Discover Online Classes in Watercolor Painting

Landscapes, florals, botanicals, and more!

Just as today’s artists often dabble in a variety of mediums—for example, a gouache painter may also work in a digital format—many of the most famous historical artists also experimented with different materials. For example, Vincent van Gogh, who used oil paints for many of his most recognized works, is also one of the most famous watercolor artists. 

Watercolor is one of the oldest and most accessible painting mediums in the world, so it’s no surprise that some of the most renowned artists are also watercolor painters. Below, we discuss some of the most influential (and surprising!) watercolor painters in history.

Famous Watercolor Artists

Many famous artists experimented with watercolor paints—for some, as a material for sketching, and for others, as their medium of choice. Below, we explore the lives and works of some of the world’s most renowned watercolor painters. 

1. John James Audubon

passenger pigeon.
Source: wikimedia
John James Audubon’s depiction of a passenger pigeon.

Best known for “The Birds of America,” a series of 435 life-size watercolors of North American birds, John James Audubon was one of the first and most celebrated wildlife illustrators. Audubon first developed an interest in birds when he was a young boy in France. After he moved to America at age 18, he began drawing birds with the goal of depicting them in a more realistic manner than most artists did at the time. 

Audubon observed birds in the wild, but he also collected recently killed birds as specimens and models. He would pin them into lifelike poses—inspired by their natural habitats and behaviors—to use as inspiration for his compositions. After drawing the birds with pencil or ink, he would color them with a combination of watercolors, pastels, chalks, and oil paints. 

2. Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer’s “The Great Piece of Turf”
Source: dangreen2012 via Flickr Creative Commons
Albrecht Dürer’s “The Great Piece of Turf”

Albrecht Dürer is perhaps most recognized for his woodcut prints and engravings, but his watercolor art established him as one of the first European landscape artists. 

In addition to landscapes, he often painted a range of creatures and scenes from the natural world, like birds, rabbits, and tufts of herbs and grass. His watercolors are intricate and often accented with fine ink details, like the individual fibers of a rabbit’s fur or the feathery plume of a bird’s wing. He would sometimes add thin lines of gold to his paintings that included birds’ feathers to imitate their iridescent luster. 

Find Inspiration All Around You!

Botanical Illustration: Paint a Colorful Garden with Watercolor and Gouache

3. Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh’s “Young Scheveningen Woman Seated: Facing Left”
Source: wikimedia
Van Gogh’s “Young Scheveningen Woman Seated: Facing Left”

One of the most famous painters in Western art history, Vincent van Gogh is most well known for his oil paintings filled with bold colors and expressive brush strokes—including “Sunflowers” and “The Starry Night.” 

However, early in his art career, his mentor and second cousin, Anton Mauve, introduced him to watercolor painting. In total, he created over 150 watercolor paintings during his life. While they don’t include the brush strokes and textures he’s so well known for, they do feature bold, vibrant colors. 

4. John Singer Sargent

“The Bridge of Sighs,” by John Singer Sargent
Source: wikimedia
“The Bridge of Sighs,” by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent inherited his love of drawing and painting from his mother, an amateur artist. Extensive travel, both during his childhood and as a young adult, inspired him to paint grand landscapes. Ultimately, however, he became most well known for his portrait work, beginning with a controversial piece titled “Madame X.” The painting, which depicted a young socialite, went against traditional portrait conventions and, as a result, was received with criticism. 

Later in life, he moved away from formal portrait work and focused on painting watercolor landscapes and working en plein air. He continued to travel extensively and gained inspiration from the picturesque landscapes of his destinations, from Europe to the Middle East to the United States. 

5. John Constable

“On the Lower Thames” by John Constable
Source: wikimedia
“On the Lower Thames” by John Constable

Many watercolor artists are famous for landscape painting, but John Constable revolutionized the art form. He chose to focus on painting the Suffolk countryside—where he lived—citing, “I should paint my own places best.” He would often sketch in the open air, then finish the painting in his studio. 

He didn’t make much money from his paintings at the time—and, as a result, struggled to support his family—but now, his watercolor paintings are some of the most valuable pieces of British art. 

6. Rhoda Holmes Nicholls

“Picking Wildflowers” by Rhoda Holmes Nicholls 
Source: wikimedia
“Picking Wildflowers” by Rhoda Holmes Nicholls 

Rhoda Holmes Nicholls was born in England, but her extensive travels around South America and Italy inspired her watercolor paintings. Eventually, she moved to the United States and traveled along the east coast, painting and teaching. 

Interesting fact: In 1897, Rhoda and her husband, Burr, both submitted paintings to the Paris Salon. However, only Rhoda’s was accepted, which eventually led to the couple’s divorce. Still, Rhoda went on to achieve great success as a groundbreaking female artist. Her watercolors received many awards, were featured in prestigious exhibitions, and were published in journals. 

7. Paul Cézanne

“Paysage en Provence” by Paul Cézanne
Source: wikimedia
“Paysage en Provence” by Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne is one of the most influential artists in history—so much so that Henry Matisse and Pablo Picasso referred to him as “the father of us all.” In his artwork, Cézanne strived to simplify naturally occurring forms into the simplest geometric shapes possible. For example, he might have painted a tree trunk as a cylinder or an apple as a sphere. 

Initially, Cézanne used watercolors primarily in initial sketches, but they eventually became his preferred medium. He generally focused on still lifes, portraits, landscapes (particularly his birthplace in the south of France), and bathing scenes.

8. Winslow Homer

“The Bather” by Winslow Homer 
Source: wikimedia
“The Bather” by Winslow Homer 

An influential American painter, Winslow Homer began his career as a printmaker before studying oil painting and using the medium to illustrate scenes from the Civil War. As he built his reputation as a painter, he also worked as a magazine illustrator. Eventually, he also added watercolor painting to his repertoire—and his success in that medium finally allowed him to give up his work as an illustrator. 

Eventually, he settled in Portland, Maine but traveled widely to Canada, Florida, and the Caribbean, where he created some of his most spectacular watercolor pieces. 

9. William Blake

“Jerusalem, Plate 51” by William Blake 
Source: wikimedia
“Jerusalem, Plate 51” by William Blake 

Perhaps most well known as a poet, William Blake was also a printmaker and painter—and he found ways to combine both writing and painting into a single composition. Sometimes, for example, he would combine poetry and images on an engraved plate, and then tint it with watercolor paints. 

He wasn’t financially successful during his lifetime, which forced him to live in poverty—however, some credit that as the factor that allowed his imagination to blossom. He based much of his art on religious themes, such as angels, spirits, and demons. 

10. Georgia O’Keeffe

“Blue #2” by Georgia O’Keeffe
Source: wikimedia
“Blue #2” by Georgia O’Keeffe

Throughout her life and career, Georgia O’Keeffe practiced with many different mediums, from oil paint to charcoals and pastels. She initially created highly abstract pieces of art, but eventually became known for her depictions of American skyscrapers, flowers, and mountainous landscapes, such as Mount Fuji. 

She also mastered the art of watercolor painting, creating 51 pieces of watercolor art between 1916 and 1918. These experimental, abstract paintings are nothing like the sophisticated oil paintings she’s recognized for; however, they represent a period in her life when she was searching for her voice and style. 

Who Inspires You?

Understanding an artist’s full body of work can enable you to get a full picture of their voice. These artists may not all be known solely as watercolor painters, but their pieces of watercolor art had a profound impact on their own artistic style and the world of art in general. 

Follow in Their Footsteps!

Art Essentials: Learn Watercolor Painting Basics