Watercolour is an ancient medium which was used from the Palaeolithic era to create many of Europe’s cave paintings, and from the Middle Ages in the illustration of manuscripts. However, the popularity of watercolour painting today can be attributed to a transformation in its use, beginning with the Renaissance, and in which the United Kingdom played a central role. 

Still Life with Two Apples by Annie Williams RBA, Watercolour, 40 x 50 cm - £900

It started when the German painter Albrecht Durer discovered that watercolours were an ideal medium for his botanical, wildlife and landscape sketches - Durer’s Young Harebeing a well-known example. After Durer, other famous artists such as Van Dyck began using watercolours for quick sketches drawn from life, often with the natural world as their subject. 

Mark by Zi Ling, Watercolour, 91 x 71 cm - £2,130

Watercolour painting as a secular art form quickly spread to the United Kingdom, where it became particularly popular. By the Eighteenth Century, the education of an aristocratic man typically involved some training in watercolours. The medium’s ability to depict changing terrain made it incredibly useful for cartographic skills relating to warfare and the charting of newly discovered lands.

The Grand Scheme of Things by Deborah Walker RI ARSMA, Watercolour, 84 x 75cm - £3,530

Expedition parties to Asia and the New World would often recruit a watercolourist to document discoveries and create mementos of their voyage. Watercolour was also used to document life closer to home; the English cleric, William Gilpin, published a series of illustrated books about rural England. The immense popularity of Gilpin’s series saw watercolour painting become known as England’s ‘national art’. 

Westminster Cathedral by Varsha Bhatia RI, Watercolour, 53 x 68 cm - £3,100

The Poet William Blake used watercolours in several books of hand-tinted engraved poetry, in illustrations of Dante’s Inferno, and in large experimental monotypes. The market for printed books was growing rapidly, and as it grew, the bound book became a collector’s item, and among the upper classes’ favourite things to collect - volumes of watercolours sketches. 

Northern River by Sheila Goodman PS, Pastel & Watercolour, 41 x 46 cm - £850

Although watercolour was now widespread, it was still somewhat confined to the page, whereas oil paintings graced the walls of Britain’s finest buildings. It was artists such as Paul Sandby ‘the father of English watercolour’, Thomas Girtin, and JMW Turner who elevated watercolours to the status of high art. These artists took a medium hitherto used for small-scale illustrations and applied it to large-scale epic romantic landscapes. 

Fresh Fat Figs by Carole Griffin RBA, Watercolour, 24 x 37 cm - £895

The confluence of all these strands of watercolour painting in the UK led to the formation of several art societies dedicated to the medium, including the Society of Painters in Water Colours, and the New Water Colour Society. In 1831, several artists founded the New Water Colour Society to challenge the Royal Academy’s refusal to accept watercolour as an acceptable medium for serious art, and to compete with the Society of Painters in Water Colours by encouraging non-members to exhibit alongside them.

Mia Amore by Rosa Sepple PRI, Watercolour, 38 x 56 cm - £2,050
This society has since changed its name to become the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, part of the Federation of British Artists and based at Mall Galleries.

There have been many changes in the fine art of watercolour in the 187 years since the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (RI) began. Advancements in materials and techniques employed by today’s artists has led to interesting, colourful and dramatic paintings.

Since I became a Member of the RI in 2004, we have seen an increase in the popularity of watercolour paintings being purchased by private individuals and corporate public collections. This is reflected in the numbers of visitors to our annual exhibition. We are recognised as one of the best watercolour societies in the world and are continually looking for new Members to exhibit with us.

Rosa Sepple, President of the RI

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