Secret Recipes, Honey and ‘the world’s pinkest’ paint: A Brief History of Watercolour

Today, an aspiring watercolourist might well be daunted, if not completely flummoxed, by the range of products available for purchase. The 21st century artist is spoiled for choice, but this was not always the case…

When watercolour first arrived in the West in the late 15th century, it was sold in unrefined clumps that had been cut from huge, clay-like slabs of the substance. Artists had to ‘rub up’ their colours by breaking up the clumps into useable bits and then grinding them in water.  The result was a myriad of methods and secret recipes that artists guarded jealously.

© Nicola Wiltshire

As the centuries passed, artistic entrepreneurs began making ready-made paints for artists. The 18th century saw the sale of the first water soluble dry cake watercolours and the addition of honey to the formula, this natural humectant attracting and retaining moisture. By the early 19th century, moist watercolours had been introduced to the general public, and in 1835 Winsor Newton unveiled a new form of the product, a moist watercolour cake that had been softened with glycerine to make it more pliable.

Larges Reeves & Sons Artist Watercolour Box, c. 1850, © Antiques Atlas

In the mid 19th century, the fashion shifted from watercolour cakes to a semi-liquid formula which was contained in metal tubes. With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, brighter and more permanent colours became available: the intense colours inspired the Pre-Raphaelites and the new tube paints allowed the Impressionists to develop the plein air technique.

‘Proserpine’ (1847) Dante Gabriel Rossetti, © Tate Britain

Following the Industrial Revolution, watercolour continued to develop, improving in quality, expanding into a more diverse medium with an extensive palette, and becoming both more affordable and readily available. Watercolour is still evolving and diversifying today: artist Stuart Semple recently created PINK, supposedly the ‘the world’s pinkest’ paint!

© Culture Hustle

Today, then, our aspiring watercolourist need not spend hours ‘rubbing up’ his colours before he can set to work; indeed, he is more likely to spend those hours examining the overwhelming range of products on display in an art shop! Should you find yourself in this position, take a look at the post titled ‘Which brand of watercolour should you choose?’ on the WonderStreet Blog. The piece, well-researched and well-written, explores the best brands of watercolour paint, evaluating each brand in detail and concluding with a succinct summary containing key findings and recommendations.

To read ‘Which brand of watercolour should you choose?’, by Olivier Jennes, visit  WonderStreet is a UK-based art platform which allows all  creatives, from emerging to established artists, to showcase their work.

Thoughts on Watercolour from former exhibitor Juliet Benini

The Selfie-Conscious I, exhibited by Juliet Benini as part of The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2015, is a powerful, striking work whose subject’s eyes catch and hold yours even though she is not looking at you.  It is an arresting image that raises unsettling questions about contemporary individual identity in a world in which the self can be constructed, distorted and manipulated on a screen.  Eager to learn more about the artistic process behind the work, I caught up with Juliet, who provided the following thoughts on watercolour, in particular its ability to unearth what is ‘inside’ the artist.

‘The Selfie-Conscious I’, Juliet Benini, 2015 exhibitor

When painting the Selfie-Conscious series for the 2015 Sunday Times Watercolour Competition, I wanted watercolour to visually embody the subtle fragility and ambiguity surrounding contemporary individual identity. I chose the medium mainly for its ‘look’–its fleeting washes, its lack of consistency, its soft airiness against paper–all of which I felt resembled my elusive sense of self amidst a world of technological ‘white noise’.

In the following years, however, I came to discover the centrality of watercolour to my specific process and to what drives me to make art in the first place. My ideas shifted to a more timeless and universal human predicament: that of the fundamental impossibility of full and authentic self-expression. Any attempt to communicate a feeling or a thought will always be incomplete. Like a stutter, expression falters–something comes through, but not everything. Trying to communicate is like trying to fit liters and liters of water into one small cup–it simply does not fit.

The act of painting is often seen to unearth what is ‘inside’ the artist, paint itself acquiring a revealing and subject-like force. We may consider watercolour to maximize this power. Watercolour has a closeness to life, the velocity of its marks steer the maker into the present moment of making and secure the essential contact between paper, ink and painter. Watercolour’s immediate and permanent stains have the ability to record specific incidents in time–like breaking open, crashing through, swimming away.

With this in mind, I work obsessively across long scrolls of paper, trying to catch up with my present state of mind. I repeat the same image of my face, re-rolling or crumpling the paper behind me. Each face turns out differently, by virtue of watercolour’s properties, but also my present mood. The difficulty of controlling the paint forces me to work attentively yet instinctively, in between accident and intent–arguably the reality of subjective experience.

‘Scroll I’, Juliet Benini

When too distracted to paint, I chase my thoughts by writing in black ink along till rolls. Like a physical stream of consciousness, I let the words fall and fold under my desk. It makes me feel like I’ve poked a hole in my brain, the ‘stuff’ can leak out and I can breathe again. Sometimes after a full day or writing, I feel silenced around people, like I finally have nothing left to say. When too agitated to write, I tap or slap till rolls with one ink-soaked hand, whilst pulling it like an assembly-line with the other. Far from a release, this process further frustrates me, for it brutally mimics the fleeting intangibility of each moment.

What result are heaps of paper which highlight a continuing studio behavior. The folds, spirals, bunches and piles simultaneously reveal and conceal, emulating the interruptions inherent in the articulation of the self. Text and image take on a sculptural form; literal meaning is abandoned and is replaced by the act of expressing, or the potential to mean something. Words and images are rendered essentially inaccessible and inconclusive, allowing them to gain an open-ended, poetic quality. I would like interpretation to be halted or slowed down, so that a space might be opened up for whatever was left, the lack, the absence contained within every presence.

Deciding ‘what to make’ is a daunting thought which has probably crossed the mind of every artist at one point or another. What we find in the whites of gallery spaces are like simplified echoes, highlights in a text, tips of icebergs. I am especially preoccupied with the complexities of choice. If we accept that personalities, feelings, thoughts etc are unfixed and ever-changing possibilities, then unbounded choice to express one thing or another seems oddly constricting. Far from opening doors, it closes all but the one we end up choosing. My avoidance of oils, acrylics or pencil stems from the possibility of erasing, altering, going back or jumping forward. Working with stains in an assembly-line format is my way of limiting choice, to catch up and keep up with my mind in the present moment, a moment which naturally and infinitely eludes my grasp in the first place.

‘Cloud’, Juliet Benini

For further information on Juliet and her practice, visit

To enter this year’s edition of The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition, visit  Deadline: 5pm, 26 June 2017.

Q+A with Artist Simon Turvey

In your Artist Statement you say that you often work from life. Is this as difficult as we all imagine it to be, and if so, why persevere with it?

Working from life is often a struggle, takes time and is unpredictable, which is precisely why it should be attempted, if not all of the time, at least when it is possible.

I try to work from life where possible, because it is a direct line between the subject and the drawing or painting. It is not always possible to work from life – for example because of time restraints – so if I have to work from photographs I always use lots of them, from different angles, and never rely on a single one, because photographs often distort the image.

You work in both watercolour and oils. What would you say is the greatest strength/attribute of each?

Watercolour is a more fragile medium, more delicate, and oils are more robust and moveable.

Tell us a little about Charles, the painting selected for The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 exhibition.

‘Charles’, Simon Turvey

The painting of my nephew Charles was inspired by the sight of him with his pet cockatiel (one of two) which often chooses people’s heads as suitable perches. It’s always more interesting to paint something familiar with a slightly different slant.

During your teenage years you developed a fascination with wildlife and were later elected a member of the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA).  Is there a wildlife artist who you particularly admire and what is it about their style/work that holds the attraction for you?

Raymond Harris Ching is a painter whose work I like [as it] … is very fresh and individual.

Define watercolour, or describe what it means to you, in one word.


‘Mute Swans’, Simon Turvey

Simon will be exhibiting at this year’s Society of Wildlife Artists show at Mall Galleries, London, in late October.

Should you wish to learn more about Simon and his work, the following sites may be useful:

The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2017 has launched!

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Now in its 30th year, The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition is the largest and most prestigious prize for contemporary watercolour painting in the UK. Whether it be through abstract or figurative, contemporary or traditional, the competition aims to celebrate and redefine the beauty and diversity of watercolour and water-based media.

 Open to all UK-based artists, the competition offers a diverse and generous range of prizes including a First Prize of £10,000, the Jackson’s Young Artist Award worth £500 and the St Cuthberts Mill Prize for an outstanding work on paper.

Approximately one hundred works which are deemed to reflect the true breadth of the medium, will be selected by a panel of leading figures from the art world. The 2017 judging panel includes Sarah Long, Director of Long and Ryle Gallery; Kathryn Maple, artist and 2016 First Prize Winner; Louis Wise, critic and writer for The Sunday Times and Andrew Wilton, Visiting Research Fellow at Tate Britain.

The shortlisted works will be shown at the Mall Galleries, London from 19 – 24 September 2017, before going on tour to venues across the UK. The Winners will be announced in the Culture section of The Sunday Times.

Artists are invited to submit up to four works in any water-based medium by 26 June 2017, 5pm. Entry is £15 per work. For more information and to apply online, please visit:

‘Quivering Woodland’, Chloe Le Tissier, 2016 exhibitor

 For further details please contact Parker Harris:

T: 01372 462190

Tips for painting en plein air

‘Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood’, John Singer Sargent, 1885, © Tate

What is plein air painting?

En plein air is a French expression which translates as ‘in the open air’.  First popularised in the mid-nineteenth century by the Impressionists, the technique allows an artist to observe, experience and record the way that natural light plays upon their subject, instilling both an immediacy and a sense of impermanence into their painting.

Tips as to how to improve your plein air painting technique:

Do not fall into the trap of assuming that because you are painting the scene in front of you, you have to paint absolutely everything that you see.  Whilst you should not imagine or intellectualise about the scene, as this will prevent you from observing and recording, you are free to be selective, ensuring that your painting will be a personal rendering, or impression of the scene, rather than an objective record.

Natural light, which is what gives paintings created en plein air their distinctive atmosphere, is also what provides the greatest challenge to their successful rendering.  When you are outside, the light changes constantly, especially if you are painting on a cloudy or windy day.  If you find that the light and shadows change too quickly for you to record them adequately, create a series of paintings (or drawings/sketches) to record the scene as it appears at different times of the day.  Return the next day, and perhaps the day after that too, and continue working on your different paintings at the relevant times.  Once you have spent a few days at work you’ll probably find that there is a particular painting which emerges as your favourite.  You will also begin to develop a sensitive understanding of the way in which the light changes, and you may even be able to capture this transitional moment in one of your paintings.

‘Woodland Autumn Morning’, © Ceri Jones

An easy mistake to make is to make your palette far too complex.  On a sunny day, confronted with all the vibrant colours of the natural world, it is all too tempting to give in to a busy, powerful palette.  Should you do this, your painting will lose all of its subtlety and the predominance of bold, deep colours will make it much more difficult to capture the soft nuances and movement of natural light.

Do not feel that you have to remain completely true to the Impressionist model and paint without the aid of modern technology.  Whilst you should not rely overly on photographs, they can be invaluable as visual aids, especially if you are struggling to capture a particular moment – the way that light hits the water, for example.

If this piece has inspired you to pack up your brushes and head out into the wild outdoors, we’d love to see your plein air sketches, drawings and paintings!  Feel free to email images of your work to, and we’ll give you a mention!

Artist Q+A with Margie Andrew-Reichelt

Margie Andrew-Reichelt, Sunday Times Watercolour Competition exhibitor in 2015, has witnessed a significant evolution in her practice, moving from working primarily with clay to becoming interested in drawing and painting, with watercolour now holding a particular fascination for her.  In fact, evolution lies at the heart of her artistic style, which is defined by a determination not to be constrained by any one medium or technique.  In the following Q+A, Margie talks to us about a particular watercolour effect which she refers to as ‘scarring’ and the technique that she uses to prompt the viewer to question and delve deeper into a painting’s story.

Tell us a little about Being Rosa, the painting selected for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2015 exhibition.

‘Being Rosa’, Margie Andrew-Reichelt

The painting Being Rosa is a ‘portrait of conversations’ I had with my 13 year old daughter about identity and how she felt she was being perceived by society. I realised that sadly her experience was not unlike mine 40 years before her! I wanted to show a strong and thoughtful young woman, but also the sadness and vulnerability coming through the eyes: watercolour paint was exactly the right medium to convey these emotions.

In your Artist Statement you say that your work is constantly evolving. What is it that prompts this evolution and how important do you think it is to sustaining a dynamic practice?

Experimenting with the medium, building on techniques and visiting exhibitions is essential to me,  and being interested in the things that interest my now 15 and 21 year old children keeps me buzzing. I’m easily sidetracked with new ideas, so I always have several pieces on the go!

‘Monochrome’, Margie Andrew-Reichelt

Your watercolours tend to be very dense, dark and atmospheric. How do you achieve this effect?

This effect is achieved by layering thin washes of watercolour paint until I have an almost matt covering, letting each layer dry before painting the next. I could use gouache to achieve a more dense covering but I wouldn’t achieve the ghostly marks that are created when the drips or puddles dry between the layers almost scarring the final painting.

Though you were born in England, you have travelled widely, living in Germany, Hong Kong and Australia, 4 particularly contrasting cultures! How, if at all, have these experiences impacted upon your practice?

My experience of living in many different countries (courtesy of my dad being in the British Army) as a young girl of colour in the 70’s and 80’s had a huge effect on me which I indulge by making subtle references to the emotions I recall in my work, some of which were negative. Cultures may be different but disappointingly, similar emotions drive all of them!

Many of your watercolours feature subjects whose face is in some way hidden – behind a mask or behind [a mask of] paint. Even in Zero Hours Till Morning we do not see the face first hand; rather, merely a reflection of it. What is the message or idea behind this trope?

‘Shield’, Margie Andrew-Reichelt

There are hints about the initial ideas of the paintings but I enjoy hearing the viewers own interpretation of my work. The fact that the portraits are partially hidden gives them a sense of mystery and vulnerability, encouraging the viewer to look beyond the obvious – race, gender, age…what does this person actually look like, are they hiding something or protecting themselves?

Define watercolour, or describe what it means to you, in one word.


Artist Q+A with Camilla Dowse

Camilla Dowse was selected to exhibit through the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition in 2015.  In spite of being a country girl at heart, Camilla takes the urban landscape as her subject matter, and through the combination of a soft colour palette and the removal of all urban ‘clutter’ (people, litter etc.) she reveals the hidden and unique beauty of the urban environment.  In the following Q+A, Camilla tells us about the surfaces that she chooses to paint on and the immense importance of competitions like the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition as a means of generating crucial feedback for an artist.

‘Charles Street, Brighton’, Camilla Dowse

Tell us a little about Charles Street, Brighton, the painting selected for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2015 exhibition.

For some time I painted with watercolour on paper. Painting on gesso has enabled me to work in an entirely new way and for a few years now I’ve been exploring the relationship between the two. But I wanted to see what would happen if I took what I’d learnt working on gesso and went back to painting on paper. Charles Street, Brighton is one of the results.

Charles Street is a great street to paint, it’s many bay windows reflect the sky, and the houses although painted in various greys were green in the afternoon light. The colour appealed to me. I love greens, and blues especially.

What is it that draws you to the urban landscape as subject matter?

I should own up to being a country girl at heart! I’m not a fan of the pace of life in towns and cities. They’re generally busy and overpopulated places. They’re somewhere many of us pass through and rarely stop to look at. Even those that live there. But many years ago I started to do just that. To stop and look at my surroundings, and what I saw surprised me. They’re invariably beautiful places, and in the right light and at the right time of day they transform completely. My paintings are an attempt to look beyond the fast pace of contemporary life and stop for a moment to contemplate the beauty of the built environment.

One of the defining features of your work is the palette of soft colours which gives your urban landscapes a quiet and contemplative quality. For many people, soft, muted colours are not what they would instinctively associate with urban life – with this in mind, why is it that you opt for this colour palette?

‘Apricot Terrace’, Camilla Dowse

Most of my painting is done using British towns for reference. The light here is soft and the period buildings which I’m attracted to are often weathered and worn. Those qualities have certainly influenced my palette, but also by removing the qualities that generally assault the senses in a town or city (including colour) I’m inviting people to relax and take a moment to see the urban environment in a new way.

You often paint on hand-mixed gesso, the porous quality and texture of which evoke the exterior surface of the buildings that you paint. Could you tell us a little more about the way in which watercolour reacts on different surfaces?

I’ve always been a fan of hot press paper. The paint seems to take that little bit longer to be absorbed, and I’ve always liked the crispness of line you can get from the smooth surface. But there’s a limit to how much you can work into a painting on paper. What drew me to working on gesso is that it’s an absorbent and robust surface. For the first time I could work into the painting in a way that I couldn’t on any other surface or with any other medium. The closest comparison I can think of is that it’s a little like drawing on heavy weight paper with charcoal, in the same way that you can work ‘into’ a charcoal drawing.

In 2014 you were named Artist of the Year by Artists & Illustrators Magazine and in 2015 you were selected to show work in the Sunday Times Watercolour exhibition, the largest and most prestigious prize for contemporary watercolour painting in the UK. How important would you say that accolades like these are to the development of an artist’s practice?

Painting for me is an almost entirely solitary process, and yet feedback is one of the most important things for an artist. In almost every other artistic discipline there’s a process of feedback, such as editors for writers or directors for actors. Painting prizes are a much needed peer review process for artists. They can help an artist determine so much about their work. Prizes are also an opportunity to have your work seen by a much larger audience. We only get better at any craft skill by doing it often, and I’m now very lucky to be able to paint full time. That I can is entirely down to my work being selected for high profile art prizes and exhibitions.

Define watercolour, or describe what it means to you, in one word.


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For information on events and exhibitions that Camilla is involved with, as well as the artist’s contact details, visit