A Timeless Medium

We don’t carry much watercolor in the gallery, our biggest collections of watercolor come when we host Joseph Zbukvic’s solo exhibition. Joseph is one of the most popular, exquisite, and versatile watercolor artists working today. His solo exhibit will remain on view through November 14th and any unsold works will remain in the gallery until they sell.

If you’re unable to visit the gallery in person, you can view the entire show by clicking here. If you’re on a mobile device, you can view the digital catalog here.

Joseph Zbukvic Old Timers, Venice 15 x 21, watercolor on paper

In honor of the opening of Joseph’s solo exhibition I thought I’d look back at the history of watercolor! First, let’s start with the definition.

“Watercolor is named for its primary component. It consists of a pigment dissolved in water and bound by a colloid agent (usually a gum, such as gum arabic); it is applied with a brush onto a supporting surface such as vellum, fabric, or—more typically—dampened paper. The resulting mark (after the water has evaporated) is transparent, allowing light to reflect from the supporting surface, to luminous effect. Watercolor is often combined with gouache (or “bodycolor”), an opaque water-based paint containing a white element derived from chalk, lead, or zinc oxide”

Watercolor Painting in Britain, 1750-1850 by Elizabeth E. Barker, Department of Drawings & Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Water-based paints can be dated back to ancient times, but many cultures found use for the medium. European artists used it on illuminated manuscripts, it was used to create maps in the Middle Ages, and during the Renaissance for studies and portrait miniatures (see below).

However, art historians most commonly link water-based painting to mid 18th-mid 19th century Britain also known as the “Golden Age of watercolor”. The medium began very simply, almost monochromatic. The technique can best be contributed to topographical drawings that were done in graphite or ink then tinted with colored washes of limited hues. Some of the most notable artists that utilized this approach are William Taverner (1703-1772), Paul Sandby (baptized 1731-1809), Thomas Hearne (1744-1817), Michael “Angelo” Rooker (1746-1801), and Thomas Malton (1748-1804).

Three Trees on a Hill circa 1790 Thomas Hearne 1744-1817 Presented by Professor Luke Herrmann (from the Bruce Ingram Collection) through the Art Fund 2002. Image courtesy of the Tate Museum.

As the medium worked its way into the 19th century more and more artists developed the potential of watercolor, a notable figure is John Robert “JR” Cozens (1752-1797) whose father was Alexander Cozens, a prominent drawing master who invented a more advanced ink washing technique. JR Cozens along with a few other artists began using firm outlines and lighter hues to give the work of a “painterly” effect.

John Robert Cozens View of the Villa Lante on the Janiculum in Rome 1782-83. Image courtesy of The Met online.

Ultimately the best known artist from this time is J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), he began the first five years of his career (beginning in 1790) with watercolors, he didn’t exhibit an oil painting until 1796.

Joseph Mallord William (J.M.W.) Turner 1775–1851
View in the Avon Gorge 1791. Pen and ink and watercolor on paper

Personally, I find the progression of this medium fascinating and I could go on and on, but for sake of time I’ve just touched on some major figures and examples. However, if you’re like me (an art history buff) click here to read the entire article Watercolor Painting in Britain, 1750-1850 by Elizabeth E. Barker. She previously worked in the Drawings and Prints department at The Met and is a very brilliant writer and art historian. She’s now the Executive Director of The Frick Pittsburgh.

Joseph Zbukvic Merci Monsieur Monet 32×40, watercolor on paper

Like so many art supplies, watercolor comes in so many different forms. Looking back, in 1780 a man named William Reeves invented the first “watercolor cakes” which were solid blocks of watercolor paints that we shaped and dried. “To produce the paint, an artist dipped a cake in water and rubbed it onto a suitable receptacle, such as an oyster shell or porcelain saucer” (Barker, Watercolor Painting in Britain, 1750-1850).

W. J. Reeves & Son, 80 Holborn Bridge, London Maker 
Date: 1819-1827. Albany Institute of History & Art.

In the 1830’s came already moisten watercolors in porcelain pans, but the biggest advancement came in 1846, with the company Winsor & Newton (est. 1832 by scientist William Winsor & artist Henry Newton); who began selling tubed moist watercolors.

“In 1834, Winsor & Newton introduced their patented zinc oxide pigment “Chinese White”; this superfine—and therefore smoothly applied—permanent color greatly improved the qualities of gouache. In the first half of the nineteenth century, J. M. W. Turner instituted the practice of applying diluted white gouache as a wash. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Pre-Raphaelite painters used white gouache as a ground upon which to paint in a precise, miniature-like style.”

Watercolor Painting in Britain, 1750-1850 by Elizabeth E. Barker, Department of Drawings & Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Today, there are so many types of accessible watercolor paint forms; watercolor sticks, tubed watercolor, watercolor pans aka “cakes”, bottled/liquid watercolors, watercolor pencils, watercolor markers, watercolor sheets, etc.

Joseph Zbukvic Twilight in Paris 21×29, watercolor on paper

Joseph Zbukvic uses tubed watercolor, and he is extremely selective and confident when he applies paints. Working in realism he isn’t looking for mark making, he is intentional with his brush strokes to ensure he is exact. That control and patience is, in my opinion, why his paintings are so beautifully blended and have such a strong flow from one part to another.

“What destroys paintings is not technique its lack of confidence, lack of belief, faith; that’s what will ruin it. You know if you don’t believe it’s going to work you’ll never convince the viewer that it will work.”

Joseph Zbukvic

Joseph uses the tubed watercolors because he will use the paint right out of the tube for some details, final touches, or texture. That’s an element that we’re often asked about in the gallery. However, guests often assume it’s a gauche not actual watercolor, it’s just another watercolor form that’s all. The versatility of watercolor is truly extraordinary.

Joseph Zbukvic Harvest Season 14.5×18.5 watercolor on paper

If you enjoyed this blog and are interested in me touching on some other watercolor topics; such as paper types, brushes, and the progression into plein air watercolor please leave us a comment! And if you are able, I highly recommend you visit our Joseph Zbukvic Exhibition that is now on display in our gallery. It’s truly a show of mastery.

Joseph Zbukvic Frosty Morning 21×29, watercolor on paper


Barker, Elizabeth E. “Watercolor Painting in Britain, 1750–1850.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bwtr/hd_bwtr.htm (October 2004)

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