Change Starts With Us

What will it take for watercolor painting to get the respect and esteem that it deserves? American Watercolor Weekly advisor says the answer lies with watercolor artists themselves.

The question comes to me in many forms. How do we advance the reputation of watercolor? How do we get over the age-old prejudices against our medium? How do we reposition the value of watercolor in the minds of collectors and gallery owners and print journalists and museum directors? How do we combat the idea that watercolor is a fugitive medium? How do we address the price differential between watercolor paintings and those painted in oil or acrylic?

I believe the answer lies with watercolorists. We need to believe in our medium. And we need to be more publicly supportive of our medium.

watercolor still life painting
“Silver, Cherries, Pears, and Magnolia” (28×20)
We must be the champions of watercolor.

I was recently in a discussion with several watercolorists about this issue. One said that he did not even call himself a watercolorist anymore, but rather referred to himself simply as an artist to avoid the stigma associated with watercolor. Another asked why he would want to be identified with a lesser art form, and therefore called himself a painter. I think that this approach is wrong, wrong, wrong, and seriously detrimental to our goal of advancing the recognition of watercolor as a superior art medium.

I think each one of us who prides him or herself on the creation of quality art through the medium of watercolor should stand up and shout, “I am a watercolorist, I am proud to be a watercolorist, and I am proud of my medium, watercolor.”

How can we get anyone to believe that watercolor is an equal-to or better-than art form if we hide our pride under a basket and duck our heads rather than admit that our chosen medium is flipping fantastic?

watercolor still life painting
“Black, White and Red”(38×28)
We must price our work accordingly.

Many times, we are our own worst enemy. I recently saw the price listing of paintings by 30 top watercolorists from all over the country. All of the paintings were of the same size and offered for sale unframed, in my mind a real “apples-to-apples” comparison. The prices ranged from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. If we are so uncertain about the value of our art, how can the public be wiser?

The good news is that we are beginning to see a number of examples of artists who have moved up the price point (yes, let’s face reality and talk about sales in the language of the marketplace, and not be embarrassed to use words such as price-point in relation to our creations) of their paintings in the galleries in which their work is shown.

Over the past five years, I have been able to move the price of my full-sheet paintings from $2,800 to over $5,000. And a number of my watercolor friends have greatly exceeded those price points. Agreed, you have to be in the right gallery in the right geographic area of the country, but still.

There are also many stories of watercolorists selling their paintings online for prices in the thousands. If you forever price your paintings in the hundreds, that is all you will get for them, and you will be supporting the public’s low opinion of the value of watercolors.

You have to get away from your painting board and understand the dynamics of the retail art market. If you just sit back and complain that no one is paying enough money for your paintings, then you are doomed to selling your paintings under their value.

If you are sitting there waiting for a top gallery to find you and sell your work at top dollar, you are in for a shock. It isn’t going to happen. If you want success in the market, you have to work to make that success happen.

If you only want to sell your paintings in Memphis, TN, then you have to be aware that Memphis is a $350 watercolor market. If you are not willing to go where you can get a better price, then you have no reason to complain. If you want to sell your paintings for thousands of dollars, you have to find galleries that will and can sell your paintings at those prices. They exist, probably not just down your street and around the corner.

If we continue to look for and support those establishments that treat us and our work with respect, we will raise the value of watercolor across the marketplace, across the country, and around the world.

If I could, I would wear an insignia on my collar that proclaims I am a watercolorist, just the way I wore my captain’s bars when I was in the Corps of Engineers of the US Army. I was proud of being an officer serving my country, and I am equally proud to be a watercolorist.

watercolor still life painting
“Canning Jars on Black” (22×40)
We must educate the art-buying public.

We all need to become advocates and educators in this cause. We need to submit our best work to competitions. We need to attend those exhibitions. We need to support galleries and exhibition spaces that show watercolor. We need to go to opening nights for shows for other watercolor artists.

Each of us plays a part in making watercolor a more important and desired medium. Get out there and spread the message. Watercolor is great!

16 COMMENTS

  1. Laurin McCracken
    Thank you for a great article.
    When I moved to the USA from Sweden some years ago, I was surprised to learn that watercolor was sometimes associated with a lesser art form. In Sweden and Scandinavia it is the opposite! Watercolor is “THE MEDIUM”, sometimes bold, brave and experimental. There is no fear of fading colors and watercolor paintings sell better than paintings in other mediums. Let me give you an example of an important watercolor scene; The Nordic Watercolor Museum in Sweden, a vibrant and well attended museum with word class exhibitions. In 2010 the ICOM (International Council of Museums) and the RSM (Riksförbundet Sveriges Museer) declared the Nordic Watercolour Museum ‘Museum of the Year’. The jury motivated the award with the words: “For the museum’s successful work in demonstrating with consistent quality the range and breadth of watercolour art and in attracting large numbers of visitors as a result. The museum produces world-class exhibitions and is a model for others in the links it establishes between museum, research and education. The museum expands boundaries and displays the world to the local community. A museum that has transformed a community. The museum is an inspiring meeting place for art, nature and people, an arena for art based on water, pigment and paper”.

    Whenever I get the chance to show my art, teach or attend plein air events, I do my best to spread knowledge about this wonderful medium. I agree that we have to become advocates and educate the art buying public. I am proud to be a watercolor artist!
    Lena Thynell

  2. Yes! Thank you, Laurin McCracken. I believe education is the key. Students and established artists need to use colors with only the highest lightfastness ratings. Then gallery owners, students, buyers, museum personnel need to be made aware of that every chance we get. I talked with Mr. Graham at M. Graham paint company about lightfastness a few years ago, and he told me that the highest lightfastness watercolors they produce are as long-lasting as oils are, plus you don’t have the problem with the paint “cracking” years later. I have also been known to point out that watercolor paper isn’t paper at all. It’s basically felted cotton that’s been formed under pressure. It definitely lasts longer than the kind of paper John Doe on the street thinks of.

  3. Thank you for a fabulous article Lauren McCracken. I have been a dedicated watercolor artist and teacher for many years and your article was music to my ears. I won’t elaborate because my thoughts on the subject would take us into the next millennium. I’ll simply add one small anecdote which I think is interesting. Quite a few years ago the beautiful Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney decided to mount an exhibition of their watercolour collection, most of it secreted in their subterranean basement out of light’s way! They were subsequently astonished by the vast numbers of people it attracted and it became one of of their most successful-ever shows. For me it demonstrated that watercolour has a unique appeal that has long been under-estimated.

  4. Dear Laurin,

    Totally agree with you. We as watercolor artist must believe, show
    and demonstrate by our actions and words of the power of watercolor
    constantly and daily in our lives. We are the best spoke-persons for
    the medium.

  5. I adore watercolors and I’m really proud to tell people that I paint in watercolors. I find recent progress in watercolor painting so exciting – there are some amazing master artists around the world now. In fact I find it difficult to show interest in oïl paintings unless they are particularly superb! Where I live, in Switzerland, I find that other people who paint are rather condescending about watercolorists, whilst happy to “admit” that painting in watercolors is “sooooo difficult” – that’s why they don’t even try them… (I don’t let them into any secrets!)…
    But, it’s obvious that there are so many wonderful possibilities open to the watercolor painter!

  6. I am essentially a mixed-media painter. I have gone out of my area for galleries, where my work was more appreciated and sold for higher prices. The problem is that galleries around the country are taking such a big cut. But it is worth getting out and looking for new higher-caliber places to show! Your work is fantastic and deserves higher prices!

  7. Well said Laurin – and let’s add that many artists using other media shy away from watercolour because it’s “too damned difficult “ ( their words not mine)

  8. Nice article Laurin! I can not disagree with your thoughts, but there is one more reason why watercolor is considered an easy medium and the paintings sell for less …
    Most watercolor artists I know over here (in Russia), for example, don’t spend a lot of time on making their creations. Most finish in an hour or two (rarely do they spend up to 1 day even). Needless to say, these paintings reflect the amount of work that’s been put into them and don’t have any more value than the cost of a dinner. I think this is such a common approach and doesn’t really help to improve watercolor paintings’ value in general. Many people have a hard time telling the difference between a masterful painting that took a few months of work and the creations of “cheapo,” speedy runners, so all the work suffers.
    Just my two cents …

  9. Great article, thank you Laurin. Watercolour is an amazing medium and every artist can express their own unique voice with it. The new colours, and the older, are making it exciting and challenging. But that is what is so wonderful about the medium. Every painting is a discovery of the medium and of self.
    Lin Souliere CSPWC, SCA

  10. Watercolor is a difficult medium only for those that don’t take the time to learn the basic techniques of watercolor. It is a very process-driven medium. If you don’t know the basics, it is almost impossible to achieve great results. However, it is also the most accessible art medium. You can go into any art or hobby store and get everything you need to start painting in watercolor for a few dollars (Euros or Yuan). However, the results will usually be a train wreck. Some instruction is required. The combination of frustration with the medium and the historic prejudice against watercolor has held back watercolor from its rightful place in art. I am delighted to hear that in other countries, watercolor is held in higher esteem.
    I have traveled a great deal in China and Japan and have seen how masters of watercolor are revered in those countries. Now we must work to raise watercolor to the same level across the world.

  11. Wonderful article.
    So how do we, as watercolor artists, spread the word and how can we challenge the prejudice of gallery owners? An oil of the same size sells for more than a watercolor. Wall space is money.
    Also, the perception of watercolor is from centuries ago. An inferior non archival medium on poor support. I have a number of Chinese students who are in awe and excited the medium. Watercolor is so respected in China.
    Another essential issue. How many art schools can you name that teach watercolor? Any? None that I know of. I teach watercolor at Otterbein University but in the theatre department. Costume designers use watercolor. The art department certainly does not teach it.
    So now what?

  12. I consider myself an artist who works in water-based media. I don’t call myself a watercolorist. I believe that the perception throughout the art world is that those artists who work in watercolor have a certain way of painting, and are less a part of the contemporary art world. (and that their imagery is more traditional, not understanding that you can do ANYTHING in watercolor) I happen to work in watercolor, and promote the use of watercolor through education and lectures. But I don’t feel that I have to define myself that way. I am more interested in the imagery and ideas I present than what media I work in. I work in watercolor because it is so versatile and allows for intense color saturation and various effects, but I still don’t want to call myself a watercolorist, because I feel that limits people’s perceptions of what my work might look like.

  13. Great article and so true. Thank you Laurin. I’m proud to be a watercolorist and wear a watercolor pin when I go to an exhibition. But a lot of study is necessary to come to a technique that makes it possible for the viewer to see, read, and understand what is going on in your watercolour painting. See you in Fabriano!

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