The History of Watercolors

(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

Although the use of watercolors dates back to prehistoric times, it was not until about A.D. 500 that watercolor painting came to be considered a fine art, when Chinese poet-painters helped it evolve from being primarily a decorative craft. In the West, Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) has been credited with upgrading the level of watercolors. Primarily a printmaker, he was looking for a way to color areas of his prints and ended up using a combination of transparent and opaque (gouache) watercolors to produce colored drawings. Chalk was often added to a watercolor to give a stronger and fuller quality. This explains the flat and linear appearance of his watercolors, since opaque watercolors do not readily lend themselves to shading.

J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) was a technical innovator who took full advantage of the newly developed synthetic mineral pigments that were beginning to find their way into the artist’s palette. He applied these new transparent and opaque watercolors with sponges, rags, and knives, as well as with brushes. Despite his use of opaque color and even pastel on his watercolor paintings, he is still considered part of the original English (transparent) watercolor school. The French Impressionists who followed the English school developed an even more dramatic look by taking advantage of the now numerous synthetic mineral pigments, and by often applying them unmixed.

Today, watercolor is still heavily dominated by the principles of the English watercolor school. Consequently, the term “watercolor” has come to mean transparent watercolor and opaque watercolor is now called “gouache.”

Modern watercolors are manufactured by first preparing a mill-base, which is a mixture of raw pigment in gum arabic and wetting agent, as well as a plasticizer, such as glycerin, to help keep the color from drying out too rapidly. Gum arabic is a thick resin obtained from the acacia tree. It comes in small pieces which are tied in cheesecloth and soaked overnight in water to produce a gum solution. It is important that the pigment in the mill-base be uniformly dispersed, or the next step of grinding will be adversely affected.

A base-paint will be produced by grinding the mill-base with additional medium (gum arabic) in a series of rollers, which may be made of iron, stone, or ceramic, or some combination of these three. It is said that too much grinding reduces the brilliance of a color, but too little grinding can produce a gritty consistency. Each pigment has different grinding requirements, and how well a manufacturer accommodates these requirements plays a large role in determining the quality of the final product. Most manufacturers use primarily iron rollers, reserving stone grinding for the most delicate pigments. The Schmincke Company is the only major paint manufacturer to use the extra-hard Diabas stone mills for all its colors, which is an expensive method of production. Holbein effectively uses a combination of iron, stone, and ceramic rollers to get the best from both the Old World technique and modern technology.

The mill-base is first ground by iron rollers, then stone, then ceramic, which gives an increasingly finer dispersion. The specific number of revolutions and the pressure required for each pigment are considered trade secrets.

At this point, the base-paint may need some adjustments so that the color matches previously established standards. This is done during the last stages of grinding when the paint is ground an additional two to three times to mix in antiseptic and antifungal agents. The paint is then inspected and aged before packaging.

Watercolor pencils and crayons, which have long been in use among illustrators and graphic artists, have recently become popular among fine artists. Fortunately there are several brands that claim lightfastness, such as those produced by Derwent and by Caran D’Ache of Switzerland. They qualify as waterborne media since they can be drawn with and then reworked with a brush and water, applied to a wet surface, or mixed with water and then applied.

Pigments in Watercolor

A watercolorist should not only have an understanding of the quality of his or her paints but should also have a working knowledge of the compatibility of the pigments used and the effect air pollution may have on their stability. The pigments in watercolor do not possess a protective coating as oil paints do; therefore some pigments can react chemically with one another, as well as with air pollutants. This lack of a coating means that dye-pigments, which by their nature tend to bleed and stain the painted surface, are a greater problem with watercolors because they can stain not only the paper but the brush and palette. All these factors make it imperative that you understand the working characteristics of colors that you wish in your palette.  You should consider avoiding chrome colors in watercolor because they contain lead, which can react with the air pollutant sulfur dioxide and blacken. And, if you are going to rework painted areas frequently, you may wish to avoid dye-pigments, which can stain permanently, and select primarily mineral pigments, which will not.

Grades of Watercolor

As with oil paint, there are three grades of watercolor-artist, amateur, and student. Since watercolors are used in smaller quantities and bought in smaller volumes than oil paints or acrylic emulsion paints, the overall expense of setting up and maintaining a palette of colors is often considerably less than with other media. Most professional watercolorists purchase primarily artist-grade materials, and students purchase artist and amateur grades as funds permit. Thus the average watercolorist often has higher-quality paints than do painters who work in other media. It is important, however, to see watercolor paints in perspective.

In watercolors, the quality of the paint is not as important as the quality of the brush or the paper. Each medium has its own set of priorities. With oil paints, the paint comes first. In drawing, paper has the highest priority. Without a good brush and paper in watercolor painting, the only thing that will be expressed in the finished product will be the artist’s inability to do watercolor paintings. Because a quality brush is usually more expensive than an entire palette of watercolors, it is often the first item to be compromised when setting up for watercolors. If funds are still short after the brush has been compromised, the paper, which is used up quickly, is next to be short-changed. Over the years, I have seen many painters set up for watercolors in this way only to become discouraged when nothing seemed to work until they changed their priorities.

Transparent Watercolor

It is the combination of technique with the relative transparency of the paint that gives watercolor its great range, from the subtle to the dramatic. The English watercolor style is a good example of this. Those who paint in this style use transparent washes of color, which allow the background to shine through as if it were another color. The use of textured paper allows flecks of the white surface or previously applied color to show through, giving depth and contrast to subsequently applied colors.

William Reeves, the English color manufacturer, is credited with inventing the dry cake form of transparent watercolor around 1780. These colors were made from dry pigments, gum arabic, and sugar (which kept them moist) and were then fitted into small pans which were set into paintboxes. Although they were considered to be an improvement over the colors then in use (which were sold in sea shells), they still tended to be too dry and hard, with a tendency to crumble. A moister cake was created by the French, who substituted honey for the sugar in the original formula. In 1830, the English replaced honey with glycerin, which is still in the formula used today. The first watercolors in tubes were introduced in 1846 by Winsor & Newton, who now makes more than eighty colors in tubes.

Watercolor Dyes

Watercolor dyes, such as those produced under the names Dr. Martin’s or Lumacolor, are somewhere between a watercolor and an ink. They are made primarily from dyes rather than from pigments or dye-pigments. They are designed primarily for the graphic artist, whose needs are convenience and intense color, even at the sacrifice of permanency. With the exception of a few colors, watercolor dyes are highly fugitive and are not for use in fine art. Colors that are fade-resistant are marked as lightfast. However, changes in acidity and alkalinity can significantly alter the appearance of virtually any watercolor dye, lightfast or not.

Opaque Watercolor (Gouache)

The first watercolors were opaque and were referred to as “body color.” Exactly how body color took on the French name “gouache” has been a matter of speculation for some two hundred years. The LeFranc & Bourgeois Company says, “The word `gouache’ comes from the Italian guazzo, which means the mixing of water, glue, and pigments.”

Today, opaque watercolor is known as gouache, poster paint, designers’ colors, and tempera. The terms “tempera” and “poster paint” are used for the lesser qualities of opaque watercolor, which are not acceptable for fine artwork. Gouache and designers’ colors are acceptable for fine artwork with certain reservations. Almost all the commercially available gouache is made more for use by illustrators and designers, for whom having a particular color sometimes outweighs permanency. It is not unusual to find a considerable number of fugitive colors offered in lines of gouache, and these must be avoided by the fine artist. Gouache also has other drawbacks. If, for example, it is applied too thickly, as is done in acrylic or oil painting, it will tend to crack. The use of a rigid support will improve, but not correct, the problem. Bleeding and staining of colors are more common in gouache because of the greater percentage of dye-pigments used in its manufacture.

Gouache is made in much the same way as transparent watercolor. However, it is rarely ground as finely and has a much lower concentration of pigment because of the addition of white and other additives, which are designed to improve leveling properties and slow the rate of drying. Gouache is made this way to allow the artist to apply a flat, opaque field of color with a minimum of dilution or mixing and to achieve a look very different from watercolor.

There seem to be three types of gouache on today’s market. The first places emphasis on opacity, even to the extent of limiting the color range. Winsor & Newton’s Designers Gouache is an example of this. There are some seventy colors, with several grays, blacks, whites, and a gold and a silver, most of which are quite opaque.

LeFranc & Bourgeois’s Designers’ Gouache is an example of the second type, where the emphasis is on color range rather than opacity. It manufactures fifty-four more colors than Winsor & Newton, in addition to the several whites and blacks, but the paints are, on the average, slightly less opaque.

In the last type, quality dominates both color range and opacity. The German company H. Schmincke, recently reintroduced in the United States after a long absence, makes a line of double stone-ground gouache of the same quality as its extra-fine artists’ watercolors. This paint is very finely ground and is more like the original gouache formulations intended for fine art. The information in Schmincke’s color chart indicates that only the most permanent pigments available are used. This gouache is so fine that it is rated to be used in a 0.3mm airbrush without clogging (recent tests show that it works just as well in a 0.1mm airbrush).

Media for Watercolors

Watercolor depends on the absorbency of the working surface and on the binder to remain where it is applied. If the surface is not absorbent, like glass or plastic, watercolor will crawl (an art term for the beading of water on nonabsorbent surfaces), rub, or flake off the surface. If very dilute watercolor is applied to a semiabsorbent surface, like a plate-surface bristol paper, there could be so little binder that the watercolor might dust off the way a pastel drawing might. If an absorbent paper, like a print paper, is used, the watercolor often spreads uncontrollably or sinks below the surface. The purpose of watercolor media is to regulate watercolors so that they can be controlled within a particular working situation, as well as to create special effects.


Gum arabic is the binder for watercolor. It is also frequently used as a medium to help keep diluted watercolors from sinking below absorbent surfaces, to give a crisp appearance to the edges in a watercolor, to increase transparency, and to provide a varnishlike surface.

Gum arabic is a natural gum, which is collected in the form of an exudate from branches of an African tree of the species acacia. The best gum arabic is collected from commercial plantations in the Sudan. The quality of gum arabic can be simply tested by dissolving some of the dry form in water, which should leave very little or no residue. The addition of a drop of iodine will indicate any added sugar (used as filler) by leaving a purplish color.

A gum arabic medium can be prepared by adding one part dry gum arabic to two parts water and then slowly boiling until the gum is dissolved. A small amount of camphor (moth flakes) added to the medium will help to preserve it. Commercially prepared gum arabic media often have an emulsifier and glycerin added to improve handling. A thicker watercolor medium-a gel—can be made by the addition of silica.


Gum water is the name given to a diluted gum arabic medium that has a wetting agent. This medium allows for the addition of smaller amounts of gum for improving the transparency without decreasing the watercolor’s ability to flow on the working surface. It is the wetting agent that prevents crawling, or beading, on less absorbent surfaces.


The following products are used to change, or control, the handling characteristics of watercolor.

Ox Gall that has been clarified is a natural wetting agent for watercolors. It is used to reduce the surface tension between a watercolor and a less absorbent surface. However, only small amounts should be used and some caution is needed when using ox gall with colors that are made from pigments such as ultramarine blue, which are sensitive to acidity.

Prepared Size is a product of Winsor & Newton Company. It is made from gelatin, water, and a preservative. The manufacturer describes it as “a soft gel which reduces the absorbency of paper, boards, and lightweight textiles. The gel becomes liquid on warming. Thinning is not normally required.” This preparation achieves the opposite effect of that obtained with ox gall.

Wetting Agents for Nonabsorbent Surfaces are commercially prepared and include Flex-opaque and No-Crawl, which are used primarily to allow the application of gouache on such nonabsorbent surfaces as clear polyesters and acetate. A small amount-a drop or two-added to a watercolor mixture will improve flexibility and help prevent flaking. However, if too much is added, the paint becomes tacky and will not dry properly.

Masking Fluids, or Liquid Friskets, are like pigmented rubber cement. They can be painted on an area in which you wish to block the application of a watercolor. After the masking fluid is applied and has dried it will protect the surface, and when it is no longer needed it can be rubbed off easily. Luma Mask, Art Maskoid, Art Masking Fluid, and Miskit are some of the brand names for this pigmented rubber latex solution. These products should not be thinned or applied to a wet surface.