Busting the Myths About Watercolor

Five top artists debunk the misconceptions about watercolor and reveal what they want collectors to know about the medium.

“Catalina Character” (watercolor, 9 x 13 in.) by Cindy Baron
Cindy Baron

I believe the average collector doesn’t realize that watercolors are one of the most difficult mediums to paint with and take so much time to master. Materials in this age are also much more archival than in the past and much more expensive. Framing a watercolor is not easy. I used to work in a frame shop, so I learned a lot about how to frame a watercolor. Using the right supplies, and picking archival mats and museum glass, help in preserving the watercolor for the future. Most collectors like the look of oils, which are framed without glass, but now there is non-glare glass and others that give an almost no-glass look.

 


“Sweet Spot” (watercolor, 11 x 15 in.) by Dan Mondloch
Dan Mondloch

Painting with watercolor is definitely a dance between accuracy and a loose handling of the medium, and it is exactly that thrill that is visible and so appealing in the final painting. I think that’s one of the reasons that more and more collectors are choosing to add watercolors to their prestigious collections, especially when it is clear in this day and age that longevity is no longer a real concern with this medium. In fact, collectors buy more of my watercolors than oils at plein air events where I have both on offer.

 

“A Shiny Day in Puglia” (watercolor 9 1/4 x 13 1/4 in.) by Francesco Fontana
Francesco Fontana

Watercolor has a very long tradition, way older than oil, if we think of  Chinese art. Collectors should understand that mastering the art of watercolor is harder than any other media. Masters such as Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldini, and J.M.W. Turner all painted beautifully in both oil and watercolor. Doubt about the durability of paper as a support is risible. Today’s papers have a stunning museum quality: 100 percent cotton, acid-free, and archival — and they can be more costly than canvas! Remember, papyrus came intact from ancient Egypt. Nowadays pigments are also of super quality. All in all, watercolor should be valued and priced equally if not more than oil paintings. So, my advice to collectors: Better buy now while watercolors are still accessible!

 

“California Poppies by the Orange” (watercolor, 11 x 15 in.) by Carolyn Lord
Carolyn Lord

Watercolor is an extremely durable art medium as long as the paintings are properly framed, hung, or stored. I don’t believe watercolor will never override the dominance of oil, but for the collector, a watercolor can be an intimate insight into the artist’s thinking.

Collectors can seek out painters’ watercolors as an insight to their oils. Or focus on artists whose main body of work is in watercolor as way to build an art collection. What someone collects is an extremely personal decision, but it can also be influenced by timing or opportunity, by peers, education, cultural, or social cues.

 

“Provence Doorway” (watercolor, 10 x 7 in.) by Kristi Grussendorf
Kristi Grussendorf

I think the worst misconception about watercolor is that it isn’t archival. I also struggle with the whole framing issue. I understand that glass tends to create a separation between the viewer and the painting and frankly, it’s an added cost (both for framing and shipping). To combat that disconnect and cost, I have stretched watercolor paper on stretcher bars, then fixed the finished pieces with an acrylic coating, and framed them just like an oil. But until the watercolor organizations start accepting these non-traditional framing techniques, it will be a hard switch for me to make.

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Kelly Kane
PleinAir Magazine and American Watercolor Weekly Editor-in-Chief With more than 20 years experience in art publishing, Kelly Kane has served previously as Editor-in-Chief of Watercolor Artist magazine and Content Director for The Artist’s Magazine, Drawing, Acrylic Artist, and Pastel Journal. She has interviewed many of the preeminent artists of our time and written numerous articles about painting, drawing, art education and art history. She is now the Editor-in-Chief of PleinAir Magazine and the American Watercolor Weekly newsletter. Click here to send her an email.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Kristi is right. More and more, artists are varnishing their work and collectors are loving it! But artists also paint for competitions and the rules oftentimes still restrict us from entering varnished pieces. In the last couple of years, I’ve seen them accepting works on Yupo and watercolor canvas. I eagerly await their acceptance of varnished pieces as well! Times are “achanging”, and for the better!

    • Agree with you Helen re Kristi comments. Watercolor has been my medium number one choice going back over twenty years. I do remember a painting that I had sold to a customer and I was choked to see the changes that had bleached it so badly, even with the matting and glass. It was then that I started to learn and discovered how to varnish and protect all my watercolor paintings over the years. The day a painting is finished ,I start the process of varnishing and mounting the back on a solid archival material. It is amazing to see the colors come to life when finished, ready to be mounted on regular framing. Sure I have had watercolor artists make comments but I am sticking to my way and it is so nice to see them finished this way , so easy to handle, to clean or dust them knowing they will last way after I am gone .

  2. Loved this article, I have been frustrated for years by the notion that buyers should avoid watercolors for significant collections. I have painted more than 20 years in watercolor and given the difficulty of the medium and the archival quality to the medium and papers, I would like a little more consideration.

  3. Another method of presenting watercolours without glass is to coat the gallery-wrapped watercolours with 2-3 coats of Dorland Wax, a water-free, fume-free way of protecting your work allowing it to be hung either without a frame or framed without glass.

  4. Sorry, I’m a traditionalist. I love the glow of watercolor under glass! I do my own framing.
    I see more and more writing about how difficult this medium is. I teach for colleges and the women’s prison. The first thing I tell them is that watercolor is not more difficult, you simply approach it differently.

  5. Hello
    I agree to all here that watercolors are difficult to master & given the quality of supplies now available, the apprehension regarding its longevity is absolutely misplaced. As an alternative to the traditional method, I’ve used a primed canvas coated with watercolor ground & then painted normally. Later, I sprayed a fixative on it … it was a commission by an oil-painting collector, who really went gaga over it!

  6. I’ve been using a lot of watercolor canvas. It is easier to correct mistakes for one ting and can be hung without a frame. so far have had no fading issues but I would like more instructions on how to varnish them. Is this done with acrylic medium?

  7. Wonderful informative article about this beautiful medium. I am Catherine, the owner of Raymar Panels. We were approached to create a watercolor panel with archival mould-made watercolor paper mounted on ACM panels. We introduced our new watercolor panels with Fabriano Artistico 140lb cold press and have now added Fabriano Artistico 140 lb rough. You can try one at http://www.raymarart.com/watercolorpanels

    Many artists have developed their own approach to varnishing or waxing the painting to frame it without glass. Matthew Bird, a member of the National Watercolor Society, has written a great article about his technique for framing without glass, https://matthewbird.com/blog/2019/11/4/my-watercolor-varnishing-process

    Fortunately some of the watercolor societies are re-examining their position on watercolor art framing. We love watercolors ourselves and hope to help watercolor artists get the recognition they deserve.

  8. I am with several here. Our local Watercolor Society does have an alternative framing technique. Mounting the watercolor to an acid free surface and using UV Archival Varnish (Krylon is my go to) and a traditional frame. My patrons love them. No Glass, No Glare. I will not go back to under glass. For Plein Air events – plein air panels are created. Pre mounted watercolor paintings, stamped on the back at check in, varnished and popped into a frame for the plein air show. What could be easier!

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