Watercolor painting has been around for a long time. In fact, you can trace its roots all the way to China some 4,000 years ago. In Europe, watercolor painting began to be used during the Italian Renaissance along with advancements in papermaking. The Renaissance artist, Albrecht Durer experimented with watercolor painting and was successful in capturing the bright and transparent elements that we associate with contemporary watercolors today. However, in the United States, watercolor painting did not really take off until the 1800s. Naturalists, such as James Audubon, as well as the painters in the Hudson River school, found the portability of watercolors to be ideal for sketching and painting while out in the field. In 1886 the American Watercolor Society was founded and the tradition of American watercolor painting has continued to grow to this day.
There have been many great American watercolor artists, but some have been more influential than others. While it is actually impossible to narrow a list down to only ten of these great artists, I nevertheless have attempted to illustrate ten great American watercolor painters that continue to be influential today, inspiring generations of new painters and patrons. Let me know who I left out.
1. Milton Avery (1885-1965)
Avery's work is crucial to American abstract painting. Avery defied conventional perspective in order to create representational, but highly abstract paintings. His work was initially rejected as being too abstract or out of the norm. Later, as abstract expressionism took hold in America, his work was considered too representational. Sometimes you just can't win! Today, he is recognized as one of America's great Modern painters. His watercolors are expressive and experimental and capture his love of both nature and painting.
2. Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924)
From 1891 to 1894, Prendergast lived in Paris, where he studied painting and developed his understanding of post-impressionism. Upon his return, he became associated with a group of artists known as The Eight, who championed a more progressive approach to art. He traveled to Europe many times between 1898 and 1914. The artist's assimilation of the avant-garde styles of Cézanne and Matisse is evident in his use of strokes of vivid colors in intricate, decorative patterns that draw attention to the picture's surface. His watercolor landscape paintings are almost abstract, with their muted tones and far away perspectives.
3. Arthur Dove (1880-1946)
Arthur Dove is known as one of America’s first true abstract artists. His paintings depict the American landscape through a reductionist’s approach of bringing the forms down to their essence. There is a quality of nature that stays within the work even as the forms and shapes take on more non-representational aspects. In his first one-person exhibition, held at Stieglitz's Gallery 291 in 1912, Dove established himself as one of America’s most prolific and inventive artists working with abstraction. His work has inspired many future generations. Dove's watercolor paintings simultaneously recall the American landscape while also being completely internal, non-representational images.
4. Charles Demuth (1883-1935)
Demuth is known for his cubist-style works depicting the Pennsylvania landscape and cityscapes. He studied at the Drexel Institute of Art and later at the Pennsylvania Institute of Art and Academy of Fine Art in Pennsylvania. Charles studied briefly with the French cubist Albert Gleizes in Bermuda in 1917. After returning to the United States, he developed his precisionist style of painting. His watercolor paintings have sharp lines and muted tones. They work as both sketches for his oil paintings and stand alone as finished works of art.
5. Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)
Eakins was a native-born artist who is best known for his starkly realistic paintings. Most notable is the Gross Clinic (1875, Oil on canvas, 96” X 78” Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia). His watercolor paintings follow the European style of watercolor painting, which embraces a strong sense of precision along with muted colors.
6. Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)
Wyeth was the son of the famous illustrator, N.C Wyeth. He was a child prodigy who quickly developed a reputation for detailed realism. Wyeth focused his career on depicting the landscape and people around Chadd’s Ford Pennsylvania and his summer home in Cushing, Maine. Wyeth’s regionalist style captured the gritty ruggedness of both people and land. He was wildly popular during his lifetime and inspired many future artists. He is best known for his works in watercolor and egg tempera. Wyeth's watercolor style varies from being almost hyper realistic, as in his Helga pictures, to very painterly with loose brushstrokes and stark contrast.
7. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
O’Keeffe brought her own personal instincts and style to the American art scene in the early 1900s. Her paintings show an economy of detail with an emphasis on form, color, and shadow and exude of sense of Modernism. She worked both representationally and abstractly to reveal a unique vision of the southwest. Most noteworthy are her large floral paintings. O'Keeffe was a master watercolor painter, and her loose watercolor meditations are considered some of her best paintings. As a point of interest, she was also married to the photographer and gallerist, Alfred Stieglitz, who took many photographs of O'Keeffe throughout her life.
8. John Marin (1870-1953)
Marin traveled to Europe from 1905 to 1910 and returned to America after being influenced by the works of Cezanne. He was introduced to Alfred Stieglitz soon after his return, and under the direction of The Stieglitz 291 gallery, he began to interpret New York through an abstract watercolor style, the likes of which had not been previously seen in America. John Marin's loose abstract approach to watercolor painting was a novel addition to the American art world. Some consider him to be America's greatest artist.
9. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
John Singer Sargent was born on January 12, 1856, to American parents living in Florence, Italy. Although he spent most of his life in Europe, both of his parents were raised in the United States, and the artist considered himself to be an American. Sargent is known for fluid brushstrokes and precise proportions. His facility as a draughtsman is renowned and his watercolor paintings are filled with light and confident brushwork.
10. Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
No list of great American watercolor artists would be complete without Winslow Homer. Homer was a self-taught artist and illustrator who worked as a documentary artist during the Civil War. After a visit to France where Homer was exposed to the work of the Barbizon School of painters, Homer adopted his mature style and sense of Realism. He later moved to Maine, where he painted several marine-style landscapes.
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Author: Bruce Black
Welcome to Life Reimagined! I am a professional artist and long time art teacher, Over twenty-two years teaching and still going! I have painted all my life and love to inspire others to reach their creative potential. I hope this blog brings you inspiration!