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Think of watercolor art, and you might think of amateur doodles that “anyone” can do. That couldn’t be further from the truth—apart from the suggestion that anyone can try it out.
Watercolor paints have long been a favorite among professional and up-and-coming artists alike because of their versatility. Using watercolors, you can create dreamy landscapes in pastel or striking, lifelike portraits, and pretty much everything in between. Read on to check out some beautiful watercolor art inspiration.
Watercolor paints are a fast-drying, translucent paint made with binder and a colorful pigment. They come in tubes or on pans and must be mixed with water. A great quality of watercolor paints is how they blend together to create gradients of color and shade. Once dry, watercolor paints can be reworked (to a degree) by adding more water, so they’re great to work with if you change your mind about how you want something to look after it’s already on the page.
Watercolors have been used by artists for centuries: some Renaissance artists saw the potential in this medium at a time when tempera (an egg-based paint) and oil paints were more common. Many famous artists used watercolors to do preliminary studies for paintings in a different medium, such as oil paints. In some cases, these studies have become more valued over time as artworks in their own right.
Check out these watercolor paintings, from famous and not-so-famous artists, to inspire your next watercolor masterpiece.
You may have seen some of the following paintings before without realizing that they’re watercolors. The striking differences in style show how versatile this medium is.
“Wing of a Roller” by Albrecht Durer, 1512
Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was an important figure in the German Renaissance. He’s considered a pioneer in watercolor painting because he realized the importance and flexibility of the medium at a time when oil and gouache paints were more common. His watercolor painting, like this bird wing, are praised for how detailed they are.
“Dante Running from the Three Beasts” by William Blake, 1826
William Blake (1757-1827) was a British poet, printmaker, and watercolor artist who painted a series of watercolors for the classic work of Italian literature Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. Blake’s use of watercolor paints was unusual for his time in that he tended to draw illustrations first and then color them with watercolor paint. This gives his watercolor paintings a bolder, more hard-edged quality than many 18th and 19th-century watercolors.
“Cottages on a High Bank” by John Constable, 1830s
When many people think of watercolor painting, they think of the type of pastoral landscape scenes favored by English artist John Constable (1776-1837). He was particularly interested in the sky and landscape scenes, including cottages.
“Lake Sarnen” by J.M.W. Turner, 1842
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) painted more than 2000 watercolors over his career. He worked in other media, too, such as oil paint, but his watercolors are especially beloved for their dreamy, impressionistic quality.
“Fisherwomen, Cullercoats” by Winslow Homer, 1881
American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is best known for his paintings of landscapes, particularly marine landscapes and seaside fishing scenes. He started out painting with oil paints but increasingly worked in watercolors when they became popular and sold well.
“Madame Gautreau” by John Singer Sargent, 1883
Expatriate American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is often considered the leading portrait artist of his time, and he used watercolors for some of these portraits. He also used the medium for landscapes and cityscapes, particularly in Italy and North America.
“Boats on the Beach of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” by Vincent van Gogh, 1888
Although Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is better known for his oil paintings, he also produced many watercolor paintings. They were mostly in preparation for his oil paintings, and his distinctive use of color and composition shine through in this medium, too. Van Gogh himself didn’t consider his watercolors his greatest masterpieces, but he didn’t enjoy critical acclaim during his lifetime anyway. Art critics now value his watercolors highly, even if the artist himself didn’t.
“Forest Path” by Paul Cézanne, 1905
Earlier in his career, French artist Paul Cézanne (1809-1906) used watercolors mainly as preliminary studies for his oil paints. As his career progressed, his watercolors became standalone works of art that explored the possibilities of the media.
“View of Saint Germain” by Paul Klee, 1914
German painter Paul Klee’s (1879-1940) watercolors often pieced together abstract shapes to create a cohesive and representative overall scene. The above example of Klee’s painting is less abstract than some others, but you can still see how geometric shapes play a role.
“Sunrise” by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1916
American modernist artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) lived and worked in the southwestern United States during formative periods in her career, and the colors and shapes of the landscapes can be identified in her abstracted watercolors. You can see the way she made the most of the way watercolor paints bleed into each other in the painting above.
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A great thing about watercolor paints is that they’re easy to use, inexpensive, and fun to play with. Perhaps it’s not possible for everyone to create a watercolor masterpiece, but there aren’t the same barriers to getting started as there might be with some other art forms like sculpture or glass blowing. A casual search of Instagram, your local art markets, or Skillshare classes will bring up many examples of talented watercolor painters whose names you’ve never heard.
This can be great motivation to try out watercolor painting yourself. You don’t need to be a great master to create a great masterpiece, after all.
“Home Sweet Home” by Jen Sweeney
Skillshare instructor Jen Sweeney teaches a class on how to paint a portrait of your home. Doing so is a lovely way to capture a place you are attached to and to have a record of it at a moment in time, for years to come. Sweeney’s own “Home Sweet Home” looks great framed and presented as a cozy masterpiece.
“Rosette Succulents” by Cat Coquillette
Artist and graphic designer Cat Coquillette paints in a variety of media but says that watercolors are her favorite type of paint to work with. Her stylized flowers, animals, and plants have been used to decorate a variety of housewares, from cushions to wall decals, sold at mainstream stores like Target.
“A Day After Diwali” by Sravanthi Chaturvedula
Watercolor paints make it very easy to use one base color and mix it with greater or lesser amounts of water to achieve tones across the paper. Indian watercolor painter Sravanthi Chaturvedula captures the warmth and mystery of the holy city of Benares with a limited color palette.
“Ang Siang Hill” by Brian Tiahh
Malaysian artist Brian Taihh captures scenes from around Southeast Asia through his soft, relaxed, but naturalistic watercolors using a restrained color palette. In the above example, you can see the subtle juxtaposition of tradition and modernity in a Singapore street scene through the old townhouses in the foreground and the ultra-modern Marina Bay Sands hotel in the background.
“The Earth” by Anna Tillus
German artist Anna Tillus specializes in watercolor paintings of planets, galaxies, and other astrological scenes. Watercolors lend themselves well to this subject because the colors and tones can be both dense and opaque and soft and translucent—and you can give it a try yourself!
“Rose” by Guido Albanello
Contemporary Italian artist Guido Albanello largely paints flowers and botanical scenes. A browse through his portfolio highlights the differences between oil paints and watercolor paints because he works in both media with very different outcomes.
“Untitled Portrait” by Ko Byung Jun
South Korean painter Ko Byung Jun specializes in portraits, which he often paints by combining watercolors with other media such as photographs, pencil drawings, and acrylic paints. A great thing about watercolor paints is that they lend themselves well to multimedia work and can be layered or used in isolated parts of the painting.
Start Your Watercolor Masterpiece Today
If you feel inspired by these watercolor artworks, know that that getting started with watercolors is incredibly easy. Although it definitely takes practice to paint something you’d be proud to frame and hang on your wall, the experimentation stage is great fun.
Watercolor paints are low maintenance and don’t require any smelly solvents to clean up (like oil paints do) and there are no “rules” you need to follow (or break!). The way watercolor paints bloom together is fascinating when you’re trying to create unique, one-off pieces, and you don’t need to worry too much if you make a mistake because watercolor mistakes are relatively easy to fix. Why not get started on your watercolor art journey today?
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