Refreshing watercolours

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Tate Britain's new exhibition seeks to shake off watercolour's fusty exterior and reveal the dynamic, contemporary medium beneath. But will it wash?

Watercolour painting is traditionally the preserve of chocolate-box landscapes and pictures of gambolling kittens. The paint is cheap, relatively easy to use (compared to oil, say), and is at the mercy of a ‘less is more’ principle as far as piling it on goes.

It is seen by many as the rather wishy-washy maiden aunt of more highfalutin mediums like oil and sculpture. But this is an image Tate Britain is seeking to refresh via its new blockbuster exhibition, Watercolour, which opens tomorrow.

Tracey Emin may have preferred dirty bed-linen to water soluble pigment back in the YBA days, but her work is among the 200 watercolours due to go on show. Other illustrious modern artists include Patrick Heron – famous for blousy and colourful abstract work-, Peter Doig and David Austen.

Click on the image above for a picture preview

But the new show isn't just about watercolour's contemporary usage. It is also seeking both to celebrate this quintessentially British art form and to extend an historical view of its emergence right back to the illuminated texts of the Middle Ages. It includes pages from manuscripts emblazoned with marginalia, intricately decorated initials and miniature portraits rendered in watercolour and gold leaf.



Watercolours, the exhibition seems to be telling us, are not just decorative but practical too. Before the advent of photography, watercolourists were an important tool for recording eye-witness accounts. Because of its portability, artists were often taken on voyages of scientific discovery to record findings, as the watercolour sketches of exotic flora and fauna from Captain Cook’s voyages on display attest. Paintings by war artists William Simpson and Paul Nash are examples of how a fast-fingered watercolourist can snapshot a situation way, way before hand-held cameras presented the reality.

The father of watercolourists, J.M.W Turner, is rightly an integral part of the exhibition. His ethereal renditions of twilight skies could, arguably, not have been achieved via another medium. From Aubrey Beardsley to Alexander Cozens, William Blake to Peter Lanyon, a tour of Tate’s Linbury Galleries will bring give you a glimpse of the Pre-Raphaelites, Symbolists, Neo-Romantics and Modernists.

It is the sheer range of techniques among the 200 works on offer which really hammers home the versatility of this often overlooked art-form. The sponginess and dripping colour of the abstract pieces and the precise draughtsmanship of realism show us why watercolour has been actively used, if not always revered, by artists for more than three centuries. It may be a maiden aunt to bolder techniques, but it is as a paper notepad is to a laptop - without one the other would not have been invented and the bounds in technology do not render the former useless. It is refreshing to see.

'Watercolour' is at Tate Britain from 16 February until 26 August 2011

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'