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MHS Library | Painting: Watercolour

About watercolour

Watercolor paints are renowned for their ability to capture the fleeting essence of light as it fluctuates throughout the day, earmarking the passage of time.

The translucent quality of watercolor lends itself well to paintings that are atmospheric, nostalgic, and even otherworldly. The aqueous nature of watercolors accurately captures a sense of timelessness. For this reason, watercolors are an excellent medium for depicting natural scenery, such as landscapes and seascapes, as well as flowers, animals and portraits. Compared to other, more solid mediums (such as acrylic, pastels or oils), watercolors appear to simultaneously reflect light and project a sense of fluidity.

Watercolor paints are pigments held together by a water soluble binder, along with additives and solvents.

Pigments provide the color. The ground pigments are the same as those used for other applications, such as printing inks, cosmetics, and textiles. The proportion of pigments in paint, relative to other ingredients, can vary widely — from under 10% to over 50%.

In commercially made watercolor paints, the binder is either natural gum arabic or synthetic glycol. This is what holds the pigment in suspension. The binder also allows the pigment to adhere to the support (e.g. paper) once it is applied. Additives, such as plasticizers (e.g. glycerin) and humectants (e.g. honey or corn syrup), are mixed in to alter various characteristics of the watercolors, such as viscosity and durability of the paint. Other additives include extenders and dispersants.

Artists can create their own watercolor paints using a simple technique involving a small number of basic materials: powdered pigment, gum arabic, and water. Additives are not imperative when creating your own watercolors, so they can be left out.

Read more about watercolour on Pigments through the Ages. This resource demonstrates the stages of a watercolour painting. There is information about 'mixing paint', 'sketch and mask', 'background wash', 'underpainting', 'details', 'blending and lifting', 're-wet and re-work', and 'finish the painting'. 


Watercolour techniques - wet glazing

Top vibrant watercolour techniques

Watercolour painting in Britain, 1750-1850

Watercolour painting in Britain, 1750-1850

Lindisfarne Castle, Holy Island, ca. 1797
Thomas Girtin (British, 1775–1802)
Watercolor on rough cartridge paper; 15 x 20 1/2 in. (38.1 x 52 cm)