Refreshing watercolours

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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.

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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

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