Whether a landscape, still life, or figural composition, watercolors appeal to collectors because of their subtlety, translucence, and freshness and also because of their abundance. From the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century, watercolor painting was not only practiced by major artists, but also by legions of trained amateurs. And some of these amateur works can be remarkably fine. In the marketplace watercolors are usually grouped with drawings and other works on paper.
Tools and techniques
Watercolors are pigments dissolved in water. The colors are either supplied as dry cakes or in tubes of pigment paste. Because watercolors run easily, especially when heavily diluted, watercolorists usually work on a drawing table or other nearly horizontal surface.
For this reason watercolor brushes are used at close range and normally have shorter handles than brushes for oil painting at an easel. They come in many sizes, but are characteristically round in cross-section, with a pointed end for producing a fine line as well as a broad stroke. The best brushes are made of pure sable-tail hair, which gives the greatest flexibility. Brushes allow for complete saturation of color, and the artist can either decrease too much saturation by dabbing the brush on a blotter or flicking the excess away. Less expensive brushes are made of weasel-tail, squirrel, or skunk hair, while cheap imitation sable brushes can be made of dyed calf hair or even synthetic fiber.
The best watercolor paper was traditionally a heavy handmade sheet of pure rag content, produced in surface textures ranging from almost porcelain smoothness to distinctly toothy, or rough. Most paper today is machine made. It is usually bright white, which gives translucent watercolors the brilliance of stained glass. Sometimes toned papers are used, or the artist can tone a white sheet with a light wash of diluted pigment or ink.
In most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century watercolors you can detect a fairly refined underdrawing in graphite, charcoal, or pen and ink, beneath the paint. Later watercolorists often reduced the preliminary drawing to a few general indications, or dispensed with it altogether, working out the composition directly in brush. Watercolor paint dries quickly, making changes almost impossible once the brush touches the paper. By the same token, watercolor painting encourages a light touch as well as a sense of improvisation, and some of the finest effects in a work—colors bleeding or running—can be the result of what my watercolor teacher used to call "happy accidents." Some watercolorists also use wet paper, working wet on wet.
Four watercolors, from the gallery collection of Godel and Company Fine Art in New York, cover a range of styles and prices, while each exemplifies various techniques and effects that are at the heart of watercolor painting.
By the Stream by Maurice Brazil Prendergast (Fig. 1) bears the distinctive traits that earned him the accolade of America's first modernist: freehand figure drawing, disregard of perspective or of any illusion of space, and vivacious brushstrokes. Note how these strokes even ignore Prendergast's own outlines, notably in the tree trunks. Though the piece seems brightly colored at first glance, on closer inspection you can see that the palette is relatively limited—browns and dull blues in the foreground, touches of dull red-brown, pale pink, and olive in the tree trunks. The three female figures are washed in the palest gray-beige. But to balance the browns in the foreground, the treetops are composed of rapid strokes of blue, green, and yellow, in varied strengths. It looks as if Prendergast began with a brush full of color, and once he made his initial strokes, kept on wetting the brush to create the more diluted ones. As a work by an important artist, the watercolor carries a significant price, $125,000.
The crepuscular scene by the Anglo-American Henry Farrer (Fig. 2) achieves its end by its moody restraint and is priced at $22,000. The entire sheet appears to have been toned with a preliminary light gray sepia wash to establish the subdued light. The nebulous textures of the overcast sky form an essay in varied gray washes, while the pale cold greens and dull ochers of the ground vividly suggest the last growth of an autumnal field at twilight. Against this muted background, the copse of trees with leaves in varied shades of green, brown, yellow, and orange stands out like a soft gemstone. The effect is wonderfully emphasized by the carefully rendered reflection in the glassy still pond.
In Stroll Thorough the Garden Hamilton Hamilton (Fig. 3) evokes the sunlit breeziness of his more famous contemporaries Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent by allowing a lot of his bright white paper to show through. Although he depicts full daylight rather than twilight, Hamilton's palette is almost as limited as Farrer's. Here, a young woman in a tight-bodiced and bustled summer frock of the early 1880s, stands lost in thought beside a bank of summer blossoms, idly holding a posy she has culled from it. She is protected by her straw hat and by her parasol, its sunlit planes and delicate metal ribbing beautifully delineated. The texture of the massed flowers is complemented by the billowy sky beyond. To achieve the effect of flowers in bright daylight, Hamilton has left unpainted areas of the white paper. And while he defines some petals with light strokes of pink, he also defines numerous flowers by painting in the gray and violet shadows around the white blossoms. A few deft strokes of green and brown serve for the leaves and stems. This highly decorative piece is priced at $65,000.
The sweet silent melancholy of Andrew Wyeth profoundly influences Through the Barn Door by Allen Blagden (Fig. 4). While the golden winter sky suggests a preliminary wash to tone the paper, the deep, heavily worked browns, rusts, and russets of the door, walls, and floor build up a rich opacity that conveys the tactile weight of old wood. The variety of textures in this piece has its own appeal-the variegated floor, the worn boards, the slender trees and branches. And for a new collector, the $5,000 price is also a compelling blandishment.
Protecting your collection
❖ Watercolors were traditionally mounted with mats, often gold-colored, or French mats with hand-drawn linear borders around the opening. Old pieces in their original mounts still come up for sale. Many collectors now prefer to mount them in colored mats that harmonize or emphasize the palette of the work itself. In any case, old mats, even if relatively clean, are usually best replaced with acid-free mounts. The most important thing is to display watercolors in low light to prevent fading. Glazing watercolors with ultraviolet protective glass or ultraviolet Plexiglass is another good measure.
❖ Should you find a valuable watercolor in fragile condition, or with dirty, worn mounts, adhering bits of tape, broken or missing glass, consult a reputable paper conservator before doing anything more.
❖ Watercolor paints never stop being water soluble, and paper itself is relatively fragile. Therefore, never hang a watercolor in a place where there is airborne moisture.
Images from above:
Fig. 1. By the Stream by Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858-1924), 1915-1916. Signed "Prendergast" at lower left. Watercolor and graphite on paper, 10 3⁄4 by 13 inches. Photographs are by courtesy of Godel and Company Fine Art, New York.
Fig. 2. Evening Light by Henry Farrer (1843-1903), 1896. Signed and dated "h. farrer. 1896." at lower left. Watercolor on paper, 9 by 12 inches.
Fig. 3. Stroll Through the Garden by Hamilton Hamilton (1847-1928), c. 1890. Signed "Hamilton Hamilton N. A." at lower left. Watercolor on paper, 17 1⁄2 by 29 1⁄2 inches.
Fig. 4. Through the Barn Door by Allen Blagden (1938-), 1964. Signed "Allen Blagden" at lower right. Watercolor on paper, 22 by 30 1⁄2 inches.