History of watercolor

April 15, 2015 in Blog bericht, Buddhism, Watercolor by Michelle Dujardin


A few weeks ago, on a grey Sunday afternoon, I visited the Mesdag Museum in The Hague. To my surprise there was a temporary exhibition about watercolors and their history. Even though my life has been about watercoloring a lot the past 2 years, I hardly knew anything about the history of it. I never gave it a serious thought why you hardly find watercolor paintings that are dated back hundreds of years ago.

It was lovely to see the first paintboxes in wood that were used commonly by artist, even of Brands we still use today.

watercolor box

watercolor materials

The exhibition opened my mind in several ways. It also confronted me with the status watercoloring seems to have here in the Netherlands. It’s often ridiculed and not taken seriously. Watercoloring has a name of being a hobby for elderly women.

Walking through the museum made me wonder what has happened with the status of watercoloring, since it was only 100 years ago that it seemed to be a far more respected form of art. As I found, watercoloring was frequently used to accentuate illustrations in black and white. But in the late 19th century factories produced cheaper watercolor paint of high quality that made them more populair among artist. In the UK, Belgium and later the Netherlands, artists working with watercolors gathered in societies (called the Dutch Watercolour Society or in Dutch: de Hollandsche Teekenmaatschappij). Among them were two Dutch female artists too.


My personal favorite was a painting by the Italian Mose Bianchi that had quite some color and humor compared to the Dutch painters. This painting is called ‘Choir boys’ (1877)

mose bianchi

Choir boys

choir boys



Wikipedia says about the history of watercoloring:

Several factors contributed to the spread of watercolor painting during the 18th century, particularly in England. Among the elite and aristocratic classes, watercolor painting was one of the incidental adornments of a good education, especially for women. By contrast, watercoloring was also valued by surveyors, mapmakers, military officers and engineers for its usefulness in depicting properties, terrain, fortifications or geology in the field and for illustrating public works or commissioned projects.

Reading this text I ask myself why it was especially good for women? If you look at Asian art that uses similar fluid techniques there doesn’t seem to be a gender difference. Does its has to do with colors? Is it because watercolors are perfect for making botanical illustrations and women love flowers and plants more than men? Or is it because the transparent paint creates lighter, brighter and therefore ‘sweeter’ images. I seriously don’t know the answer, if you do I would love to hear!

The only thing I know is that you need quite some courage and an assured hand to paint with watercolors. If you learn how to paint ‘in the Zen way’ it can free your mind and soul you can use it as a meditation technique. And if watercoloring is considered as ‘typical feminine’ , I think Zen watercoloring could be a very effective meditation technique for women (and of course men too)!

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