experienced quite a shift toward abstraction as the 20th century began, and the many movements following Impressionism led to other avenues in which to explore watercolors. Swiss-born Paul Klee’s work ranged from Expressionism to Cubism, and watercolor played a part in his abstract explorations.

Paul Klee: Red and White Domes

Paul Klee, Red and White Domes, 1914


In the U.S., Georgia O’Keeffe was using watercolor as a means of exploring the intense colors and light she witnessed after moving to rural New Mexico.


Georgia O’Keeffe, Sunrise, 1916


Edward Hopper was interested in the subtler qualities of light and how they could be useful in depicting the places of the American experience.

adams house

Edward Hopper, Adams House, 1928


The American painter Jamie Wyeth often painted with drypoint watercolors, where very little water is used. The successor to father Andrew and grandfather N.C. Wyeth, both admired American painters, Jamie has spent much of his career depicting scenes of rural New England and is still active today.

slayton house, by Jaime Wyeth

Jamie Wyeth, Slayton House, 1968

Today the contemporary watercolor scene is as vital and active as it has ever been, with many artists from all over the world dedicated to this treasured medium. How will you take part in a shaping this development of watercolor?