History Of Watercolor: Notable Artists You Didn't Know About

Abstract botanical watercolor art

Over the years, watercolors have evolved from tinting word carvings in the early 14th century to be a famous art medium. 

This article will tackle the evolution and history of watercolor paintings and many interesting facts about one of the most favored mediums among artists.

Watercolor evolved from pigments used by primitive people to make crude paintings on cave walls to the pigments used by Egyptians and the Chinese around 4000 BC. 

The world of visual arts radically changed with the invention of paper by the Chinese until the Italians perfected the formulation of watercolors.    

The Advent of a New Medium

Watercolor is known as the oldest painting medium, discovered by accident even at the start of history when the primitive people used pigments from trees, leaves, and other water-based pigments to make prehistoric cave paintings.

The Evolution of Watercolor

The first known watercolor paintings were those found in Egyptian pyramids dating before 4000 BC. However, papyrus is very fragile, and only a few of these paintings survived the elements and time.

The Chinese are more adept at keeping their paintings, especially with the invention of paper. Around 4000 BC, watercolor was an established medium for decorative art among the Chinese. 

By the 4th century CE, the Chinese had improved the Chinese brush, and watercolor landscapes became a norm.

As human knowledge evolves, so has the medium, especially with the discovery of papyrus among the Egyptians and paper among the Chinese. The first canvas among the Chinese was silk until the invention of paper around 100 AD.

However, in the late 12th century, water-based paints became so popular in Europe after establishing paper manufacturers in Italy and France. Watercolor art continued to flourish through the years, resulting in the improved composition of the watercolor and the art itself.

By the 14th century, watercolor was an established art medium. One of the most commonly commissioned works during this time was illuminated books. 

Lavish paintings and colorful texts characterized these books and were symbols of wealth, especially with the advent of printing. One of the most famous illuminated books during the Middle Ages is the Book of Hours, a devotional used by laypeople.

Famous Watercolorists

European artists became at the forefront of establishing watercolor as a medium. Many of these artists influenced twentieth-century watercolors. Here are some artists who brought watercolor painting into history.


Michelangelo holding a wooden palette and brushes

Michelangelo holding a wooden palette and brushes - Image by History Extra

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564), simply known as Michelangelo, is the artist behind the famous paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. 

Although he was a sculptor by trade, he took on the commission and painted lifelike paintings on wet plaster depicting scenes from the Bible. He completed the task in 1512 after four years of daunting labor.

Albrecht Dürer

Self-portrait of Albrecht Dürer

Self-portrait of Albrecht Dürer - Image by Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is a German artist known for his high-quality woodcut prints and watercolor landscapes. He has perfected his watercolor art, thus earning himself fame as the master of watercolor.

After incorporating watercolor techniques into his woodcut prints, he became famous for his style.

Hans Bol

An engraving of Hans Bol by Hendrick Goltzius

An engraving of Hans Bol by Hendrick Goltzius - Image by Wikipedia

Hans Bol (1534-1593) is best known for his landscapes, illuminated manuscripts, wood engravings, and drawings. However, for watercolor as a medium, his biggest contribution is founding watercolor schools in Germany. His workshop influenced the painting styles of his contemporaries.

Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens - Image by the National Gallery of Art 

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) made paintings of voluptuous women fashionable during his time. He was known for his extraordinary imagination, leading to the most exquisite paintings.

One of the most notable works in his lifetime was paintings on the ceiling of a Jesuit Church in Antwerp.

Thomas Gainsborough 

Self-portrait of Thomas Gainsborough

Self-portrait of Thomas Gainsborough - Image by Royal Academy

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), one of the founding members of the Royal Academy, was one of the most influential British artists of the late eighteenth century. He was most notable for his technique and fearless experimentation to bring his paintings to light. 

Gainsborough's watercolor painting Hilly Landscape with Figures Approaching a Bridge (1763), presently exhibiting at the Yale Center for British Art, exemplifies his artistry and style.

John Constable 

John Constable

John Constable - Image by National Portrait Gallery

English artist, John Constable (1776-1837), was another impoverished artist until he sold The White Horse (1819), which opened the coffers for Constable. Since then, he has been known for capturing realistic landscapes. 

Another illustration of his creative skill is The Stonehenge (1835), which he painted in watercolor. He is also one of the most influential 19th-century painters, and his work has had a lasting impact on many artists.

Joseph Mallord William Turner

Self-portrait of JMW Turner
Self-portrait of JMW Turner - Image by National Portrait Gallery

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), more popularly known by his initials JMW Turner, was an English Romantic landscape painter. 

He is known for his atmospheric sky paintings, which typically created a sense of ethereal wonder. One such style is seen in his painting Fisherman at Sea (1796).

John Sell Cotman

John Sell Cotman's portrait

John Sell Cotman's portrait - Image by Wikipedia

John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) was an English watercolorist and etcher. He is well-known for his picturesque landscape painting and other styles not common to nineteenth-century watercolors. 

However, he did not gain enough financial gain from his works. Even after his death, his paintings did not fetch a good price, much to the dismay of his family.

Later, his paintings gained a reputation and were recognized as one of the most reputed painters of watercolor seascapes and landscapes. Most of his works are now on display in various museums in Europe and the United States.

Paul Klee

A portrait of Paul Klee

A portrait of Paul Klee - Image by Wikipedia

Paul Klee (1879-1940) was a Swiss painter born to German parents. His stint in the military service influenced his art career. Klee was a very versatile artist, not favoring one medium, but his works reflect the result of his long experiments with tones and values. 

His most notable watercolor works are Tropical Gardening (1923) and abstract watercolor Föhn im Marc'schen Garten (1915).

Georgia O'Keeffe 

Portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe

Portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe - Image by Meet the Masters

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) was recognized as the "Mother of American Modernism," according to many art critics. She trained under many notable art professors at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, where she emerged as one of the most talented artists in her class.

Though she had a long stint in watercolor, considered a medium for amateur women artists in the early 1900s, her talent did not diminish even after losing most of her vision from macular degeneration.

O'Keeffe's estate sold one of her paintings in 2014, fetching a whopping $44.4 million that earned her the reputation as the highest price paid for a painting by a woman.

Charles Demuth

Self-portrait of Charles Demuth

Self-portrait of Charles Demuth - Image by The Art Story

Charles Demuth (1883-1935) was an American artist born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After his studies in various US and French art academies, he devoted most of his career to cubism, as seen in some of his works such as Sail: In Two Movements (1919) and Trees and Barns Bermuda (1917).

John Singer Sargent

Portrait of John Singer Sargent

Portrait of John Singer Sargent - Image by Artble

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was an American artist who trained in Paris and lived in London as an expatriate, where he spent most of his life as an artist. His paintings followed the artistic trends of his time.

He is best known for creating portraits during a period when celebrity portraiture was popular. Sargent's portrait style changed as he adapted to contemporary styles and media while also working within the traditional oil on canvas painting methods.

Sargent has painted over 2,000 watercolors as a watercolor artist, but his most notable was his 1909 exhibit where the Brooklyn Museum bought 83 out of 86 watercolors.

Most Notable Modern Watercolor Paintings

To lone ornithologists, birds from the whole world are singing

A modern-day painting by Dima Rebus

A modern-day painting by Dima Rebus - Image by Dima Rebus

The painting "To lone ornithologists, birds from the whole world, are singing" by Dimas Rebus is part of the Insolation Safety Series. 

Rebus used watercolor, chemical solutions, and rainwater (though we don't know how that matters to the painting) to make this miniature painting of a distorted bird against a basketball ring.

Sleeping Peasants

Sleeping Peasants by Pablo Picasso

Sleeping Peasants by Pablo Picasso - Image by Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso speaks loudly through his art, whether through his paintings, sculptures, drawings, even his writings. The Sleeping Peasants (1919), a mixed media painting in gouache, watercolor, and pencil, is one such painting. 

Here, Picasso shows the contrast of the life of the lowly peasants and the rich, how this peasant couple can sleep without a care, unbound by morality and etiquette.

Fishing Boats on the Beach

Fishing Boats on the Beach

Fishing Boats on the Beach by Vincent van Gogh - Image by Vincent van Gogh

Although van Gogh mostly worked with oil on canvas, he also made amazing watercolors, including the Fishing Boats on the Beach (1888), a scene at the fishing village of Sainte-Maries in the Mediterranean. 

This painting is reminiscent of van Gogh's style of broad brush strokes and vibrant colors. Van Gogh is also known for his vivid landscape watercolors.

The Purple Virgin

Untitled watercolor painting from The Purple Virgin series

Untitled watercolor painting from The Purple Virgin series - Image by Venison Magazine

Tracey Emin is one of the accomplished watercolor painters known for her suggestive paintings and photography, mostly portraying herself. One such evocative but oddly honest painting is the Purple Virgin series (2004), presenting women with base desires, much like their male counterparts. 

Here, Emin used watercolor as a mature painting medium using only simple lines and squiggles of a naked woman, lying with her legs open, probably after throes of passion.

The Helga Paintings

Daydream from the Helga Paintings by Andrew Wyeth

Daydream from the Helga Paintings by Andrew Wyeth - Image by Worth Point

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) gained controversy with the Helga pictures, a series of paintings of Helga Testorf who modeled for 247 studies, some of them in the nude. 

Daydream (1991) is considered one of the most romantic paintings of the series. The majority of this series now belongs to the personal art gallery of Leonard E. B. Andrews.

History of Watercolor FAQ

Who invented watercolor?

Not one person or civilization gets the credit as to where the use of watercolor began. However, several artists popularized watercolors as a mature painting medium. One of them is Paul Sandby, also known as the Father of English watercolor. 

Another famous pioneer of modern watercolor is Thomas Girtin and Joseph Mallord William Turner, known for their style and technique. 

Other vital artists in the history of watercolor painting include Anthony Copley Fielding, William Havel, Samuel Palmer, John Sell Cotman, and Samuel Prout.

What is watercolor?

The term watercolor refers to the medium, and the painting is made using the medium. Watercolors are usually translucent, making layering easier. 

When was watercolor first developed?

The invention of watercolor paint for the western art form occurred in the late 1400s. However, there was no standard for the consistency of watercolor paint since artists make their formulas and keep them as a trade secret, especially if they have perfected a particular color.

How can you paint watercolors?

A watercolor artist may choose the painting method he favors. Some go into wildlife illustration, like Rebecca Latham, to celebrate the wild and the creatures that live in them. Others choose to be botanical artists and dedicate their lives to botanical illustrations, which help educate the younger generations.

Others love to create large wall paintings, portrait miniatures, while others choose a particular style. Abstract expressionists like Helen Frankenthaler, one of the American artists who did box herself in the watercolor tradition known famous during her time.


The history of watercolor paints is interesting, and we hope you've enjoyed learning more about it. This article has offered a depth of information on the history and evolution of watercolors if you are an artist or simply like painting.

We hope you enjoyed and learned something from these facts! Please don't hesitate to comment and ask below if you have further questions about watercolors.

1 comment

  • I loved this it helped a lot on what I was working on thanks so much


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