The nature of the medium entails an aesthetic and a process very different from those of oil paint. Oil paint tends to be applied from dark to light, the darkest layers being thin and flat, while the lighter ones, applied over the darks, are thicker. There is no impasto in watercolour, in which all the colours are thin and flat on the page, and the painter works from light to dark, leaving the lightest areas as white paper and building darker tones all around these.
The equipment required for watercolour painting is also much more portable than that needed for oil painting: a pocket-sized watercolour set, some brushes, a small bottle of water, and a watercolour sketchbook. This makes it an ideal medium for hikers and nature lovers, or for travellers wanting to record the sights they encounter in foreign lands. So watercolour was quintessentially the medium of travel, exploration and the plein-air recording of the world.
As an extension of drawing, watercolour was also a natural part of a school curriculum; delicate and highly refined, but not requiring the long and specialised studio training of the expert oil painter. It was also useful to anyone, from architects and engineers to natural historians and naval officers, whose work demanded an ability to draw. So watercolour was a medium without clear boundaries between amateur and professional, or between high art and applied art, but rather a continuum between these categories. Many outstanding watercolourists also have exercised other professions.
In all these respects — in the embrace of utilitarian applications, the openness to ama- teur practitioners, the love of nature and curiosity about the world and new lands — watercolour was a very British medium. Other artists of other nations had practised it before the British adopted it so enthusiastically: Albrecht Duerer, for example, had been an astonishing pioneer of the medium in the 16th century. But nowhere was it so keenly taken up by such a broad range of practitioners.
Perhaps this is what led British watercolour, especially in the period covered by this exhibition, to attempt more than might seem the natural range of the art form. A medium that is best suited to light, fresh, lively notations of the phenomenal world was thus made to attempt heavier, more substantial effects to rival those of oil painting: it is as though we are witnessing not merely the aspiration of watercolourists to equal oil painters but the implicit assertion that British artists, with their watercolour medium and their semi-amateur ethos, are capable of outdoing the continentals with a medium that required years of professional training.
Three works that happen to hang side-byside epitomise some of the diverse ambitions of the British tradition. The latest of the three, a view of Richmond in Yorkshire by William Callow, although painted in 1858, remains faithful to the original spirit of mid-18th century pleinair watercolour: it is a view of a real place, capturing delicate impressions of light and atmosphere, working in transparent watercolour and leaving considerable areas of the paper unpainted or barely tinted.
Made three years earlier, Samuel Palmer’s