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The History of Watercolor Painting in the Far East

Updated on May 1, 2013

Very early examples of watercolor painting appear in subterranean caves in south central France and northern Spain. There, by the feeble light of guttering animal-fat lamps, early artists depicted a variety of animals with magnificent spirit and vitality, using primitive brushes and sometimes spraying on the unbound color through hollow bone blowpipes. These masterpieces have been preserved for posterity by the fortuitous chemical action of the limestone surface on which they were painted. Later, artists of ancient Egypt consciously used a fresco technique in their tomb paintings, produced to be gazed upon by the souls of the dead, not publicly admired. They were also the first to use watercolor on a paperlike material (papyrus). It remained for the Mediterranean cultures of Crete, Greece, Etruria, and Rome to compose wall paintings intended to delight living viewers.

During the Middle Ages, artist-clerics used watercolor, both transparent and opaque, with great skill to produce illuminated manuscripts. These works, painted on vellum, were the forerunners of the 16th- and 17th-century miniatures painted on paper, wood, and ivory. Wall painting, both a fresco and a secco (painting on dry plaster) reached its peak during the Renaissance, with artists such as Giotto, Piero della Francesca, and Michelangelo. In the 16th century, artist-explorers such as John White and Jacques de Morgues Le Moyne found watercolor a convenient medium for immediate record, and Albrecht Dürer drew a number of breathtakingly realistic watercolor studies. Otherwise watercolor was neglected in Europe until the 18th century.


In China, and later in Japan, pure watercolor was developed as the exclusive means of visual expression. Chinese artists painted for an elite audience of intellectuals, and often for themselves alone. They sought to capture the quintessence of nature in their work, regarding humans very much as an afterthought. Painting was considered an extension of poetry and calligraphy. Great importance was placed on the control and handling of the brush—the "strength of brushstroke" (Japanese, fude no chikara). The artist strove for absolute coordination between mind and hand. As the point of the brush touched the surface of the paper, he attempted to communicate an inner feeling, which flowed through the hand to the tip of the brush and thence to the content of the painting. Once the brush made contact with the paper, the artist worked quickly—"As the buzzard swoops when the hare jumps out."

Painting implements were sticks of black ink, which when diluted with water produced an infinite range of soft grays, and color pigments stiffened with gum, whose strength was controlled by mixing the color with a white pigment ground from seashells. With these materials, the scholar-artists of China and Japan created delicate watercolors of great beauty. At first derivative of Chinese painting, Japanese watercolor gradually took on a softer quality, while still retaining perfect precision of brushstroke. The flower paintings of Tani Buncho epitomize Japanese watercolor at its best.


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