Although watercolour is often overlooked, it has a rich history dating back to the palaeolithic ages when prehistoric humans would use natural pigments to paint cave walls. Throughout history, watercolours have featured heavily in the cultures of ancient civilisations, used by the Egyptians to paint onto papyrus, then by the Greeks and Romans to paint onto easels.
In traditional Chinese culture, watercolour was used as a decorative medium to paint religious murals and eventually transitioned into an established art form for landscape watercolour paintings.
This unique and delicate medium has for centuries documented our world history, but it wasn’t until the Renaissance that watercolour, as we know it today, was first formed. As a result of advancements in papermaking and synthetic pigments, watercolour emerged once more in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. Artists began to favour this more romantic medium that was not only more accessible but much more portable, allowing them to travel and record their findings.
One of the earliest exponents of watercolour paintings during the Renaissance was the German artist Albrecht Dürer. Dürer’s influence with watercolour during this time was indisputable, so much so that the period was coined the ‘Dürer Renaissance’.
It was Dürer who first began to experiment with watercolours by highlighting the luminosity and transparency that could be achieved when balancing the paper and pigment, which inspired so many others to experiment with the medium.
Dürer is known for his stunning botanical, landscape and wildlife watercolours, with his 1502 creation named ‘Hare’ going on to become one of the most famous watercolour works in our history.
Dürer’s watercolours have inspired centuries of artists, including Hans Bol, who established a school of watercolour painting during the Renaissance period. Since that time, noteworthy artists including J.M.W. Turner and Paul Sandby helped develop watercolours into the serious and expressive artistic medium we know and love today.
Sadly, the fragile and ephemeral nature of watercolours has meant that many works from the Renaissance and centuries since have been lost, destroyed or succumb to the hands of time. A handful of Dürer’s surviving works are currently housed at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, but to preserve and protect them, they are only available to view for a short time every few years.
Unfortunately, this is the fate of many historic watercolours, and to extend their life, they must be hidden away in environmentally controlled spaces. However, to save watercolours from a life in the dark, organisations such as Watercolour World have made it their mission to make these fragile works of art accessible to all. This UK based charity believes in both preserving our history and making art more accessible, which is why they have dedicated themselves to digitising thousands of pre-20th-century watercolours.
Currently, they have curated well over 80,000 watercolours in their free online database, pieces that would otherwise never be seen or be lost to time. This collection even includes a range of works from the aforementioned watercolour artist Albrecht Dürer.
Since 2016, the team at Watercolour World have scoured the globe seeking out pieces in both public and private collections that can be added to their growing database. Using safe LED scanning technology provided by Fujitsu’s PFU Portable scanner, highly detailed, true to life images can be captured without causing any damage to the original. These images are then uploaded to the online database for everyone to enjoy!
Watercolour World’s website holds an ever-expanding collection of historical watercolours from around the world. Many of these watercolour pieces depict cultures, lives and areas of the globe never before seen. With a simple click, you can visit anywhere globally using their World Map page, where you can browse images based on the place they depict. Watercolour World’s website allows us to experience our history and the history of watercolour paintings like never before.